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Leonardo Angiulo: Changes on the Horizon for Crime Scene Investigation

Monday, February 18, 2013

 

On Friday, February 15, 2013, the National Institute of Standards and Technology released a joint statement with the Department of Justice about the formation of a National Commission on Forensic Science expecting to make significant changes in evidence at criminal trials. For those that don't know, Forensic Science is the real-world legal term for those investigative techniques we have come to understand from TV. You know when they crack that case using bullet fragments to do ballistics or photos from the scene to do foot print analysis? Boom. Forensic Science. Bad guy gets arrested, cops pop the champagne, and we cut to commercial break.

But here's the problem: you can't believe everything you see on television. In reality, there are serious questions being posed by federal agencies about objective standards for the forensic sciences. In 2009 the National Academy of Sciences, also known as the NAS, wrote a 352-page book available online for free that documents the strengths and weaknesses of forensic sciences as they exist today. The announcement of February 15, 2013 focuses on the major weaknesses by announcing the introduction of uniform codes of professional responsibility, requirements for training and certification, as well as creating national level organizations of forensic science practitioners.

These changes are designed to address the fact that people are, or were, in prison serving long sentences who shouldn't be. The Innocence Project, a group tracking and appealing wrongful convictions, claims that more than 50 percent of cases overturned because DNA later proves the defendant did not commit the crime relied on improper forensic science as proof of guilt.

Of course, from the perspective of law enforcement, their job is to use evidence collected from crime scenes to find the culpable party. Often, investigators and analysts will respond to a location and discover what amounts to puzzle pieces scattered throughout a room. The items and things recovered can be as varied as tire prints at a bank robbery, skin cells in an assault case or residual chemical compounds at an arson fire. While some tests are conducted in laboratories by people in long white coats, other forensic tests are done by members of law enforcement relying on nothing but experience. Why, you may ask, shouldn't crime scene investigators use tools to create links between a crime and a criminal based on trace evidence?

The answer to that question is found within the National Academy of Sciences 2009 report. The report acknowledges that investigators shouldn't turn a blind eye to evidence or ignore developments in technology. It does, however, suggest that evidence at trial called science should be based on scientific principles. Within that report is the identification of important hallmarks of true scientific results as opposed to one person's opinion. It appears that simple changes proposed in the February 15 announcement, like standardizing measurement protocols, will provide some fairness to what gets called “science.”

Science is all about applying standard methodology according to accepted procedures to analyze data and yield a result. We, as a culture, have a certain reverence for science because we are taught from childhood that conclusions based on measurement and repeatable experiments are reliable truths in an otherwise unreliable world. The problem discussed in the 2009 NAS report is that many forensic science processes are not based on well-developed research, were not generated by a scientific culture and are not informed by scientific knowledge.

While technology is developing at a blinding speed, a National Commission on Forensic Testing is the kind of investment in the future of law enforcement that is, arguably, more important than the new gadgets. By making sure the “science” stays in “forensic science” we ensure that convictions and exonerations are based on real evidence rather than opinions dressed as fact. No matter what side of this issue you fall on, the proposals of the Department of Justice and the National Institute of Standards and Technology seem calculated to lead to positive developments in an evolving field. 

 

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