Task Force on Forensic Science Update

The Michigan Task Force on Forensic Science (TFFS) held a meeting on July 19, 2022 where they discussed the results of the Forensic Science Practice Provider Survey and provided various recommendations based on those results.

Jeff Nye, who works in the Forensic Science Division of the Michigan State Police, first presented the results of the survey. The committee surveyed most law enforcement agencies in the Michigan, medical examiners, private practitioners, and government laboratories to assess the status of forensic science in Michigan.

The committee received 30 total responses: 16 from local and county Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs); 3 from the Michigan State Police (MSP); 7 from medical examiners and psychiatrists; and 4 from private laboratories. The survey was set up to receive comments regarding forensic science from each respondent in their field area. Results were as follows:

The Medical Group:

(1) Forensics should not be part of LEAs;

(2) Several responded with concerns about staffing shortages due to non-competitive salaries; and

(3) Medical examiners should be required to have annual training in "death investigation".

The Private Forensic Service Providers did not provide any comments to the Task Force.

The LEAs with little to no forensic divisions provided the following comments:

(1) A need for additional resources to function; and

(2) Cost concerns and the need for more money going into MSP labs.

The LEAs with larger forensic science divisions responded with the following:

(1) Policies, procedures, and a lack of resources create unnecessary delays in case turnarounds;

(2) Forensic work that is done too slowly won’t be relevant to the investigations;

(3) A need for more personnel;

(4) Heavy burdens and a need for more resources; and

(5) Underfunding.

The MSP commented that they have difficulty with resources to keep up with technology changes and also suggested the Task Force come in to learn more about what they do in forensic science.

Overall survey results indicated:

· 100% agreed that an accreditation mandate is necessary.

· 90% wanted to see a registration system for expert witnesses and practitioners.

· 100% wanted a complaints, reports, and investigations body.

· 90% wanted to see a notification system (transparency) for stakeholders.

· 90% would like to see ongoing education.

· 70% wanted a database of info.

· 80% said there should be grants and recommendations.

Nye’s presentation closed with him indicating that the next step for the subcommittee is to conduct a further survey specifically with lab analysts.

Next, Jonathan Sacks, a criminal defense attorney, spoke about the need for some legislation. The contents of the legislation would be to create a statewide forensic science body and was largely based on the results of the above survey responses. The goal is for the subcommittee to provide suggestions that would guide any such legislation, but he was clear that the specifics would ultimately come from the forensic science body.

Judge Shelton then spoke about education issues, testimony issues, evidence and discovery issues, and jury instruction issues and provided the following recommendations:

Education Issues

(1) The need for a mandatory continuing education requirement for prosecutors and defense attorneys – they would be required to do one annual course in the forensic science category.

(2) They had a recommendation for judges, but the Supreme Court has recently mandated continuing education for judges, beginning in January 2024 and overseen by a judicial education board, which covered this recommendation.

(3) The American Academy of Forensic Science accreditation should be a requirement for any school offering forensic science education.

Testimony Issues

The recommendation in this category was to amend the Michigan Rule of Evidence 702 -- which relates to expert witnesses -- so that it follows the proposed Federal Rule of Evidence Amendment that is set to go to the US Supreme Court in the near future. The amendment clarifies the burden of proof in a case and adds a requirement that an expert’s opinion reflect a reliable application of the principles and methods to the facts of each case.

Evidence and Discovery: This issue needs continued discussions within the committee, so Judge Shelton indicated that recommendations will be forthcoming. Possibly another amendment to the Michigan Rules of Evidence.

Jury Instructions:

(1) The Supreme Court should delete Jury Instruction 5.10 and add a statement that no instruction regarding expert witness testimony should be given. The reason being that studies have revealed the jury tends to believe the judge is vouching for a witness, thereby giving the witness more credibility than intended.

(2) Add a section to jury instructions to not give any instructions concerning the competence of police investigations in order to prevent the CSI effect so as not to dilute the burden of proof (the CSI effect describes how jurors may come to criminal trials with unrealistic forensic science expectations resulting from what they have seen on crime-based TV shows).

A recording of the full meeting can be found here.

It is clear that overall, this was a productive meeting. Progress is being made within the Task Force and the TFFS is aware of the areas of need where they should continue working. The meeting adjourned with each committee laying out what they will work on prior to the next meeting to be held on Tuesday, September 20th at 9:30 A.M. For those wishing to attend in person, it will be held at the Michigan State Police Headquarters located at 7150 Harris Drive, Dimondale, Michigan. Those desiring to attend virtually may do so with the following link: https://miscao-sc.zoom.us/j/97078370642.