URI chemistry professor and crime lab director named to federal group to assess forensic standards

KINGSTON, R.I. – December 22, 2014 – The co-director of a federal center of excellence in explosives at the University of Rhode Island and the director of the Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory at URI have been named to a national subcommittee by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

URI Chemistry Professor Jimmie Oxley, co-director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence in Explosive Detection, Mitigation, and Response, and Dennis Hilliard, director of the state crime laboratory and adjunct assistant professor of pharmacy, have been appointed to the 20-member Chemistry/Instrumental Analysis Scientific Area Committee’s Fire Debris and Explosives Subcommittee. The group will study and recommend changes to forensic standards for federal laboratories.

As part of the process, Oxley will assess and recommend standards relating to explosives and Hilliard will do the same in the area of fire debris analysis. Following the approval by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, federal laboratories will then adopt the standards.

“These standards will trickle down to state and local labs, that will be required to follow them if they want to continue to receive federal funding,” Hilliard said. “The goal is to make Maine the same as New York and New York the same as California. In other words, these national standards will be followed by all forensic labs.”

Hilliard, a resident of Wakefield, and Oxley, of Narragansett, the co-founders and co-directors of the 15-year-old URI Forensic Science Partnership, have long records of volunteer service with the federal government in the area of forensic laboratory standards.

“The fact that URI has two representatives on the same subcommittee is a testament to Dennis’ hard work as a chair of the National Technical Working Group on Fire Debris and Explosives and our own Forensic Science Partnership, which has led to national recognition and major funding for URI research into explosives, cybercrime, textiles and sensors,” Oxley said.

Congratulation letters to Oxley and Hilliard from leaders of the federal standards and technology agency said, “We look forward to working with you to strengthen the nation’s use of forensic science by supporting the development and promulgation of forensic science consensus documentary standards and guidelines.”

Appointments to these boards are usually for three years, but the initial terms will be staggered with members serving either a two-year, three-year or four-year term to facilitate transitions among board members.

Under the federal Scientific Area Committee, 402 experts serve on 23 subcommittees of the five major divisions, Biology/DNA, Chemistry/Instrumental Analysis, Crime Scene/Death Investigation, Digital/Multimedia and Physics/Pattern Interpretation. The five Scientific Area Committees reviewed more than 1,400 applications to serve on the subcommittees, which were also reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Oxley and Hilliard will join their fellow subcommittee members for their first meetings from January 13 through 15 at the National Center for Employee Development in Norman, Okla.

Strong calls for standardizing forensic evidence processing came after the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, which ended in October 1995 with a not-guilty verdict. Questions about the validity of the evidence were raised throughout the trial. In the fall 2006, forensic evidence became the focus of a committee formed by the National Academy of Sciences. The committee held eight meetings from January 2007 to November 2008. Its final report, published in 2009, was titled “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.”

“With such scrutiny of DNA processing which was introduced into U.S. courts in 1987, experts were asking, ‘Why shouldn’t the same assessments and standards be applied to fingerprint, firearms and explosives evidence, etc.?’” Hilliard said.