President’s Message—January 2019


Source: Susan M. Ballou, MS, 2018-19 President

During my undergraduate studies, one of my professors queried the class with the question: Would you allow ten suspected murderers to be released to ensure an innocent person wouldn’t remain in prison? Due to the passage of time, I cannot emphatically state the question is correctly phrased, but the point is on target. I recall the intense debates on the concerns for either action, the releasing of identified murders who may murder again, taking away more innocent lives, or the unthinkable life-shattering persecution that would be borne by an innocent person for an eternity. But after 50 minutes, the class was dismissed, everyone went to their next scheduled instruction period, and the debate was pushed aside. Sad to say that such an immense issue was simply forgotten.

As evident by my mentioning this, I have not forgotten that classroom experience. Each time I read a press release about another wrongly incarcerated person, I think about that day in college and wonder what was the basis for going down this path? The press releases articulate the various causes of this outcome, such as:

  • Inaccurate eye witness testimony,
  • Inappropriate testimony,
  • Lack of foundational science to support the selected analysis,
  • Human factors (in the police department, crime laboratory, courts), and/or
  • Inadequate investigation

The causes comprising the list have been known to have fallacies. For example, in 1999, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) released a report titled, EyeWitness Evidence: A Guide for Law Enforcement.1 The report warned law enforcement that although eye witness testimony is valuable it isn’t infallible. In 2004, Brandon Mayfield was wrongly charged with the Madrid bombing and the underlying reasons for this error generated a revision of the latentprint comparison process. In 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) completed a review of expert testimony involving hair analysis and concluded inaccurate statements were used.2 Revelation of this type of information assists in improving the system. In fact, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) completed review of court transcripts have shown there was incorrect use of terms or exaggerated strength of the evidence during testimony. To address this, the DOJ established “Uniform Language for Testimony and Reports,” thereby providing written guidance on what can be stated and reported—an impressive action to fix and improve what was originally thought to be correct but now shown to be wrong.

While the forensic science community looked at revising possible fallacies, the media started to peal back our armor of integrity. These cracks in the armor started to appear more frequently in print with reports such as the two chemists in the Massachusetts’ Public Health laboratories. They either dry-labbed drug analysis results or took drug evidence for personal use. Similar examples in other crime laboratories were reported across the United States. The media revealed more horrific discoveries and identified examiners who purposely falsified evidence for a multitude of reasons, such as to support the investigator’s suspicions, to strengthen the prosecution’s case, or to make themselves feel indispensable to the department.3

Media’s revelations came as a shock to many of us in the profession. When an individual decides to enter our profession, there is an inherent respect for the duties and responsibilities associated with the job. A forensic science examiner is held to a high level of professionalism when accepting the responsibility of handling and examining evidence. To ensure individuals understand their responsibilities, forensic science associations and organizations, including the AAFS, established a code of ethics for their membership. Demonstrating the growing concern of the number of experts’ mishandling evidence, in 2016 a National Code of Professional Responsibility was created by the National Commission on Forensic Science (NCFS) and accepted by Attorney General Loretta Lynch.4

These professional conduct issues are being addressed by a community already facing another form of accusation. I am surprised when I read commentaries or articles implying a PhD held by a forensic scientist isn’t a true PhD in science. I am confident that when comparing curriculum requirements for a PhD in chemistry, the courses and thesis obligations would be the same whether a job was taken in forensic science or in research. These accusations also target established forensic science methods and procedures. I am proud to say the profession has taken up the challenge to confirm or refute the accusations. Since the 2009 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Report and the 2016 President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) report much research, both federal and private, has taken place to specifically address the identified issues.5,6 Our profession has embraced new technology, applied algorithms with statistical applications, and selected different terminology to correctly correspond with the layperson’s interpretation. Agencies have reviewed their processes making the required changes and Forensic Science Commissions have been established to assist in oversight, mitigate problems, and improve transparency. For further explanation on this subject, review my President’s Editorial in the January 2019 issue of the Journal of Forensic Sciences (JFS) for a snapshot of some of the activities that have taken place since 2009.

It is possible more press releases will identify other wrongly incarcerated individuals claiming incompetence by the forensic science profession. I will always feel appalled for what happened to that individual. The word “sorry” and financial compensation will never replace the lost years of their lives. But, in the same breath, I am dismayed each time I read an article that disgraces the profession, that implies the entire judicial system hinges on one person’s testimony or accuses experts of lacking integrity. What has been accomplished in the past decade regarding revisions to methods and procedures demonstrates our profession accepts its responsibility for scientific rigor.

As AAFS President I commend each of you for your perseverance with heavy caseloads, long hours in court, and unending love for the profession. Your professionalism demonstrates your Diligence to the effort, Dedication to handling the details and Devotion to the field. I thank you for the opportunity to serve you over the year and I look forward to being part of our future endeavors.

References:

  1. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/178240.pdf.
  2. https://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/fbi-testimony-on-microscopic-hair-analysis-contained-errors-in-at-least-90-percent-of-cases-in-ongoing-review.
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joyce_Gilchrist.
  4. https://www.justice.gov/opa/file/891366/download.
  5. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/228091.pdf.
  6. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/PCAST/pcast_forensic_science_report_final.pdf.