Forensic Science Under the Microscope

From lying about your qualifications as an expert witness on the stand to stealing drugs and money from the evidence vault; from not reporting your lab tests results that exonerate a defendant to having rodent infestation in your laboratory, lapses in ethics and judgment of forensic scientists make the news when they happen because people’s freedoms are at stake. Every time one of these incidents is reported, it makes everyone in the field subject to more scrutiny. And as a forensic scientist, I have no problem with that.

While it is impossible to change the morals of some people no matter how many safeguards are implemented, it is imperative that the forensic community take proactive measures to ensure the public trust.

In February 2009 the National Academy of Sciences released its report “Strengthening Forensic

Science in the United States: A Path Forward.” In it they outlined several areas of concern and discussed options to address these concerns. Among the areas addressed: assessment of forensic methods and technologies, infrastructure, training and education, budget and future needs. The report recommended that a federal agency be created to monitor forensic laboratories and that there be standardization of terminology and reporting, research into human error in forensic examinations, mandatory lab accreditation and individual certification, and establishment of a national code of ethics for all forensic disciplines.

Many forensic scientists bristle at the thought of federal oversight and standardization and believe there are ways to improve the field without such drastic measures. The most important thing that forensic scientists can do, in my opinion, is set up checks and balances to ensure that proper science is being conducted. There are far too many claims of “junk science” out there for us to rest on our laurels and assume everyone understands the processes we use in conducting our examinations. The analysis of DNA evidence came under massive attack back in the 90′s because it was the new “kid on the block.” During its scrutiny, numerous shortcomings of the processes and interpretations of the results were unearthed and addressed. Other areas of forensic science such as fingerprinting, firearms and document examination need to improve their reputation and prove their scientific validity in the same way as well.

The argument has always been “Your hairdresser needs licensing, why shouldn’t a forensic scientist?” Certification of forensic scientists is a step in that direction. The process of certification consists of passing a written examination covering areas such as chemistry, trace, photography, firearms, fingerprinting, DNA, and passing a proficiency test in your area of expertise. Every year you pay a yearly maintenance fee and update your forensic activity for the year (membership in forensic societies, meetings attended, articles/books written and/or reviewed, courses taken, etc.) You also sign and agree to a set of rules of professional conduct (ethics).

It is a rigorous process; the trouble with it is even if you pass the test it doesn’t mean you will be a competent practical forensic scientist. An unethical person will be able to study for the test and answer all the questions properly, but that doesn’t ensure that they will follow the ethics they agreed to during the certification process.

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