Unsigned, Unattributed, Unverifiable Statement Violates Information Quality Act, Is Inconsistent with President Biden’s Scientific Integrity Memo
Trump-Era Statement Risks Convicting Innocent People Based on Faulty Forensics
Washington, D.C. — Today, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)—represented by Democracy Forward—petitioned the Department of Justice (DOJ) to swiftly retract a misleading statement it issued in the Trump administration’s final days in power that attempted to undermine the findings of an important 2016 report on the use of forensic science in court.
On January 13, 2021, the outgoing DOJ issued a press release linking to an unsigned, unattributed, and unverifiable statement entitled “United States Department of Justice Statement on the PCAST Report: Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods.” The statement, which purports to respond to an earlier scientific report, violates the Information Quality Act (IQA), a data accuracy law that requires federal agencies to disseminate accurate and reliable information to the public. The statement is also inconsistent with President Biden’s scientific integrity memo, which seeks to ensure federal policy is “guided by the best available science” and that scientific debate is represented fairly and accurately.
The statement criticizes—but offers no substantive, scientific response to—a 2016 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) that determined that some forensic techniques (like bitemark analysis) are seriously flawed and are not rooted in sound scientific principles. The 2016 report offered recommendations for improving certain forensic techniques and scrapping others that are unlikely to ever rise to the level of scientific validity. DOJ’s unsigned statement in response fails to acknowledge the need for improvement in the field. And in violation of the Information Quality Act, the statement:
- Contains information that is inaccurate, unreliable, and biased—in both presentation and substance;
- Misleadingly represents itself as engaging in a scientific debate; and
- Fails to satisfy statutory objectivity, utility, or integrity standards.
“When our government makes decisions that ignore the best available science, it can result in real harm. And one of the clearest examples is the way the use of dubious forensic evidence could put an innocent person in prison. The previous administration willfully threw out scientific guidance on forensics, opening the door for unjust outcomes in a criminal-justice system that is already fraught with racial discrimination and abuses of power,” said Jacob Carter, a senior scientist for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The Biden administration has promised to listen to the science and look out for the public interest—to do that, they must discard the previous administration’s ill-considered stance on forensics.”
Importantly, the statement is highly influential and risks misleading the public—including prosecutors and judges across the country—about the best available science on forensic techniques. In so doing, it risks causing a miscarriage of justice through the conviction of innocent people. The use of flawed forensic techniques in court can have serious ramifications. About a quarter of the 2,800 plus cases in the National Registry of Exonerations, for instance, involved flawed forensic evidence.
DOJ’s unsigned statement and the accompanying press release make clear the Department intended for the statement to affect courts’ use of the 2016 PCAST report to evaluate expert witness testimony. Although it has only been published for four months, the statement has been cited by prosecutors in at least five criminal cases in the U.S. It will likely continue to be referenced in court so long as it remains published.
“The Trump administration’s unsigned statement attempting to undermine serious scientific criticisms of forensic science techniques is inaccurate, unreliable, and biased,” said Democracy Forward Senior Counsel Jessica Morton. “The statement—which masquerades as scientific debate—violates federal law, lends DOJ’s credibility to several flawed forensic techniques, and risks causing a miscarriage of justice in courtrooms across the country. It should be immediately retracted.”
In September 2016, PCAST issued its report on forensic science and determined—after reviewing 2,000 studies and input from experts—that some forensic techniques used in criminal investigations and trials are not rooted in sound science. It noted the strengths and weaknesses associated with DNA, fingerprint, and firearm analysis and found that some techniques, like footprint and bitemark analysis, are severely flawed. The report also recommended a set of scientific standards to determine and improve the validity and reliability of forensic techniques.
Under President Trump, the Department of Justice moved away from its reliance on scientific experts for improving forensic science. The Trump administration allowed DOJ’s National Commission on Forensic Science to terminate and replaced its thirty-two experts (including thirteen scientists) with a single career prosecutor.
The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Request for Correction of Information was sent on June 24 to DOJ, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and PCAST. It calls on DOJ to retract the misleading statement in full within 120 days. Read it here.
Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that represents organizations, individuals, and municipalities in impact litigation to keep corruption out of policymaking.
The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet’s most pressing problems. Joining with people across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe and sustainable future.
Seth D. Michaels
Union of Concerned Scientists