On April 2, 2021, Michigan joined several other states in the implementation of a Task Force on Forensic Science (TFFS) when Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed Executive Order No. 2020-4.
What is Forensic Science?
If you watch any of the crime dramas on television, you probably know the basics of forensic science, but in practice, it’s actually quite complicated. To give a brief overview, forensic science is applying various methods of both natural and physical sciences to legal cases. It is the process of collecting evidence from crime scenes and then analyzing it to pull out information and data that helps to put the pieces of a crime scene together, corroborate stories surrounding a crime, place certain people at a crime, or determine if a person was or was not the perpetrator in a crime. Forensic science is especially important in that investigators rely on the information pulled from the evidence either to support or drop criminal charges against individuals.
In Forensic science departments, you will typically find two types of technicians: those that collect the crime scene evidence and those that analyze the evidence in the lab. Bloodstain patterns, fingerprints, footprints, DNA analysis, ballistics, the validity of documents, serology (the examination of blood serum), toxicology (the study and detection of poisons), entomology (the study of insects), odontology (the study of teeth), pathology (the study of the causes and effects of diseases), and epidemiology (the study of diseases and possible causes) are among some of the studies enveloped in forensic science.
Why the Need for a Task Force?
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 162 wrongfully convicted persons were exonerated in Michigan (as of 2021), making the state fall at number 3 for most exonerations across the country. In roughly 20% of those exonerations, false and/or misleading forensic evidence was cited as a factor in the miscarriage of justice. Additionally, nationally, forensic science is the second most common cause of wrongful convictions.
In the Executive Order, Whitmer reminds us that, “A fair trial is at the core of the American criminal justice system. While forensic science is an important tool, misapplication of forensic science can deprive a person of a fair trial. We must ensure that Michigan adheres to the highest standards of evidence and that practitioners throughout our criminal justice system understand how to apply forensic science properly.” Her vision in creating the TFFS is to have an independent advisory body with the purpose of reviewing forensic science in the state and providing findings along with any recommendations directly to the governor.
How does the Task Force Function?
The TFFS is within the Michigan Department of State Police and consists of a TFFS director, the director of the Department of Forensic Science Division, a public defender OR criminal defense attorney, a prosecuting attorney, a board-certified pathologist (specifically with experience in forensic pathology), an individual from the private sector OR from a Michigan university who has been published in the topic of cognitive bias, forensic science practitioners: one from a county forensic service provider, two with at least five years’ experience in forensic science, and two persons from the private sector OR from a university in the state of Michigan. Further, the Attorney General (AG) or AG designee, the chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court (or her designee), a circuit court judge designated by the chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, and members of the Michigan Senate and House of Representatives selected by the majority and minority leaders all may participate in the Task Force if they so choose.
The TFFS was tasked with reviewing forensic science specific in Michigan, advising the governor and the director of the TFFS, and finally issuing a final report by December 31, 2021, with detailed findings along with recommendations as to how to improve Michigan forensic science in the practice, delivery, strength, and use. The recommendations should also include protocols for negligence and misconduct; best practices for applicants; procedures for keeping stakeholders informed; procedures for notifying any parties affected by misconduct, negligence, or misapplication, and processes that allow citizens to report any negligence or misconduct that they are made aware of.
What is the Future of TFFS?
While the TFFS 2021 year-end report has not been published to the public, the Task Force has had scheduled meetings each month of 2022, so their work continues. It is safe to assume that the Task Force will remain for some time while they continue to review the role faulty forensic science has had on wrongful convictions. It’s important to keep up hope that the TFFS will provide meaningful review and information/recommendations to the governor as we continue the fight against miscarriages of justice.
Outcomes of the July 19, 2022 meeting
Long-awaited concrete recommendations were provided at the July 19, 2022 meeting and will be the subject of my next blog. Minutes and documents presented at all of the meetings are provided here.
Next meeting: September 20, 2022
The Task Force on Forensic Science meeting scheduled for 9:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., September 20, 2022, will be held in person 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.
Updates will be provided as they become available.