It’s Time to Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way – Criminalistics Section

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:  John J. Lentini, BA, Section Chair

The theme of this year’s Academy meeting, Transformation: Embracing Change, could not be more appropriate or timely. Today’s forensic scientists are living in interesting times. The profession is changing rapidly, and those who do not embrace change are destined to be run over by it.

It has been more than six years since the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, was released to coincide with the Academy’s 2009 Annual Meeting. Since then, it has seemed to some that everybody was talking about the report but nobody was doing anything about it, sort of like the weather. In fact, thoughtful forensic scientists were engaging in discussions and plans, and those plans finally came to fruition in 2014 when the Organization for Scientific Area Committees in Forensic Science (OSAC) was established, and members were appointed.

The first in-person subcommittee meetings took place in January 2015 and work continues on the development of a registry of standards and a registry of guidelines. One of the first things that any science requires is a consensus on what standards are appropriate and what disciplines are based on a sufficient scientific foundation. The AAFS has a significant number of members in the OSAC, and it is important that the Academy assume a leadership role in the changes that are coming.

Other organizations have taken an interest in forensic science, and it is important that the AAFS stay abreast of the developments occurring outside of the Academy and constructively participate in these activities. This article will try to stay focused on the good news, because there is no shortage of depressing stories.

In late July, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) sponsored the first-ever International Symposium on Forensic Science Error Management – Detection, Measurement and Mitigation. This meeting was well attended and it was refreshing to see forensic scientists embracing the measurement of error, as opposed to the denial that error exists, which was common in the immediate aftermath of the NAS Report. Highlights included a significant focus on cognitive bias issues as a source of error. Alastair Ross, Director of the National Institute of Forensic Science, Australia New Zealand Policing, spoke about some of the other sources of error in forensic science and pointed out “trying too hard” as one frequent cause of error.

Trying too hard means attempting to narrow a class of individuals beyond what the science will allow or attempting to detect ever-smaller quantities of substances, which has led to such problems as the misinterpretation of DNA evidence in mixtures. My favorite chemistry professor had a saying in his laboratory: “Think about what you are doing.” Criminalists need to keep this in mind in all aspects of their work. Do we really think that lowering the detection limit for any test by another order of magnitude will actually help the police or the jury to understand the evidence any better? How much additional error will such a process introduce?

Another keynote speaker, Dr. Jo Handelsman, Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, called for the “eradication” of forensic science disciplines that cannot demonstrate a scientific foundation. Specifically, she called for elimination of microscopic hair comparison and bitemark identification.

The microscopic hair comparison criticism may have been misplaced, in that the technique is certainly viable for making exclusions, but this call demonstrates what can happen when forensic scientists lose control of the destiny of their profession. The current review of the FBI’s trial testimony on the subject has led to the conclusion that much (> 90%!) of the “inclusion” testimony was exaggerated or simply false. In the most egregious example of this testimony, the examiner claimed to have an error rate of one in five thousand, and because there were four hairs, he took 5,000 to the fourth power and stated that the odds of those hairs coming from anyone besides the defendant approached one in a quadrillion. (Seriously.)

The FBI’s review of hair comparison testimony has led to a call for every state to conduct a similar analysis. There were more than 2,000 cases which FBI examiners identified as requiring review; that review is approximately halfway complete. The number of similar cases in which state and local examiners testified may be far larger than the 2,000 FBI cases and, as of this writing, only Texas, through its Forensic Science Commission, has stepped up. The Academy and the Criminalistics Section in particular should support these reviews. They will eventually happen with or without our leadership.

On another front, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has begun a project on “gap analysis” in the forensic science literature in order to develop a research agenda. One of the first disciplines to be examined is my own discipline of fire investigation. AAAS has also convened committees on latent fingerprints, firearms, and tool marks. Other criminalistics disciplines to be examined in the near future are fibers, foot wear and tire tracks, bloodstain pattern analysis, and hair comparisons. Digital evidence and bitemarks are also slated for review.

AAAS is the publisher of Science Magazine, with a circulation of more than 125,000 readers a week. Whatever the outcomes of AAAS’s gap analyses, they will receive wide attention. The July 31, 2015, issue includes a call for forensic scientists to adopt a basic research tool, the blind experiment, as part of their routine practice, implementing Linear Sequential Unmasking (LSU) as advocated by Dr. Itiel Dror and others in the July 2015 issue of the Journal of Forensic Sciences.

AAAS has also recently hosted a National Science Foundation-sponsored workshop on “Forensic Science Research Evaluation,” led by AAFS President Victor Weedn and George Washington University Professor Edward Bartick. The report of that workshop will be published soon.

Yet another new development is the Academy’s decision to establish a Standards Development Organization (SDO). It remains to be seen how the Academy will meet this challenge, but the funding is in place to make it happen. There will surely be more news on this subject at the annual meeting, if not before.

Change is coming and the pace of change seems to be picking up. As leaders of the forensic science profession, Academy members have no choice but to embrace it. Resistance is futile.