When the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, criticized the scientific reliability of certain forensic techniques, such as fingerprint analysis, that is commonly used to fight human crime, wildlife forensic scientists feared the findings might also undercut their testimony in courts of law. In response, they got proactive and teamed up to set standards to bolster the quality and credibility of the scientific evidence that they present in court.
The initial result of that collaboration came to fruition in February 2011 at the inaugural meeting of the Scientific Working Group for Wildlife Forensics (SWG-WILD), which convened wildlife forensics experts from NOAA, the Society for Wildlife Forensic Sciences, and other organizations. The goal of this meeting was for the experts to reach consensus on certification and standards of practice in wildlife forensics. Currently, only three wildlife labs in the country are accredited, and there is no certification program in wildlife forensics.
Third party proficiency testing and certification are important for two reasons. First, it ensures the science used by the courts is accurate and unbiased. In addition, future legislation will likely require it.
US Senate Bill 132, the Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act of 2011, sponsored by my own Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), aims to strengthen and promote confidence in the criminal justice system by ensuring consistency and scientific validity in forensic testing. In so doing, it would require the nation’s forensic scientists and labs to be certified in their disciplines and conduct their work in accredited laboratories.
Whether or not the legislation passes, standards and certification will be welcomed as it will make wildlife forensic science that much more powerful.