Remarks as prepared for delivery
Good morning. It truly is an honor to join you today to open the Second Annual International Forensic Science Symposium.
Everyone here knows the significance of this week’s event. Forensic science is an essential law enforcement tool in our shared mission of investigating, combatting, and deterring dangerous criminals that threaten each of our countries. The international accreditation of our forensic evidence laboratories enhances our ability to effectively use the results of forensic science, thereby maximizing its value in our investigations and prosecutions.
I want to start by thanking the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, or INL. On behalf of the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division, we greatly appreciate the commitment from Assistant Secretary of State Kirsten Madison, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State James Walsh, and INL Director Tobin Bradley for supporting this event and having the vision, along with our Mexican counterparts, to invest in forensic science as part of the Merida Initiative. Without support from INL, this week’s symposium – as well as the great progress we have made and will continue to make – would not be possible.
I also am proud to recognize our Mexican colleagues for their extraordinary collaboration in these efforts. These critical and dedicated esteemed partners include:
- Maestro David Zepeda Jones, the Director of Forensic Engineering for the PGR;
- Maestro Carlos Zamarripa Aguire, the Guanajuato State Attorney General. Guanajuato State is the Mexican State with the most sites accredited by the International Organization for Standardization; and
- Maestro Álvaro Vizcaíno Zamora, the Executive Secretary for the National Public Safety System. Executive Secretary Vizcaíno Zamora has helped secure federal money annually for forensic services within the States.
Just as in the United States, state laboratories in Mexico are crucial partners in national efforts to investigate and prosecute violent crime. The U.S. Department of Justice is proud to join in supporting initiatives to enhance those laboratories as we work toward more laboratories receiving international accreditation.
That support for forensic science starts at the very top of the U.S. Department of Justice. Our Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is an ardent supporter of the important contributions of forensic science to our law enforcement mission. And he has been one for a long time. Before becoming Attorney General, Jeff Sessions served in the U.S. Senate, where in 2000 he was the lead sponsor of the initial National Forensic Science Improvement Act. That statute provides grants for agencies throughout the United States to improve the quality, timeliness, and credibility of forensic science, including by supporting the implementation of emerging technologies.
The results we have seen in the United States have been extraordinary and have truly furthered the interests of justice. Our dedicated forensic scientists are solving previously unsolved crimes. They are helping to exonerate the innocent.
In fact, as a result of our success in using and promoting forensic science – and probably also thanks to the widespread and sometimes fictional depiction of advanced forensic techniques in our television shows and movies – forensic evidence is often expected to be used in our criminal trials.
As a former line federal prosecutor myself, I know the value for prosecutors to have admissible and reliable forensic evidence to support their cases in court. The reason is simple. When preserved and analyzed properly, forensic evidence presented in court by expert testimony can be among the most powerful evidence of guilt. And when the analysis is conducted properly and ethically, the testimony relaying those expert conclusions often is unimpeachable.
But like any profession, there is always room for improvement in forensic science. Approximately 10 years ago, the Department of Justice, at the request of our Congress, funded a review of forensic science in the United States. This directive resulted in an independent report by the National Academy of Sciences that made several recommendations, including that all forensic laboratories be internationally accredited. The report also identified important concepts that needed to be better addressed, such as confirmation bias.
The Department of Justice, for example, constantly self-assesses how we can improve our use of forensic evidence. Last year, Attorney General Sessions appointed a senior advisor to review U.S. practices and advise the Department on how we can better enhance the forensic science profession.
The Department of Justice’s work to develop guidance documents for the testimony and reports of forensic experts – known as “Uniform Language for Testimony and Reports” – is a prime example of our efforts to improve the use of forensic science in prosecutions and assist the forensic expert community. In connection with that work, the Department of Justice recently published eight uniform language documents, which are available on the Department’s website. These documents strive to ensure that the terminology used to describe and communicate our forensic findings meet the highest scientific and ethical standards.
It also is critically important that we undertake to perform the forensic analysis as efficiently as practicable. At the risk of stating the obvious, to take full advantage of the immense investigative value of forensic evidence, the analysis must be completed and made available to investigators and prosecutors in a timely manner.
We cannot let forensic analysis become a bottleneck to the investigative process. Delays in conducting forensic analysis can allow dangerous criminals to continue to roam our streets without detection. It can lead to more victims of their crimes. It can allow criminals to have time to flee and escape justice. It delays justice to victims of crime. And, perhaps most troubling of all, delays in performing forensic analysis can put prosecutors in a position where they are precluded from using the evidence at trial.
Crime victims deserve better. The citizens of our countries deserve better. We must work to clear backlogs at laboratories, and efficiently exploit forensic evidence, so we can prosecute criminal activity without undue delay and stop further crimes. And given the powerful evidentiary force of forensic evidence, the results of forensic analysis also often lead to faster dispositions of cases, which then frees up our limited law enforcement resources to move on to other criminal threats.
I want to take a couple of minutes to highlight and applaud the important advancements that have been made here in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. First, I want to congratulate the forensic laboratories that have been accredited already across eight States in Mexico and the federal PGR. This is a monumental and historic achievement, and everyone involved should be proud of your accomplishments. I want to give special recognition to the State of Puebla. Puebla is the first Mexican State with a laboratory fully accredited in the six core forensic disciplines.
I also want to commend the many laboratories that are making strong progress toward accreditation and are moving toward excellence in this space – including those represented today from the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. And I give special recognition to Costa Rica, which has accredited the forensic disciplines of Chemistry and Genetics. I am confident that your tireless efforts will pay great dividends in your countries, by having a real impact on investigating and deterring crime.
For those who have achieved and will achieve successful accreditation, keep in mind the tremendous value of sharing your experiences with your international colleagues. I am pleased to learn that this already has been occurring, with newly accredited laboratories emerging as leaders in the region by hosting delegations from other countries and sharing their experiences.
We all benefit from such exchanges, because, in the end, we are part of a larger team – one that aspires to combat transnational crime, seek justice for crime victims, and protect our citizens. Today, with the prevalence and constant emergence of transnational criminal organizations, and with the pursuit of justice frequently extending beyond borders, the need for that collaboration is greater than ever. We will need to continue to rely on our strong and willing international partners, many of whom are in this room today.
Accreditation of forensic laboratories is a vital tool in our investigative efforts – whether it be dismantling international drug cartels that unleash deadly poisons like heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl on our communities, or searching for missing victims of violent crimes. Accreditation helps ensure that forensic analysis can be used in these cross-border investigations, by conferring international credibility and evoking trust from our courts.
Part and parcel with accreditation is supporting and providing guidance to the forensic scientists who will be expert witnesses at trial. After all, it is usually the testimony of the forensic expert him or herself, and not just their report, that is evaluated and scrutinized during a criminal trial. I am pleased that INL and the Department of Justice’s International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program, or ICITAP, are providing important training in this critical area as well.
Before I conclude, I want to share one example that I am familiar with from my position at the Department of Justice that underscores the value of both forensic analysis and international cooperation. On May 2, 2015, Mexican police found a car with Texas licenses plates off the side of the road in the resort town of Rosarito in Baja California, Mexico. In that car, surrounded by pools of blood, was the dead body of an American citizen. He had been stabbed 24 times, with his throat slashed to the point of near decapitation. The murderer was the victim’s boyfriend, and he committed this heinous murder in an effort to inherit the victim’s estate.
The killer was charged in the United States, and went to trial in May 2017 in a federal court in San Diego, California. As part of our evidence presented to the jury, the prosecutors called as a witness the crime scene investigator from Baja California. She provided extremely important testimony, and was a great ambassador for the Mexican forensic community. In fact, the U.S. prosecutor who tried the case specifically commended the crime scene investigator for her excellent work. Thanks to her valuable court testimony and other evidence, the jury found the defendant guilty of committing this despicable and gruesome murder and, in December, he was sentenced to life in prison.
This is but one example. The importance of forensic evidence in criminal trials is demonstrated on a daily basis in courtrooms in the United States, Mexico, and across Latin America. I applaud your commitment to promoting the quality and reliability of forensic evidence – a commitment that is needed to ensure justice is served. Our citizens – those who we are sworn to protect – deserve nothing less.
In closing, I thank you for inviting me to be here with you today. Once again, I commend our U.S. Embassy partners and our Mexican counterparts here and across the country on your significant accomplishments to date, and I wish you all the best in your continued strides toward regional excellence in forensic science.
I encourage you over the next few days to take advantage of this symposium to not only learn from the presenters, but also to meet others in your field and to learn from one another. Share ideas, identify and discuss best practices, forge relationships. Working together, we will only strengthen our collective efforts.
And lastly, thank you to those who worked so hard to organize this week’s symposium. Putting together an event like this is a colossal undertaking. Well done.
And now, I will ask us all to stand to officially open the symposium. It is now 10:15 a.m on Monday, Aug. 20, 2018, and I formally declare the Second Annual International Science Symposium open.
Thank you, and welcome to all.
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Author: August 20, 2018