Professor Harris Leads Presentation at National Institute of Justice Workshop

By Haley Bibey | November 7, 2023

On Wednesday, October 25th, Heather Harris, assistant professor in the Master of Science in Forensic Science (MSFS) Program, gave a presentation titled, “General Acceptance and Scientific Reliability: Does One Ensure the Other?” at a National Institute of Justice (NIJ)/RTI International virtual workshop. 

This workshop discussed the qualifications of an expert witness for legal professionals, and more specifically, the Frye Standard. 

During her hour-long talk, Professor Harris explored the intersection of the Frye General Acceptance Standard used in court with scientific reliability. She explained that scientific reliability is a critical property of any analytical science, including forensic science, defined by a number of set scientific standards. She noted that in the analytical science world, reliability is often ensured via validation experiments. Once an analytical method is fully validated, it is then consistently monitored and maintained through a stringent, properly designed quality control program. 

Following her thorough explanation of what makes an analytical technique scientifically reliable, Professor Harris transitioned to discussing scientific reliability and its interconnections with the Frye General Acceptance Standard. The Frye Standard is used in the courtroom by a judge to determine the admissibility of scientific evidence and/or results in a case. According to the Frye standard, scientific evidence, or scientific results, are admissible in a court of law if the way in which they were obtained or produced is generally accepted by the scientific community.

Professor Harris pointed out an important caveat to the intersecting scientific reliability and Frye Standard principles of the criminal justice system. The person who is offering the scientifically “reliable” test result to the judge is the same person who defines the scientific community itself. She asserted that this can lead to improper conflation of general acceptance in the scientific community and scientific reliability. Professor Harris applied these ideas to the forensically relevant concept of breath alcohol testing, evaluating if the use of the Frye standard by judges really does ensure scientifically reliable results are admissible in the courtroom. To listen to Professor Harris’s powerful and thought-provoking presentation, click here.