Opinion: Michigan needs state-based forensic science commission

Tom Barrett and Stephanie Chang
The misapplication of forensic science is one of the leading contributing factors to wrongful convictions in the state of Michigan and across the nation, the authors write.

For decades investigators and forensic scientists have worked together to solve crimes.

While forensic science has helped correctly identify perpetrators of crimes, but if not properly overseen, regulated and updated according to the latest standards, it can also implicate an innocent person.

The misapplication of forensic science is one of the leading contributing factors to wrongful convictions in the state of Michigan and across the nation. Misapplication, which can include the misuse of forensic techniques or improper testimony by forensic analysts, has been responsible for 44% of the nation’s 365 DNA-based exonerations.

Darrell Siggers is one of the 20 people in Michigan wrongly convicted based on false or misleading forensic evidence. Siggers will celebrate one year as a free man this summer after spending 34 years in prison for a 1984 murder in Wayne County that he did not commit.

Prosecutors vacated Siggers' conviction after two former ballistics experts from the Michigan State Police concluded the firearms evidence at his trial was “erroneous,” “highly improbable” and “unbelievable.” Siggers’ case offers a glimpse at the monumental impact faulty or misapplied forensic science can have on the life of an innocent person.

The high-profile shutdown of the Detroit Crime Lab in 2008 also demonstrates how a lack of oversight and resources can have disastrous consequences for communities. After an audit uncovered an astonishing backlog of 11,000 untested rape kits, Michigan taxpayers not only shelled out more than $13 million for private laboratories to analyze the kits but also grappled with the fact that this analysis revealed 817 previously undetected perpetrators, many of whom were found to be serial rapists.

Subsequent analyses also found the firearms forensic testing capabilities at the lab were woefully out of compliance with even the most minimum standards.

In order to sharpen these crime-fighting tools, identify the guilty and protect the innocent, the National Institute of Justice promotes state-based forensic science commissions (“FSCs”), made up of expert scientists and stakeholders in the justice system.

Changed standards and practices in the areas of arson, composite bullet lead analysis, bite mark evidence and hair microscopy, to name a few, have garnered national attention, highlighting the need for a dedicated commission.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia already have forensic science advisory bodies that provide resources and support to labs and law enforcement agencies in the application of forensic evidence.

That’s why we’ve introduced bipartisan legislation that would create our own state-based Forensic Science Commission to study forensic disciplines, recommend best practices, help labs share their innovations across the state, and investigate issues that may arise within crime labs. We recognize that science is constantly evolving and advances in technology sometimes occur rapidly. A state-based FSC could ensure that our state is aware of these technological advances and make certain that we are using the most reliable forensic testing methods available.   

In addition, it would help our state maintain fiscal responsibility. Aside from the shouldering the cost of wrongfully incarcerating innocent people, Michigan taxpayers have paid over $8 million in settlements for cases involving flawed forensics and over $30 million for all civil lawsuits for wrongful convictions across the state.

Michigan has an opportunity to be a national model that takes the best of what works and put it into practice. A forensic science commission here would put in place a framework to prevent wrongful convictions in the state, deepen trust in the criminal justice process and strengthen public safety.

State Sens. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, and Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, are the sponsors of legislation to create a Forensic Science Commission in the state of Michigan.