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New legal institute to join Elon law school in downtown Greensboro

A new legal policy institute that will have close ties to the Elon University School of Law is being backed by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and former Attorney General Janet Reno. Details…

The American Judicature Society (AJS) Institute of Forensic Science and Public Policy will open across the street from Elon's law school in downtown Greensboro. The announcement was made in Washington Nov. 10 at a reception attended by Kennedy, Reno and other prestigious members of the legal community.

Leary Davis, dean of the Elon law school, is a member of the AJS National Advisory Council. He attended the Washington reception along with Elon President Leo M. Lambert, law school advisory board member and former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Henry Frye, and Jim Melvin, president of the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation, which led the fund drive to establish the law school.

The institute, and a 30-plus member bipartisan commission, will focus on areas in which science and the law intersect. For example, the institute will develop best practices for the handling and analyzing of DNA evidence, an effective new forensic tool that has helped solve many crimes and also disclosed numerous wrongful convictions.

The institute will eventually have about 11 employees located in the Bank of America building. Some institute staff members will serve as adjunct faculty members in the Elon law school, and students will have the opportunity to provide assistance and research for the institute's work.

In making the announcement in Washington, AJS officials said the institute will educate public servants about the value of science to our system of justice, helping to ensure that scientific advances increase the reliability of case outcomes in criminal and civil cases.

"We want to ensure that DNA fulfills its promise as one of the most useful tools law enforcement can have," Reno said. "Wrongful convictions are blights on any system of justice, especially in a country where freedom is considered a basic right. The work to be undertaken by the institute is a significant step towards ensuring that we learn from our prior mistakes and purge the system of errant convictions."

Justice Kennedy said the U.S. legal system can learn a great deal from science. "The law sees errors (in convictions) and feels bad about it. But scientists look at error and quantify it … and learn from it," Kennedy said.

Kennedy said the 21st century will have a great focus on biology and biogenetics, including the biology of human behavior. He said it is "frightening and fascinating" to consider future discoveries about how the brain works and why some people commit crimes. Future tools such as "brain fingerprinting" may allow law enforcement agents to confront a suspect with evidence and use brain studies to see if they have any knowledge of a crime.

Kennedy said society is beginning to ask complex questions in light of scientific developments. "For example, who owns your genetic makeup?"

These are the types of questions the institute will tackle. "In the end, science seeks the truth and law seeks the truth," Kennedy said. "It is important that we use both disciplines to shape our destiny."

Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, chair of the AJS board of directors, said knowledge of science has been frequently ignored by the judicial system. "With today's launch, we have the opportunity to bring the certainty of science to our judicial system so that it produces the most reliable results possible," D'Alemberte said. "Our ultimate goal is to build and maintain the highest level of trust and confidence in our legal system."

Specific areas of focus for the institute will include DNA, ballistics, pathology, juror comprehension of scientific testimony, independence of crime laboratories, and human memory and its effect on eyewitness identification.

Founded in 1913, AJS is a nonpartisan organization of judges, lawyers and concerned citizens who seek to improve the justice system. The AJS mission is to ensure a fair, impartial and independent judiciary.

Dan Anderson,
11/11/2005 2:03 PM