NEW ORLEANS-- You know that famous saying—those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it? While it can be applied to numerous situations, the forensic professionals at the 69th Annual American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) meeting are taking it to heart.
The 2017 AAFS annual meeting, held in New Orleans, is set to wrap up tomorrow after a weeklong examination of the application of science to the law. Approximately 5,000 forensic professionals have gathered for more than 900 scientific papers, seminars, workshops and other special sessions. In addition to the general sessions, the conference features multiple tracks in the forensic field, including anthropology, criminalistics, digital and multimedia sciences, engineering sciences, jurisprudence, odontology, pathology/biology, psychiatry questions documents and toxicology.
The overall theme of the event is “Our Future Reflects Our Past: The Evolution of Forensic Science.” To that point, many of the presenters took an inward look at the current state of forensic science, comparing it to “the good old days.”
Questions asked included, “What are the key lessons from the past that should not be ignored?; What is the purpose of forensic science?; Who makes forensic science decisions, and is that the ideal situation?; and Who has the responsibility for scientific-ness?”
To answer these questions in a post-PCAST era, the presenters looked backward for advice.
Many sought to get back to the roots of forensic science, citing Edmond Locard’s famous exchange principle that holds that the perpetrator of a crime will bring something into the crime scene and leave with something from it, and that both can be used as forensic evidence.
Another pioneer, Paul Kirk, expressed the principle as follows: "Wherever he steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as a silent witness against him. Not only his fingerprints or his footprints, but his hair, the fibers from his clothes, the glass he breaks, the tool mark he leaves, the paint he scratches, the blood or semen he deposits or collects. All of these and more, bear mute witness against him. This is evidence that does not forget. It is not confused by the excitement of the moment. It is not absent because human witnesses are. It is factual evidence. Physical evidence cannot be wrong, it cannot perjure itself, it cannot be wholly absent. Only human failure to find it, study and understand it, can diminish its value."
“The common theme among pioneers was that they were all problem solvers. They all took a problem-orientated approach,” said Claude Roux, founding director of the Center for Forensic Science at the University of Technology, Sydney, during his criminalistics session yesterday. “In the last 50 years, we have moved away from problem solving and into institutionalized fragmentation. We are basically forced to be trained monkeys. There is a disconnect between (forensic scientists) and the actual problem they are trying to solve.”
Other experts in Roux’s criminalistics session, including Peter De Forest and Pierre Margot, agreed that one of the main problems with forensic science is the lack of inclusion of scientists from the beginning of an investigation.
“We need to have science from crime zero, to the way the findings are presented to the finder of fact,” said De Forest, author and professor of criminalistics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “There is too often a situation where the lawyers control the interpretation (of forensic science). We can’t just wash our hands of how the findings are utilized.”
According to Margot, retired director of the Institute of Forensic Science and Criminology at the University of Lausanne, the current forensic situation focuses on the process rather than the question. It is case-based, rather than problem-based.
“We need to reverse that logic. That is the future,” he said. “We need to go back to a view that August Vollmer had. Science has to be used in policing; it should be a science-led investigation. We should change forensic science into an investigative power mode; an evidence-based model.”
Roux used an interesting example of a lunchroom to propose his ideas on the reframing of forensic science.
Today, the forensic lunchroom comprises multiple tables with biology at one, chemistry at another, crime scene response at a third, forensic scientists at a fourth, police at a fifth, etc.
In Roux’s lunchroom, separate tables are not allowed. Instead, there would be one maestro, and just one table that combines a triage team from all different disciplines that asks, “What questions do we need to ask and how can we answer them?”
“We need to reframe forensic science so it supports decision making at trials; contributes to the investigation; connects to policing; brings knowledge on crime, illicit markets and mechanisms that cause harm to society. This invites operations to become more interdisciplinary,” Roux concluded.