Task Force on Forensic Science Update - Sept 2022 - Part II

Question and Answer Session

The Task Force on Forensic Science (TFFS) September meeting designated a slot of time for a question-and-answer session with the public, all of whom attended the meeting via Zoom. For a report on the first part of the meeting, click here.

The first speaker is a clinical fellow at the Michigan Innocence Clinic – Elizabeth Cole – who indicated she was speaking on behalf of the Innocence Network. She raised a concern about how the proposed arrangement of the TFFS only includes two independent researchers who are not focused on forensic science, and then commented that the network feels that in order to meet the scientific needs of tomorrow, the TFFS will need more scientific expertise than just four forensic scientists and two researchers. They want to be sure that the “membership has the expertise needed to take us into the future.” One suggestion she made was for the TFFS to also consider having a statistician member who could provide the best ways to “express probabilistic testimony and design.” She further recommended that a computer scientist be involved who could “help evaluate the technical merit and accuracy of algorithm-based technologies that are increasingly applied in a number of investigations.” Finally, she mentioned the need for a cognitive psychologist who would help ensure that the policy and practices are designed in a way that “guards against human factors, cognitive biases, and implicit biases.”

One unidentified committee member responded that he agrees with the value of having those additional parties involved and that his subcommittee had discussed them at length, but noted the difference between the TFFS utilizing those resources versus having them as members actually sitting on the commission and being part of the decision-making process. He said he agrees that they could be in the meetings and involved in some way, but he would suggest using them more on a contract work basis instead of as a voting member within the TFFS. He indicated that his subcommittee discussed this issue with the Texas Forensic Science Commission and they have found this way to be the best approach.

Committee member Christopher Bommarito then chimed in and said that since the TFFS is supposed to be science-driven, the more of these other members they add, the more scientists they’ll have to add in order to maintain the science-driven focus of the TFFS.

The next public commenter was Atea Duso, who is the Chief Assistant Prosecutor in Midland County. She talked about the disclosure of DNA reports and her concern had to do with the victims and fairness to the victims in trying to speed up the process of getting DNA results and reports to the Defense Counsel. She is concerned about time constraints put on that process and wants to prevent cases from getting backlogged because of all the extra time waiting on DNA results.

Tanya Abdulner was the third public speaker. She is the Director of the Violence Against Women Project at Entrance Association. She expressed concerns relating to discovery recommendations and victims. She specifically mentioned delays and the need for adequate funding to not let the process drag out and to ensure that assailants are charged in a timely fashion, so victims can move forward. She asked the TFFS to please consider victims during their future discussions on the issue.

The final public attendee that spoke was Sherry Brunswick who is the Executive Director of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Coordinating Council. Her area of concern was the elimination of expert witness instructions. She stated that eliminating those instructions could cause jurors to place undue weight on expert testimony in comparison to other evidence in the case and she asked that they reconsider their position and instead keep expert witness instructions. Earlier in the meeting, the recommendation to remove the jury instruction was given out of the very same concern: jurors putting too much emphasis on expert testimony.

The public questions and comments ended and the focus turned to Chris Bommarito, a committee member, who then brought up separating law enforcement from being involved in forensic science analysis and he mentioned some concerns about the TFFS approach, stating he believes their approach is too light and they need to come up with something better. He said that at best when law enforcement is handling lab work, there is a perception of bias, and at worst there is actual bias. He feels that the committee’s best practices status quo approach is not sufficient and needs more work. He indicated that separating the labs from the Michigan State Police is also not the best approach, so they need to figure out how to make the labs more independent.

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Another committee member who was unidentified said that he thinks they need to end police officer involvement in any of the labs.

The meeting then shifted to several committee members discussing their perceptions of biases and how they can impact forensic science. Several of them expressed their concerns and no one had a definitive answer or recommendation at that time. They agreed to table the matter and discuss the issue within their subcommittees before the next meeting.

The meeting ended with a committee member suggesting that the TFFS speak with the Governor, as well as the Legislature about the importance of forensic science and funding the MSP laboratory, which is where around 90% of forensic science evidence comes from in Michigan. He wants to specifically suggest that the current level of funding is creating an unfairness to victims simply due to the lack of resources. Other members agreed to discuss this matter further and the meeting adjourned.