Friday, May 8, 2009

Can We Overhaul Forensic Science?

by Andrea Campbell

In my last article we talked about the report compiled by the National Academy of Sciences on behalf of Congress, that issued a sweeping critique about how forensic science methods were found lacking. As part of the diatribe the report also suggested that a federal agency should be created to guarantee independence between labs and law enforcement; and that lack of standardization, training, techniques and so forth be remedied. Hear, hear, I say, good idea.

But it’s a lot to fathom. Evidence, ever since crime has wielded its ugly head, has always been subject to criticism and the legality of evidentiary proof is generally taken up by the courts, one case at a time. There is no doubt that this industry is run on a budget that, in another field—say construction—you could say that structures have been built with Popsicle sticks and bailing wire. We get it. Forensic science grew up in its own inherent way as needed. There was no great plan. Innovative scientists crafted techniques that worked and were applied successfully over and over again with the same result. And that is largely the premise of science—to repeat a test that remains consistent with theorized results.

But if we use fingerprints in our theory, it's true: No two people look at fingerprints the same way because it is largely a subjective business relying first on the expertise of the examiner.

With fingerprints, basically the print is examined by human eye under magnification and a matching takes place. A friend of mine who worked at the state crime lab here, told me stories about the old days where prints were stored on cards and separated out by hand and put into metal filing cabinets. Granted, technology has entered into the methodology improving some of the ease of handling exemplars but, still, it remains a business of a human being making a call as to whether the prints match. Now obviously a print that matched in 12 points (12 different areas) would be better matched than one that only had 8 similar points and standardization would help in that regard. But, you know what? fingerprints don’t come in neatly, 100% on a clean card. They arrive as partials, smudges, half-prints and so on, which is more realistic.

Let’s talk about another of the sore spots in the report: bitemarks. Bitemarks are impressions evidence and they are found on a variety of substances—skin, of course, but also in duct tape, car weather-stripping, cheese, and heaven only knows what else. It’s true that a bitemark should be examined by someone who is an expert in bitemarks and that would be a forensic odontologist. He is a person who is probably a practicing dentist or dental surgeon and knows teeth in his sleep. But can you make a guess as to how many actual “forensic” odonotologists are available in the U.S.? I have no real idea personally, and do not want to be nailed to a guesstimate, but I would venture to say, it’s probably under a couple hundred who avail themselves to this type of work. Yes, there’s a lacking there. But does that mean that a lab-trained forensic scientist who specializes in impressions evidence, footprints, tire tracks, etc., would not be able to recognize a similarity between a bite mark and a human impression? I would hope they would be able to suss it out.

In 1928, a report came out from the National Academy of Sciences that basically said that the coroner system in the United States was an “anachronistic institution,” and that coroners should be given the heave and be replaced by medical examiners, men and women who have doctorates in pathology. That may be a righteous goal, but today, more than half the states have county coroners pronouncing death and giving determinations. The recommendation didn’t happen. Why? Apathy, lack of funding, no regulatory board, no consensus and hey, guess what? crime moves on and waits for no stinkin’ regulation. Now I am a fan of regulation and doing things the right way. But I have a friend who is a coroner in Hot Springs proper (I live in the Village, another community) and he was an EMT for many years. Now I’d say that my friend as an Emergency Medical Technician has seen more than his share of near-deaths, the dying, and the fully dead. Should he be able to say if something looked suspicious? I would hope so. The autopsy would be done by a medical examiner as the result of his call anyway.

This is not a subject that is going to have simple answers. Of course, we don’t want people accused of crimes they didn’t commit. But I have a ton of friends at the Arkansas State Crime Lab in all disciplines, and I do not for a minute think that they are slackers, unqualified, or that they nudge the evidence in favor of law enforcement.

But, YES, let’s fund the crime labs better. Hire more qualified people. Have standards for the various disciplines. All the components the laboratories need are years and years to put new procedures into action, more money than we care to know about, and dedicated overseers who have all the time in the world. And what do we do in the meantime? Put a hold on courtroom evidence? The defense attorneys among us are shouting “Yes!”—I know it. And would you or I in their same position disagree? probably not. They have their own duty to uphold to their client, the accused.

Feel free to weigh in here.


FleaStiff said...

I think the calls for an overhaul and the imposition of arbitrary standards is simply a sensible result of the various scandals involving extremely unqualified people giving testimony that is grossly beyond what could be supported scientifically.

A hodgepodge of bureaucratic fiefdoms with a variety of problems relating to training and retentention of personnel would benefit from some imposed requirements. Some labs have had problems with directors who felt it inappropriate for them to be familiar with the equipment and protocols since lab directors, as executives, should be in supervisory roles. Some labs have funding issues but its also a matter of allocation of funds.

Any overhaul will require additional funding but if the overhaul causes existing funding levels to be better utilized that too is a gain in efficiency.

Laura James said...

Judicial training and education should be mandatory and high on the list of things to do if this never-ending problem will ever be solved.

Andrea Campbell said...

Thank you both for leaving cogent comments. A crime lab deserves a director that is also knowledgeable in science because then the hiring process would be on a sturdy foundation but unfortunately that is not always the case.

And as Laura says, judicial appointments are so highly political, they could use some reorganization themselves. Does justice kowtow and allow too many people to claim "expertise"? That would make an interesting investigation for sure. There are many problematic issues in the criminal justice system, we just have to become informed citizens and put our voting options into high gear because apathy runs rampant.