Improving Criminal Investigations

By Lisa D’Souza

On the national front, a bill pending in Congress seems to have stalled. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), acting under statutory authority from Congress, published a blistering report on the state of forensic science. The report criticized crime labs for their reliance on improper or unproven scientific techniques and for exaggerated expert testimony, both of which can lead to wrongful convictions. The report called for the creation of an independent agency to govern forensic science standards.

While the bill in Congress calls for implementation of the report’s recommendations, it would house the forensic science agency within the Department of Justice. A Pro Publica’s article  explains why this would create a conflict of interest and do little to achieve the progress envisioned by the NAS report.

The U.S. Congress asked our preeminent scientific body to investigate the state of forensic science in our country. Congress received clear recommendations for improvement, but there is still no federal action.

Here in Texas, Sam Houston University’s Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas (LEMIT) produced a model eyewitness identification policy in response to a bill that passed through the Texas legislature last year. The response? The Texas Police Chiefs Association is resisting the recommended changes.  According to the Chiefs, LEMIT’s recommendations are based on “red herrings and misinformation.”

Better investigations will cost more money. It would require people to change established ways of doing things, and change is difficult for all of us. But refusing to make improvements that we know can and should be made will exact a far higher cost.

Each week, we at Friends of Justice receive pleas from incarcerated people who tell us they were wrongfully convicted. They tell us of convictions based on shaky eyewitness testimony or sloppy investigations. Their stories ring true, largely because we know Curtis Flowers and have read about Ronald Cotton and Tim Cole, all of whom were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned due to improper investigation techniques.

We can do better. We just don’t want to . . . yet.