Early in the morning on Sept. 14, 1982, a Virginia woman awoke to see a stranger in her bedroom, beating her husband to death with a crowbar. The man then turned to her, raping her repeatedly and biting her on the legs, until he stole money from the couple and took off around 5 a.m.
The female victim described her attacker as white, clean-shaven and wearing a Navy uniform, and although she couldn’t specifically identify Keith Allen Harward as the perpetrator, he was the one police arrested and charged with capital murder, robbery, rape and forcible sodomy. During his trial, it was the testimony of forensic dentists who helped clinch the prosecution’s case, according to The Innocence Project, non-profit legal group.
Harward was subsequently convicted, sentenced to life in prison and spent 33 years behind bars—until he was exonerated last year. “He was a living testament to the exaggerations of conclusions by a number of forensic odontologists,” said Maddy deLone, executive director of the Innocence Project. In layman’s terms, it was the inaccurate matching of bite marks to Harward’s dental records that contributed to his wrongful conviction.
In April, Harward spoke at a meeting of the National Commission on Forensic Science, which deLone told Oxygen is “poignant” and “quite upsetting” because Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Trump appointee, has decided to effectively dissolve the group. The forensic commission was founded in 2013 by the Department of Justice (DOJ), which Sessions now oversees, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. It is an independent group of academics, researchers, judges, law enforcement and attorneys who work to help set national policy for and improve the reliability of forensic science, from ballistics to fingerprints.
The commission’s formation was a result of a 2009 report released by the National Academy of Science, in which they called for the creation of an independent agency to evaluate forensic disciplines and determine which were valid for use in criminal investigations. It also concluded that besides DNA evidence, there hadn’t been enough research done to validate any other forensic disciplines. Yet, they were still often presented in court as evidence by experts who were paid by prosecutors to help them land convictions.
The Innocence Project, which works to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals, has seen the danger of unreliable evidence firsthand. “In 46 percent of the DNA exonerations in this country...a contributing factor was a misapplication of forensic science,” said deLone to Oxygen. “It’s very real. It’s very personal.”
Now, the DOJ will retain oversight control of forensics and, according to a statement issued last month, will appoint a Senior Forensic Advisor to serve as the go-between for the forensic science community and DOJ leadership.
In a statement issued last month, Sessions said that “the Department is just one piece of the larger criminal justice system and that the vast majority of forensic science is practiced by state and local forensic laboratories and is used by state and local prosecutors.
While the DOJ declined to comment to Oxygen on Sessions’ decision, the National District Attorneys Association praised it, claiming that very few of the recommendations approved by the commission actually went on to be signed by the Attorney General anyway. The legal group also claimed the commission “lacked adequate representation from the state and local practitioner community, was dominated by the defense community, and failed to produce work products of significance for the forensic science community.”
But many others, including scientists, defense attorneys and victim advocates, are alarmed by the decision to return forensic science to DOJ control. After all, law enforcement was the industry that caused problems in the first place, drawing conclusions about evidence reliability without input from scientists, said Barry Pollack, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The commission aimed to change that by bringing together representatives from the legal, law enforcement and scientific research fields to collaboratively set standards for forensic science.
“It’s very troubling to us that Attorney General Sessions wants to end that process, a process that seemed to be working well and seemed to have buy-in from the spectrum of stakeholders across the criminal justice system,” said Pollack.
Thousands of people have been convicted of crimes in the U.S. based on questionable forensic evidence, said Pollack. For example, the Washington Post reported that between 2009 and 2014, five men who had been convicted of crimes based on a forensic hair analysis match, were exonerated by DNA evidence. As a result, the FBI and DOJ went back to review thousands of convictions that took place in the 80s and 90s and involved microscopic hair examinations.
This is a prime example of the danger of overstating the scientific validity of unproved forensic techniques, and illustrates why it’s important to have scientists on the “front end” of such research, said Pollack.
“Scientists are objective and their goal is simply an objective search for the truth, which is ultimately what a criminal trial ought to be about anyway,” he said.