FORENSIC SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING
Forensic practices are generally adaptations of common scientific methodologies relevant to the investigative process. Unfortunately, the forensics field, for the most part, has not been managed and directed by competent scientists. Leadership and direction has generally been in the hands of non-technical and non-qualified lay persons, principally, lawyers, judges, and law enforcement personnel.
The lack of scientific leadership in the forensics field has been addressed in reports by the 2008 National Research Council (NRC) and the 2009 National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Both clearly conclude that many of the forensic practices and resulting testimonies given in courts over the years have been inadequate and scientifically irresponsible.
Despite the importance and validity of these reports, no real effort has been made since their release to address and resolve these issues. The problem is serious and is being recognized at the judicial level. As an example, in fact, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff has resigned from the National Commission on Forensic Science because of the obvious bias by non-technical people within the U.S. Department of Justice.
These deficiencies can be addressed in a couple of ways. First and foremost, law enforcement and other government agencies need to hire competent, degreed scientists and engineers, individuals who have completed the basic core science courses at the university level in addition to specialized forensic training programs.
Promoting such individuals into investigative and management-level positions is the preferred track, for providing a competent scientist with basic law enforcement training will garner better results than attempting to turn a non-technical lay person who has completed such training into a competent scientist.
Ongoing forensic education of lawyers and judges also must occur to ensure a level of competency in understanding investigative results and analyses presented in the courtroom. Finally, true scientific standards need to be established as soon as possible for the various forensic disciplines.
All too often, so-called forensic experts are non-scientists, having received limited training, if any, as technicians, and not as scientists. There is a major difference between a technician and a scientist. Simply learning basic “Bettty Crocker Cookbook” techniques is not the same as having spent the time and effort to learn and understand the underlying science pertaining to the various forensic disciplines.
Furthermore, non-technical lay people, such as lawyers, judges, law enforcement personnel, etc., should not be the people responsible for determining and defining what real science is and who is a real scientist. Only a competent, educated scientist has that ability.
Most lawyers do not know how to present matters of a complex scientific nature to a judge or jury for evaluation and judgment. The situation in legal cases involving forensic analyses would be ideal of course, if the average lawyer were also a competent degreed scientist with the required training, but this is not a practical answer . The most direct and immediate solution to the problems outlined in the NRC and NAS reports is for judges to hire their own forensic experts as consultants on pertinent forensic issues during civil and criminal trials.
The forensic evidence and issues in any civil or criminal case should lead the investigation. Forensic evidence and issues should not be modified and adapted to fit an investigative theory, which is all too often the case in our current legal system. The practice of modifying forensic evidence and issues to fit a theory has often led to wrongful accusations, wrongful convictions, and wrongful acquittals.
Forensic opinion should be delineated in detailed written reports, supported by proper laboratory examinations, field investigations, relevant documentation, imaging, measurements, and calculations, etc., in keeping with validated scientific procedures. Requiring such reports will minimize the all-too-common practice of modifying the forensic evidence to fit an investigative and/or prosecutorial theory, which at times has been known to continue during the trial itself. The bottom line is the evidence either exists ‒ having been gathered, analyzed, and interpreted properly ‒ or it doesn’t.
In criminal cases in the U.S., the burden of proof is solely the responsibility of the prosecution. The defense is not required to prove anything. In civil cases, the plaintiff is primarily responsible for the burden of proof. Yet, all too often, non-technical lay people do not understand the concept of “proof,” either beyond a reasonable doubt (criminal) or by the preponderance of evidence (civil).
I have reviewed too many one-page, subjective opinions submitted as “proof” in cases I have worked on over the last 25 years. Unsupported by evidence, such opinions underscore the need for an acceptable legal definition as to what scientific proof is in any aspect of forensic science and engineering.
David J. Lamagna - B.Sc., M.Sc., C.M.I., C.H.I.
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