The exoneration of many individuals has caused a spark of anger for many, especiallyfrustration for forensic science. Some feel the comparative sciences are too biased and say evenDNA analysis has subjectivity. These exonerations call into question the integrity of the handlingof the evidence and the reports of the scientists. Even more harrowing, the science and processeshas been questioned. The recognition of the problem is how forensic science can still beconsidered a science, despite the criticisms. Science is about discovering new things and buildingupon old practices with the goal of constant improvement.
Unlike law, science (forensicincluded) is not a stagnant field and as developments come forward, the field progresses andbecomes far less bias and subjective. Changes are being made to ensure the accuracy of theconclusions that are heavily relied on for convictions. These changes include: creating a Forensic Science Committee sector of the National Academy of Sciences to review practices and suggestchanges as needed, infrastructure changes to reduce human error, adherence to a professionalcode of ethics, the Daubert hearings, International Organization for Standardization standard17025, development of scientific working groups, federal funding of forensic science research,and proficiency testing.
All of these have contributed to the advancement of forensic science,despite the recent criticisms, and are what allow it to continue to be recognized as a legitimatescience, especially in a court of law.
The Forensic Science Committee of the National Academy of Sciences strictly focusedon the shortcomings of forensic science and how to help improve the areas that need work. Thefunding for this program was an important step in helping improve forensic science and ensurethe quality of the field.
The committee is made up of practicing forensic scientists and those inrelated disciplines to include: crime laboratory employees, medical examiners, coroners, lawyers,and other scientists who could lend their expertise in certain fields pertinent to forensic science. The people involved in the committee were of the utmost importance for successful completionof the task. The chosen committee members were the best suited for helping review practices andset forth the best ones. One of the most important tasks of the committee was to not only comeup with the new practices, but to effectively communicate them. This comes in the form oftraining, competency checks, and extra education courses if need be.
It is important that all labsand companies have access to the information and new training so they can be up-to-date andusing the most accurate methods available. Developing new standards is critical, but if not all ofthe labs and companies have access to them and the training to maintain them, they are relativelyuseless. Furthermore, the dissemination of the revised standards is important because theconsistency between agencies is critical. Two examiners could come to two different conclusionsbased on their training, and each right based on their training, if the system for identification andpractices for forensic science are not uniform. Having a unified standard for all levels (local,state, and federal) would ensure the evidence is handled the exact same way, no matter whatdepartment it was processed in. The efforts of the National Academy of Sciences and the newgroup they implemented shows a desire for progression and improvement, which is the veryessence behind science.
The word science implies constant learning and improving, which thefield of forensic science is doing, especially with this new committee. The field only grows stronger as the people who are involved devote their time to researching new testing methods(Tong, 2008).Forensic science labs have built in safeguards against bias. After a conclusion has beenmade by one scientist, it is sent to another to review the work of the first scientist and evaluatethe conclusion set forth. These are sometimes blind tests, which are the most effective inreducing bias. The blind tests consist of the second scientist not knowing the conclusion of thefirst scientist. Essentially, the second scientist is viewing the case as if someone has not already.This helps to reduce bias, specifically confirmation bias, because it has two pairs of well-trainedeyes reviewing the evidence and known samples. The confirmation bias is eliminated when thereviewer is not made aware of the original examiner’s conclusions. Confirmation bias can be acompletely subconscious action by an examiner.
Most of the scientists who work in a labtogether have tremendous respect for one another and trust the conclusions of their coworker, soif they know the conclusion the first examiner came to, they may accidentally tend to agree withthem more because of that respect. If both of the scientists come to the same conclusion, there isreasonable certainty the analysis was done properly and the conclusion is sound. If theirconclusions are different from one another, they sit down together and work through why each ofthem came to their conclusions. After this, normally one of them will change their conclusionbased on the new evidence. Furthermore, even coming to a conclusion is a lengthy process thataims to avoid bias. ACE-V is a common acronym used to describe the general process anexaminer goes through when looking to compare crime scene evidence to known impressions.Before the examiner looks at the known, they analyze the unknown to determine if there areenough menusha to make an individualization, or at least try. If there is not, this gets reportedand the examiner may chose not to continue. This first step alone helps prevent many errors.
Ifan examiner does not study the crime scene evidence first, then they might be using a poorquality print to compare to the known which could cause them to see similarities which mightnot be there. This simple, yet effective, process can help reduce biases greatly. Furthermore,there has been recent attempts to better explain definitions and terms to ensure everyone in thelab is certain of what is meant and interpret them the same way. This helps reduce confusion andstreamline the labs so the results would be the same no matter which examiner looked at theevidence (Dr. Alicia Wilcox, personal communication, 2019).Forensic examiners are expected to always follow a professional code of ethics whenworking. This ethical code is in the form of a written document that clearly outlines theexpectations to ensure the best possible scientific and ethical practices. One very applicable lineof the document reads: “Treat any object or item of potential evidential value with the care andcontrol necessary to ensure its integrity.” This means there is an expectation of the examiners, aswell as all handlers of evidence, to make sure all evidence is being packaged, processed, andlogged correctly to guarantee it is in the best form possible. This is imperative because it keepsthe quality of the evidence at its pinnacle and shows it was not purposely altered by someone.For example, it is important to touch evidence where the perpetrator probably would not have.This control method helps to eliminate some of the critiques of forensic science because itimproves the quality of the evidence. Additionally, another control method to prove the evidencewas in fact found at the scene the technician claims it was, is to take a photograph of the item asit was found at the scene. This undeniably places the item at the scene and reduces the concernthat is was planted by a rogue person.
Another crucial expectation set forth by the code of ethicsis as follows: “Render opinions and conclusions strictly in accordance with the evidence in the case (hypothetical or real) and only to the extent justified by that evidence.” This simply meansconclusions should not be made if the evidence does not support it. A forensic scientist shouldonly be concerned with utilizing the best practices possible to allow the evidence to speak foritself. Never should a forensic scientist use the evidence to blindly support a theory. This part ofthe code of ethics shows the high level of certainty a forensic scientist or examiner must haveabout an object to make any conclusions. The individual spends a lot of time with the evidenceand studies the object to ensure they are getting all of the information they can and understandwhat that information means in the context of that particular item. This strengthens forensicscience because less errors will be made if the examiner follows the code of conduct and ensuresthey only record and report what the evidence shows. It can be easy for an examiner to getcaught up in the details of the case and feel the desire to make a positive conclusion in order tolead to a conviction, especially in particularly gruesome cases, but if the examiner follows thecode and lets the evidence speak for itself, they will be doing their job and representing the fieldfar better. The code also includes the rule: “Testify in a clear, straightforward manner and refuseto extend themselves beyond their field of competence, phrasing their testimony in such amanner so that the results are not misinterpreted.” This is crucial in ensuring the evidence ispresented as accurately as possible to the jury.
There has been a lot of criticism, especially fromthe PCAST report, about the weight jurors put on the testimony of expert witnesses. When awitness is introduced as an expert to the jury, they think of their words and observations as farmore important than any others. There is a certain level of bias that comes from announcing awitness as an expert. However, this rule helps to ensure that no matter how much weight is puton the testimony, it will accurately reflect the findings of the examiner based on what theevidence can offer. This expectation not only reminds forensic scientists to be honest in the courtof law, but also understandable and simple enough that lay people will be able to understand thetestimony so an accurate conclusion can be drawn. The last expectation listed by the ABC rulesof professional conduct is perhaps the most impactful in boosting confidence in forensic science.It reads: “Find it appropriate to report to the Board any violation of these Rules of ProfessionalConduct by another Applicant, Affiliate, Fellow or Diplomate”. A person who adheres to theserules of conduct is expected, and required, to report someone if they feel they are in anywayviolating this code. This puts into place a system of checks and balances. The examiners knowthey are being scrutinized by their coworkers, bosses, and the public and there can be very largeconsequences if it is found that they are inaccurate, dishonest, or not following the code ofethics. This puts a very positive pressure on each forensic scientist to be as accurate andimpartial as possible throughout the entire course of each investigation they participate in (ABCProfessional Code of Conduct).
The Daubert hearings are another huge progression of forensic science that allows it to bemore reliable and better suited for court testimony. The Daubert hearings helped withadmissibility of evidence in court based on the reliability of the tests completed. Some states stilluse the Frye standard, instead of adopting the new Daubert standard, but both of them emphasizethe importance of the science being accepted, or reviewed, by other professionals in the field andconsidered reliable by those people. This standards requires that all tests performed are peerreviewed, this way a random new test cannot be used and then testified to in court.