A recent headline in the news: “Crime laboratory manager resigns; two others resign after accusations of cheating on a proficiency exam.” This incident will probably have far ranging consequences in the forensic community. It also raises some very difficult questions that will have to be addressed by the agency, the examiners, subjects and victims, prosecutors, and the court. For instance, did they violate the laboratory’s code of professional conduct or code of ethical practices? What is the creditability of the two examiners who resigned? Can the results of any previous examinations that he or she previously conducted be relied upon? What about his or her previous testimony which may have resulted in a conviction? This incident reflects negatively upon all forensic examiners in all disciplines.
In today’s world, investigators, prosecutors, defense counsels, the court, and even the subjects themselves, rely upon the results of forensic examinations to make important and potential life-altering decisions. Quite often, the examination results will determine whether a subject will plead guilty to the initial charge or attempt to plea-bargain for a lesser charge. If the results are presented in court, the judge and jury will rely upon the expert opinion testimony of the examiner to support the determination of innocence or guilt. In many states when the testimony is presented in a capital case, the weight given to the analytical results can often result in a death penalty verdict. Therefore, those examination results have to be accurate, reliable, repeatable, and conducted utilizing appropriate scientific methodology. Likewise, the examiner’s expert testimony has to be non-judgmental, independent, and impartial to ensure an unbiased opinion regarding the analysis of the evidence.
THE FORENSIC DISCIPLINES AND THE EXAMINER
The various disciplines in forensic science can generally be grouped into several categories. Latent Prints, Questioned Documents, and Firearms (includes Toolmarks) can be categorized as the comparative disciplines. Controlled Substances, Biology (DNA), Trace Evidence, and Toxicology can be categorized as the analytical disciplines. Crime Scene is its own category. Although Digital and Multimedia Evidence (digital forensics) overlaps both the analytical and Crime Scene categories, it could also be considered its own category. Regardless, many of the currently popular crime-related television shows usually portray one or more of these disciplines in their scenarios. Since these shows are intended to provide entertainment, they often do not provide realistic insight intothe true world of the examiner. Most do not portray or present an accurate representation of the real challenges and pressures that examiners in all forensic disciplines encounter on a daily basis:
- Successfully completing discipline-specific training programs
- Maintaining competency
- Successfully completing proficiency tests
- Prioritizing assigned cases
- Selecting appropriate analytical procedures
- Providing accurate results
- Dealing with investigators and prosecutors
- Speedy trial considerations
- Managing case backlogs
- Attending advanced education/training courses
- Scheduling court appearances
- Balancing personal issues (vacation, illness, family, etc.) with work requirements