Academy Apercus—March 2022

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles contained in the Academy News are those of the identified authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Academy.

Source: Laura C. Fulginiti, PhD, 2022-23 AAFS President

Welcome to the Academy Apercus, a monthly feature that celebrates 75 years of forensic science by spotlighting the history and anticipating the future of each section of the Academy. Beginning with the Jurisprudence Section and progressing through each section in the order of acknowledgement by the Academy, a senior member will join with a junior member to memorialize salient events, highlight members, and provide insight into why the Academy remains the premier forensic science organization in the world.

Jurisprudence Section at 75 Years

Source:  Betty Layne DesPortes, JD, MS, AAFS Past President and Jurisprudence Section Fellow

The job descriptions of lawyers working in the forensic science community present a wide range of roles, functions, and skills. A commonality, however, is ensuring that science has the appropriate place in the legal system. Whether acting as advocates or judges in the courtroom, advisors outside the courtroom, or educators in the classroom, lawyers serve to apply science to the law. The Jurisprudence Section of the Academy reflects this wonderful diversity of perspectives with members belonging to the judiciary, the United States Department of Justice, federal and state forensic laboratories, state prosecutors, federal and state regulatory agencies, public defenders and other criminal defense attorneys, the Innocence Projects, and universities and colleges around the world.

Just as lawyers are an integral part of the forensic science, with the legal system serving as the venue for the application of scientific principles, lawyers also have been an integral part of the formation and progression of the Academy. Professor Fred E. Inbau, the first Jurisprudence Section Officer in 1950, was one of the founding members of the Academy and his lifelong commitment to scientific evidence is memorialized in the continued existence of the Academy. Prof. Inbau’s contributions, and the contributions of other Jurisprudence Section members, to the first 50 years of the Academy are well memorialized in Kenneth Fields’ History of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, 1948-1998, available on the AAFS website:

The contributions of the Jurisprudence Section to the Academy during the last 25 years have been as vast and colorful as the first 50 years. This article is not intended as a comprehensive recounting of those contributions (which would take far more words than the author has been permitted), but as a collection of highlights from one person who has been witness to the Section’s work (and antics) since 1998.

Three Presidents of the Academy since 1998 have been from the Jurisprudence Section, representing three different roles of lawyers in the forensic science community.

Kenneth E. Melson (President: 2003-2004) spent most of his career as a prosecutor. Ken was a state prosecutor for ten years and then worked as an Assistant United States Attorney in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia beginning in 1983.  He became the First Assistant United States Attorney in 1986, a post he held until his departure in 2007.  Several times during his career, including on September 11, 2001, he served as the United States Attorney.  At the 56th Academy Annual Meeting in Dallas, Texas (theme: “Truth and Justice in the Balance: Forensic Scientists as the Counterpoise”), Ken hosted a special address at the Plenary Session by the Honorable John Ashcroft, Attorney General of the United States. We may not remember the substance of address, but the standing room only crowd and extensive security protocols made it memorable.

Professor Carol E. Henderson (President: 2008-2009) served as an educator, both as a law professor and as the founding director of the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law (NCSTL) at Stetson University College of Law. Although Carol passed away in 2020, NCSTL continues to foster communication between the scientific, technological, and legal communities by providing a searchable database of legal, forensic, and technology resources; a reference collection of law, science, and technology material; national conferences on science, technology, and the law; and training modules and primers with an emphasis on distance education. At the 61st Academy Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado (theme: “Forensic Science: Envisioning and Creating the Future), Carol’s Plenary Session focused on the FBI’s Comprehensive Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Program and involved the special appearance of several Academy members (including Christine Funk) in full protective gear.

Betty Layne DesPortes (President: 2017-2018) has worked her entire career as a criminal defense attorney, and was the first (and so far, only) working criminal defense attorney to serve as President of the Academy. In all honesty, the author (Betty Layne) remembers the 70th Academy Annual meeting in Seattle, Washington (theme “Science Matters”) as a blur. One clear memory was the passage of the Presidential gavel from one woman to another woman for the first time in Academy history.

The Jurisprudence Section has been well represented by Academy award recipients over the last 25 years. Carol Henderson and Professor James E. Starrs received the Academy’s highest award (the Gradwohl Medallion) in 2021 and 2012 respectively. Jim passed away in 2021 but will be remembered for his many contributions to forensic science education and increasing public interest in forensic science through his investigations and exhumations. Jim will also be remembered for his Scientific Sleuthing newsletter that he published for years and which he donated to the Jurisprudence Section each year for our enjoyment and education. The Academy’s second highest award (Distinguished Fellow), given for meritorious service to the Academy, the forensic sciences, and to other professional peer group organizations, has five Jurisprudence Section recipients since 1998: Andre A. Moenssens (2005), Kenneth E. Melson (2008), Haskell M. Pitluck (2012), Carol E. Henderson (2019), and Betty Layne DesPortes (2020).

More memorable, and perhaps more meaningful, than the presidencies and the awards have been the professional contributions, tumultuous events, and entertaining antics involving Jurisprudence Section members.

For professional contributions, consider the efforts of Section members following the release of The National Academies of Sciences’ report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. The report was released during the Academy’s 2009 Annual Meeting and started the active involvement of virtually all Section members in interpreting the importance of the report for the courts. Section members have also served on various boards, committees, commissions, and agencies tasked with addressing the report’s call for reform, including Jules Epstein, Paul Giannelli, Hon. Barbara Hervey, Ted Hunt, Hon. Pam A.W. King, Julia Leighton, Peter Neufeld, and Matthew Redle who all served on the National Commission on Forensic Science. Similar efforts followed the 2016 release of the Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The standardization of forensic science that was called for in each report is being addressed in part by the Academy Standards Board on which Section members Christine Funk and Hon. Pam A.W. King have served.

Tumultuous events include the ethics proceedings in 2009 that resulted in the expulsion of an Academy member. During the former member’s appeal to the membership, Carol E. Henderson presided as President, Haskell M. Pitluck served as the chair of the Ethics Committee, Kenneth E. Melson served as an advocate in the proceedings to expel the member, and Betty Layne DesPortes presented the position of the Board of Directors for expulsion to the membership. The membership upheld the expulsion, although it was later overturned in exchange for the former member’s resignation during settlement proceedings in a civil suit.

For entertaining antics, Jurisprudence Section members should win a title. During the 2005 meeting in New Orleans, we were excited by the prospect that some misguided person might try to arrest James E. Starrs for his work on the Huey Long assassination investigation (Jim may have been the most excited). At the 2014 meeting, Gil Sapir, Ted W. Vosk, and Andrew Sulner orchestrated the “Twinkie Defense” (complete with demonstrative exhibits) to supplement the business luncheon with dessert. During the meeting in which Betty Layne assumed the presidency, Carol Henderson, Rod Kennedy, Paul Messner, and others donned “Presidential Protection Detail” shirts to act as security, although they mostly just stood around and made jokes. Section business meetings are always lively, amusing, and sometimes productive. Between meetings, Section members are kept up to date through Gil’s informal, and frequently irreverent, email blasts.

Jurisprudence Section members have been instrumental in the formation and progress of the Academy since the beginning. Seventy-five years later, we are still working to improve the Academy, the forensic science community, and the legal system. Our work is not done, we do not rest on our laurels, and we will continue in the unique Jurisprudence Section style: always conscientious, contentious when necessary, and entertaining as much as possible.

Disclaimer: The author apologizes in advance to anyone she has inadvertently omitted, mischaracterized, or otherwise displeased. Volunteer to write the next article, complainers.

My Journey Into the World of Forensic Science

Source: Geneva Bonner-Edwards, MD, Jurisprudence Section Student Affiliate

At a very young age, I landed a job working in the crime laboratory in my hometown of Joliet, Illinois. While being interviewed for the position, I was asked about my future goals and what I wanted to do with my life. I answered that I was interested in healthcare and law. The crime laboratory director, who was interviewing me stated, ‘”maybe one day you will be able to combine those two professions and make a difference.” I never gave his comment another thought.

I grew up in a single-family household, with a mother that did not support any career goal other than becoming an educator. She certainly did not support a career in law or law enforcement as a profession. As a result, I followed her direction and became an educator, but one within healthcare. Now, as a nurse, I am an educator of patients and staff. Additionally, as a medical researcher, who presents healthcare topics, concerns, and issues all over the world, I am a global educator. Regardless of this success, I never lost my original interest in law and law enforcement.

However, during my journey through the healthcare profession, I have been able to come full circle and found a way to combine both professions, healthcare, and law. I am now a Legal Nurse Consultant, Certified by the American College of Legal Nurse Consultants. My current focus is researching and investigating when medicine and law intersect. For example, I investigate medical malpractice cases, and other mishaps in healthcare provision. I used my research to publish and present healthcare concerns and issues internationally.

I am an established medical writer, as well as an editorial board member for two international healthcare journals. I am pursuing a jurisprudence degree to become a licensed attorney. This academic preparation will assist me in the advancement of the skills I need to legally write, negotiate, and analyze the data I collect for my research, as well as defend the position I take on healthcare concerns.

The Journal of Forensic Sciences (JFS), the Academy’s official publication, brings original investigations, observations, scholarly inquiries, and reviews of forensics to the public. I want to be a part of this great opportunity and help educate communities around the world about the wonders of forensic science. There is no better way for this to be accomplished, other than through the membership body of AAFS. I also want to be among colleagues who will strive to bring the academia, expertise, and experience, needed in the forensic sciences to the world.

I cherish my membership in AAFS and I look forward to participating in all the Academy has to offer.