Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Value of Ethics Training

Do we as forensic scientists have a true understanding of ethics? We believe we are ethical people, we do good work, we help society, but do we truly understand the role ethics plays in meeting Paul Kirk's vision?

Justice can only be served by involving highly trained and motivated scientists dedicated to providing an ethical approach to the analysis and interpretation of physical evidence. The 2009 National Academies of Science report on Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward states that, "code of ethics should be in place across all forensic organizations to which all forensic practitioners and laboratories should adhere."

An ethical approach increases the success in both investigations and trial by presenting evidence in a proper light and ensuring public trust.

Foren-Tech offers courses designed to familiarize your staff with the basic principles of ethics and professional codes of conduct and their impact on the decision making faced by forensic professionals. The course consists of a lecture and discussion sessions.

These 2 to 4 hour blocks of instruction include:

What Is Ethics
Ethical Issues in Forensic Science
Ethical Dilemmas
Scientific Codes of Conduct
Data Integrity
Laboratory Responsibilities
Zero Tolerance
Key Elements of an Ethics Policy
Reporting Unethical Behavior

Please contact us at for mor information

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Putting the Science in Forensic Science

I am impressed with the valuable tool DNA profiling has provided to our profession. However, as scientists we must be concerned with the Criminal Justice System's over-reliance of this tool. The use of DNA to convict or clear individuals is reaching Orwillian proportions. There exists a common belief that, if the DNA matches you are guilty, if it does not match, you are innocent. In essence, machines are determining guilt or innocence. This trend should be alarming to all forensic scientists. To paraphrase Oliver Schroder, former President of the American Academy of Forensic Science, “when one comes to rely solely on technology, we have mechanized the institution of Justice, and Justice above all else must remain a human institution”. As forensic scientists, we must follow the doctrine of the scientific method, that is: obtain data, evaluate the data, form a hypothesis, and validate that hypothesis. Unfortunately, with the advances in DNA technology, many crime laboratories and the justice system are forsaking this scientific approach in criminal investigations. Simply put, they are institutionalizing the system. Dr. De Forest, so eloquently states, "The emphasis must be on thinking and seeing thephysical evidence aspects of a case in the totality of the event. Scientific problem solving, not technology, needs to drive our approach to the case." I can appreciate society’s enthusiasm for DNA technology. However, society must also be enlightened to the dangers of relying solely on technology to improve justice.

So, what is our responsibility to the profession? Greg Matheson states, " We can choose to become the technicians that operate the machines or we can be criminalists that investigate crimes." I believe forensic science is still and must remain a thinking person's profession. As forensic scientists, we must continue to voice the philosophy that the training, skills and dedication of the forensic scientist are the backbone of the profession. We must make the system understand, technology is the tool, but the chemist is the artist. Furthermore, we must act to prevent the practice of non-scientists dictating the significance and interpretation of physical evidence. Failure on our part to maintain the scientific principles of forensic investigation will further relegate us to the role of mere technician.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Alternative Perspective to the NAS Report

As a forensic scientist, I have noticed that when people are critical of us, it is in our nature to circle the wagons, call the person’s character into question or doubt their motives. Rarely do we look inward and conduct a critical evaluation of ourselves. This is my impression of the reaction to the NAS report.

Why did the NAS report happen? Consider this question with the understanding that this is not the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) report. This report is the product of our scientific peers. I have a theory that, in order to evaluate the NAS report, we must renew our understanding of the concepts of science and forensics.

We learned early in our education as scientists that the word science comes from the Latin word scientia, meaning knowledge. This knowledge is attained through study and/or experience in employing the scientific method. The key to any scientific endeavor is to provide empirical (derived from experiment and observation) and unbiased conclusions.

Two worlds collide

Once we choose forensic science as our career path we learn that the term forensic means, pertaining to law. We apply our knowledge (science) in a legal setting. That is, a setting established by or founded upon official or accepted man-made rules. As forensic scientists, we are precariously balanced at the apex of two worlds - science and law. We teeter on the line between what is scientifically right and what is legislatively legal. As such, things can be legally right but scientifically ambiguous or wrong.

Is it time for a paradigm shift?

The term paradigm shift has become cliché. One might consider changing from Coke to Pepsi to be a kind of paradigm shift. But a true paradigm shift is a profound change in one’s mind-set of how we view our world.

An example I like to use is stating that, “in Maine the sun does not rise in the east.” The stationary sun is the center of the solar system and does not rise or set. Copernicus’ vision of the solar system is a true paradigm shift. Forensic science has undergone paradigm shifts as well. For example, thirty years ago you would not have found a civilian firearms examiner. As a point of comparison, DNA is not a paradigm shift; it is a product of scientific advancement.

What is the paradigm shift for our profession?

The question I offer for general discussion is what, if any, paradigm shift must our profession undergo in order to properly grasp the meaning of the NAS report? I propose a paradigm shift in how we engage in professional interactions related to forensic science.

When you are under cross-examination do you find yourself mentally circling the wagons? If so, why? Most likely because you see the interaction as adversarial causing your fight or flight response to kick into action. But is this really an adversarial forum?

The term forensic has another meaning, one that I believe is more in line with the foundation of science. That definition is “to debate”. Open discussions and freedom to question the interpretation of data and observations are the keystones of the scientific process. They are also the basic precepts of our judicial system. I acknowledge that the interaction between the prosecution and the defense is adversarial. But if our scientific conclusions are truly unbiased, should our testimony be viewed as an adversarial encounter?

The tendency to judge individuals who question the results or statements of a fellow scientist as being unethical or having “gone to the dark side” ought to end. We need to appreciate one of our profession’s core principles - forensic science is about debate. The witness presents his or her opinion based upon sound scientific principles for the jury to deliberate. Scientists must be free to ask questions and not be seen as inappropriate. In science, no result or interpretation is valid until confirmed by independent peer review. However, this process is not routinely encouraged in the interpretation of forensic evidence.


Looking inward, we should view the NAS report as an opportunity to develop profound changes in our perspective of forensic science. However, like Copernicus, those who propose these paradigm shifts risk suffering scorn and criticism. But if we stick to our core principles and foundations, we can seize this opportunity to restore to our profession the science which the NAS report feels is missing.