UVA Law Launches Effort to Improve Forensics Analysis as Part of New National Center

Allison Thornton, Brandon Garrett and Stephanie Boutsicaris

As part of its initial efforts for the Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensics Evidence, the Law School debuted the Forensics Forum blog, which facilitates discussion regarding news, issues and trends in forensics. Garrett, pictured with second-year law students and inaugural forensics fellows Allison Thornton and Stephanie Boutsicaris, said the blog is just the beginning in terms of promoting an educational dialogue.

October 5, 2015

The University of Virginia School of Law is contributing to a national effort to improve how forensics evidence is analyzed and used in the criminal justice system.

The Law School and the University of Virginia are partners in the recently formed Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensics Evidence , established by the U.S. Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology as a Science Center of Excellence. The center, which is based at Iowa State University and is coordinated locally by the UVA Department of Statistics, will focus on the statistical analysis of pattern and digital evidence. UVA Law Professor Brandon Garrett is helping to coordinate the Law School's efforts as a principal investigator.

"The overarching goal of the center is to pursue research that can add statistical and scientific rigor to the benefit of forensics work," Garrett said. "Our focus at the Law School is to study how forensics get used in the laboratory and in the courtroom."

The Law School will conduct much of its research in association with the UVA Institute of Law, Psychiatry & Public Policy. Daniel Murrie , also a principal investigator who serves as the institute director of psychology and an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Neurobehavioral Sciences, is leading center-funded efforts to work with crime labs. The goal is to better understand how the scientists approach their work and to test out improvements to lab procedures.

Garrett said a second major goal is to study how forensic evidence is understood by lawyers, judges and jurors. "Even when the statistical basis for forensics is improved, there's the question of whether jurors properly understand the statistics and whether lawyers and judges appreciate their meaning," he said.

To that end, he and UVA Law Professor Greg Mitchell plan to build on their research regarding how jurors understand presentations of forensic evidence. In research they published in 2013, they found use of language, methodology and error acknowledgement were essential to how mock jurors evaluated hypothetical fingerprint evidence.

The center also plans educational opportunities for legal practitioners. Last month, Garrett and contributors debuted the Forensics Forum blog, which facilitates discussion on news, issues and trends in forensics. Garrett said the blog is just the beginning in terms of promoting a dialogue.

"We plan to offer training here at the Law School, to bring in leading forensics experts and to add forensics courses to the curriculum," he said. Garrett and UVA Law Professor John Monahan taught a forensic science seminar for law students last year, and they are planning future courses.

Second-year law students and inaugural forensics fellows Allison Thornton and Stephanie Boutsicaris, who work as research assistants for the center, have contributed much of the blog's content and will be involved in future research and programming. Thornton said she has already gained new insights from the fellowship opportunity.

"A large portion of my studies have focused on criminal law, and serving as a forensic fellow has given me the opportunity to explore the scientific and technical aspects of forensic evidence in criminal law," Thornton said. "This fellowship has also allowed me stay up to date with the technological developments related to forensics and the use of that technology in criminal proceedings."

Other UVA partners include the College of Arts & Sciences, the School of Nursing, the Quantitative Collaborative and the Data Science Institute. UVA and Iowa State collaborate with higher education affiliates Carnegie Mellon University and the University of California, Irvine.

Karen Kafadar , professor and chair of the UVA Department of Statistics, directs UVA's overall role in the center's research. She said the presence of a top law school at UVA may have made a difference in landing the project.

"I actually think it was the fact we have such a strong law school that was a really attractive part of the proposal," Kafadar said. "It's very exciting for the whole center to be collaborating with various stakeholders, not just statisticians. It's that collaboration we hope will lead to a very successful endeavor."

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