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Beyond the crime lab : The New Science of Investigation Revised Edition
Forensic science has emerged as a significant element in efforts to solve crime while maintaining a high quality of justice. The value of physical evidence has been demonstrated in all aspects of criminal investigation, and law-enforcement officials have become increasingly dependent on laboratory results for evidence not obtainable by other means. As science and technology continue to advance, the importance and value of physical evidence in criminal investigation also will continue to grow.
Virtually any type of material can become physical evidence. It can be as small as a dust particle or as large as an airplane. It can be in the form of a gas or a liquid. It may consist of only one simple pattern, or it may contain thousands of pages of documents and photographs.
There are hundreds of methods used in the forensic laboratory. Many of these methods are common biological, immunological, biochemical, microscopic, chemical, physical, or instrumental techniques used in other clinics or in research or scientific laboratories. Other methods are unique to the forensic field. Forensic analysis is concerned not only with the recognition and identification of unknown substances, but also with the individualization and reconstruction of a variety of evidence, events, or conditions.
The aim of examining physical evidence is to provide useful information and scientific truth to solve cases and protect the innocent and society. However, decisions about the extent to which physical evidence will be used in criminal investigations usually are not made by forensic scientists. In the crime-scene search and initial investigative stages, these decisions usually are made by police officers, criminal investigators, or evidence technicians. In the adjudicative stages, physical evidence usually is used by prosecutors and defense attorneys. There is no guarantee that either the investigators or the attorneys will understand the potential of physical evidence well enough to make the proper decisions.
Along with progress in the forensic-science discipline, we also have witnessed the proliferation of various publications. These books and articles generally fall into two groups: (1) very technically oriented publications, and (2) semischolarly, basic materials. The former type is aimed at forensic professionals; the latter is for leisure reading. There is a gap between these two types of publications and a need to relate the progress in forensic science to police officers, attorneys, and the general public.
Jon Zonderman has devoted an enormous amount of time and energy to research and develop materials related to the advances in forensic science. This book bridges the gap between the basic and the advanced materials. As more police officers receive special training in forensic sciences, and as attorneys and the general public acquire updated information, better use will be made of physical evidence and forensic science.
Henry C. Lee, Ph. D. Commissioner of Public Safety, State of Connecticut Chief Criminalist/ Director, Connecticut State Police Forensic Science Laboratory, Retired Professor of Forensic Science, University of New Haven
Preface to the Revised Edition
When I was researching and writing Beyond the Crime Lab, in 1988 and 1989, forensic science was still not a part of American popular culture. The "true life" crime story still took a back seat to more sedate murder mysteries in literature, and the courtroom drama and shoot-'em-up aspects of police television were still the strong points of any script's plotting.
Today, as this newly updated and revised edition is readied for print, Americans are riveted to their television sets by the trial du jour, be it O. J. Simpson, Timothy McVeigh, the Boston Nanny, or the Unabomber-and people actually argue about the forensic evidence presented in the case. Was O. J. 's bloody glove planted? How can Kaczynski pretend not to be the Unabomber when an explosive device with all of the relevant "signatures" was found in his cabin?
Police shows focus on the forensics of every case that needs to be solved, and the scriptwriters don't just give us the perfunctory detective saying, "Ballistics says it's a match." Instead, they get a little education in there at the same time: "The slug in the wall was too damaged to get any information about lands and grooves, only enough to say it was the same caliber as the suspect's gun." Medical examiners are prominent characters, and legal arguments often hinge on forensic minutia.
Cable television chimes in with a weekly show about forensics on the Discovery channel, and some of the country's most prominent forensic scientists have nearly become folk heroes for their daily appearances on Good Morning America, CNN News, and legal shows.
The independent counsel investigating the president has even turned to forensic investigations, with handwriting experts and paper-and-ink specialists poring over the Rose Law Firm billing records found in the White House to see whether any of them had been tampered with; and more recently subjecting Monica Lewinsky's clothing to testing for President Clinton's bodily fluids.
Forensic science is increasingly coming to be a widely taught academic discipline, as well. On the college level, students can take specialized courses in chemistry, biology, and physical science curriculums, and they can pursue forensic-science pro-grams through a few specialized schools. At the high school level, in science magnet schools and as part of twenty-first-century school-to-work programs, the job of forensic laboratory technician is coming to be seen as a legitimate field of study.
Still, if you ask a random sampling of 12 jury-eligible Americans to explain how DNA typing works, or even how blood typing works, few if any could reasonably describe the technique. They wouldn't be much more helpful about conventional fingerprinting, or ballistics, or firearms and tool marks, or chemical analysis of bomb residue.
We are fascinated by what repulses us-skeletal remains and serial rapists. They are our worst nightmares, yet we flock to the bookshelves on which they are described in million-copy detail by the likes of Patricia Cornwell and Thomas Harris.
This book is designed to fill in the knowledge gaps, giving a nontechnical reader enough insight and a baseline of information to understand in broad terms the arguments being made by the experts and the ever-more-scientifically complex story lines. It is also meant to give readers enough understanding of the issues to allow them to ask whether science is, on balance, more helpful in proving guilt than it is harmful in impinging on our civil liberties.
As we enter the new millennium, we all need to be mindful of ceding our political and civil freedoms to expertise of any kind. Do we really want to live in a society where we are constantly under the surveillance of the science police?
It probably is a happy coincidence that what we today would consider to be modern science and political philosophy have developed somewhat in parallel since the late 1700s. In fact, some would argue that the ideas of democracy and capitalism are necessary for the full flourishing of scientific thought and expertise.
The strains between social organization and individual rights in Western societies-the idea that there is a civil leadership instead of (or as well as) a religious or royal one, and that, in many instances, the civil authorities take precedence-led to the notion that crimes are committed not only against an individual, against the church, or against the king, but also against "the people," "the state," or "the Commonwealth."
Since at least the eighteenth century, the civil societies of the West have organized the fight against crime and have placed people in positions of authority with responsibility for upholding the law. No longer was the sheriff merely an instrument of royalty, set on the peasantry to inflict the royal whim, but a person whose duty it was to see that objective laws were obeyed by all.
At about the same time, scientists and natural philosophers, using ever more sophisticated instruments in their observations, were rapidly incorporating new knowledge of the world around them and beginning to disseminate that knowledge to a wider audience than ever before.
By the time of the Industrial Revolution, cities were beginning to hire police forces to uphold the laws of the civil community. In 1810 the French Sureté (" Security") was created to try to stop a wave of crime in Paris. The founder, Eugene François Vidocq, was himself a former convict, and he brought on as his trusted subordinates other former convicts. Unfortunately, many of these men had a difficult time breaking their criminal habits and, when they weren't policing, were an active part of the French underworld.
The English concept of civil liberties made Britain suspicious of any kind of police force, and it was not until 1829 that London became so crime infested that Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, went against public opinion and led the fight in the House of Commons to create a city police force. This new force replaced the Bow Street Runners, a group of about a dozen investigators organized in the mid-eighteenth century by Henry Fielding, then justice of the peace. Many of the runners were former "thief takers," private bounty hunters who caught criminals in exchange for rewards. In fact, any citizen could hire a Bow Street Runner when he wasn't on duty for the justice of the peace.
One thousand men were hired for the new London police force that replaced the runners; they wore blue tailcoats, gray trousers, and top hats, to give the impression that they were civilians rather than military. In 1842, 12 such police officers were removed from the uniformed force to create the city's first detective bureau. They worked out of three small rooms in Scotland Yard, and, despite its growth in size and change of location, the current London detective force still is known by that name. Charles Dickens made the force famous through the character Inspector Bucket of Scotland Yard, in his novel Bleak House.
By the 1860s, the notion of a detective investigator was well entrenched in the public perception, and these detectives were turning to the analysis of physical evidence-the natural or synthetic substances that appeared at crime scenes-in addition to questioning crime witnesses to get information about who may have committed the crime.
The fields of forensic science and criminalistics began to coalesce around this time. Chemical tests to determine whether a substance is blood, and what species of animal the blood may have come from, date to the 1860s. Working in various parts of the world, scientists and police detectives began the long process of determining that fingerprints are individual, that the prints left at the scene of a crime can be matched with prints taken from criminal suspects, under optimum conditions, and that permanent records of these prints would be highly valuable in keeping track of criminals.
In the 1880s, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a trained physician, began writing his Sherlock Holmes detective stories. To Holmes, everything was "elementary," a wonderful pun when one considers that Holmes's crime solving often was as firmly based on chemistry as it was on inductive logic. The Holmes stories, it is said, inspired Edmond Locard to set up the world's first forensic-science laboratory in France in 1910. The word forensic means suitable for the law court, and it was this organized approach to the analysis of physical evidence for legal presentation that gave rise to the field.
FORENSIC SCIENCE IN THE UNITED STATES
In the United States, scientific analysis of physical evidence was a little slower to catch on. Throughout the early years of the twentieth century, police forces occasionally turned to scientists to help analyze evidence. These scholars, however, had neither the proper facilities to conduct systematic investigations that would stand up to the rigors of the legal system nor the training to present their findings to judges and juries.
In 1930, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's first director, J. Edgar Hoover, decided to make the FBI the font of scientific criminal investigative knowledge in the United States. He had his special agents throughout the country contact experts in a number of scientific fields and ask them for their thoughts on how to build and staff a forensic-science laboratory and how to train forensic scientists. The resulting laboratory opened on November 24, 1932. It handled 20 cases in its first week. Today, it does thousands of examinations each week, both for its own agents working on federal cases and, on a consulting basis, for public-safety agencies throughout the United States and its protectorates.
The first home of the FBI's "Criminological Laboratory" was in Room 802 of the Old Southern Railway Building at 13th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, in Washington, D. C. By June 1933, the name was changed to the "Technical Laboratory" and, in September 1935, the laboratory moved to larger quarters in the Department of Justice building at 9th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. In 1943, the name was changed again, this time to the "FBI Laboratory," the name it still bears. The lab was to make one more move, in September 1975, to its present site in the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building at 10th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
The FBI Lab has become the country's leader in many areas of forensic science and continues to conduct extensive training for forensic-science laboratory personnel throughout the country in both technical and administrative areas. The FBI Lab's reputation has fallen on hard times through the 1990s. A 1996 investigation of the lab by the Justice Department's Inspector General found not only shoddy science, but also bureaucratic infighting and lack of leadership among the lab's top officials. In 1997, FBI Director Louis Freeh appointed the first outsider, a long-time administrator of government research labs, to run the FBI Lab.
ADVANCES IN FORENSIC SCIENCE
Although scientists made great strides in criminal investigation before 1960, since then, there have been quantum leaps in forensic science and, especially, technology. Today's scientific criminal investigator can gather and analyze far more information about the physical-and even behavioral-evidence that appears at a crime scene than their counterparts in the 1960s dreamed possible.
Police detectives and prosecutors have gained powerful new tools in their fight against crime through scientific breakthroughs in the study of DNA; advances in instrumentation such as microscopy, chromatography, and mass spectroscopy; the ability to lift latent fingerprints from almost any kind of organic or inorganic surface using such innovative methods as laser beams and the vapors from household adhesives such as Superglue; and the revolution in computers, communications, and electronics. Advances in both behavioral and biochemical sciences suggest that in the future, (a) we may understand both the physiological and the environmental causes of crime, (b) there may be medical and scientific ways to correct these causes, and (c) neither punishment nor do-gooder attempts to "change" criminals may be possible.
In the future, every cop, not just the police and scientists of the forensic laboratory, will be a science cop. A concurrent trend has been toward the increased use of forensic scientific analysis in civil litigation; forensic experts regularly appear in cases of product liability, fraud, air and vehicle accidents, and family matters such as spouse and child abuse. With this trend has come a booming business of scientific expert witnesses. In the future, not only will every cop be a science cop, but every lawyer will be a science lawyer.
THE FIELDS OF FORENSIC SCIENCE
The basic principle in examining physical evidence is rather simple. Whenever a person leaves a place, he or she takes something away from that place and leaves something at that place. It is the role of the forensic scientist and criminalist to examine what is left at the scene and hypothesize where it might have come from and who might have brought it there. Forensic scientific investigators are responsible for (1) identifying the bit of evidence, (2) comparing it with other similar substances and with substances known to be those of the victim or suspect, (3) individualizing the questioned substance as well as possible, and (4) using all these bits of evidence to help reconstruct the circumstances of the incident being investigated.
Specialized fields in the general area of forensic sciences include medicine (especially pathology), odontology (dentistry), anthropology, psychology and psychiatry, engineering, and toxicology. Ironically, many of these specialists do not work in the forensic or crime laboratory, but as medical examiners and as consultants to the medical examiner, the forensic lab, and the police.
The bulk of the work of a police forensic laboratory falls under the umbrella of criminalistics-the identification and best possible individualization of substances such as blood, hair, fibers, glass, paint, soil, plastic, markings, and prints. These labs also work on latent-fingerprint-removal techniques and fingerprint identification, firearms, tool marks, and questioned documents.
Each crime laboratory probably is organized a little bit differently, both internally and in its relations with the rest of the criminal-justice system. Some are attached to a medical examiner's office, others to a particular police jurisdiction, and others work on a consulting basis with regional law-enforcement agencies. Many federal agencies have forensic laboratories, some of which specialize in certain areas. In addition to the FBI Lab, the lab of the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms gets high marks for research in firearms and tool marks. That lab also has a large database of inks and papers (not unreasonable because it is the investigative arm that looks into forgery of the country's money). In addition, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has several drug-testing laboratories. Many states have regional labs that work with all local police departments. Others have one central lab. Some state laboratories are organized by county, and many large cities have their own crime labs. There are over 400 forensic laboratories in the United States, and more than 40,000 forensic scientists and criminalists.
POPULAR OPINION AND FORENSIC SCIENCE
In the past decade, the work of the medical examiner and forensic scientist has become a part of American popular culture. In almost every police drama, there is at least one episode a month where the police have a significant encounter with the scientific sleuths. These are often well-scripted segments that both move the story's drama forward and serve to teach the public about the work done in the back office, behind the work that officers and detectives do. Another way Americans have come to a deeper knowledge of forensics is through the reenactments on The New Detectives, a weekly show on cable television's Discovery Channel, which shows the work of forensic scientists, medical examiners, and criminalistic technicians.
Another development has brought the forensic scientist into American living rooms even more than police fiction or reenactments of how forensic science has solved old crimes: live coverage of major criminal trials. CNN and Court TV have done more to show people the work of forensic science in five years than have all the books ever written about the subject. No trial did this more than the 1995 trial of O. J. Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife and a friend of hers. For days, millions of Americans sat riveted to their sets, as prosecutors urged detectives and Los Angeles police lab forensic scientists to describe in minute detail the investigation they ran. Then the defense put on a slew of expert witnesses to cast doubt on the L. A. lab's methodologies and conclusions.
Fewer people followed the 1997 trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols for the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, but those who did were no less riveted by the forensic evidence presented there. The same is true of the 1997Ð 1998 so-called Unabomber trial, or the trial of a number of Moslem radicals in the 1992 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City. As American viewers have observed, many criminal prosecutions succeed or fail based on the quality of the forensic evidence provided to the courts.
PROBLEMS IN THE APPLICATION OF FORENSIC SCIENCE
In any field of scientific endeavor, the argument usually is made that science is value neutral-it is the use to which science is put that makes it good or bad. Forensic science, using the most advanced science and technology, has been shown time and again to be a great vindicator, as well as convicter. Despite this dual function, the vast majority of forensic scientists and criminalists work in police crime laboratories. As Joseph L. Peterson, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois, writes in the American Chemical Society's book Forensic Science,
"Nagging questions remain about the objectivity of forensic science input to the judicial process and the quality of laboratory results and interpretations of evidence." Despite case law that police must provide defendants with exculpatory evidence (evidence that would tend to show innocence), Peterson and others argue that prosecutors often fail to show defendants all exculpatory forensic scientific evidence. They also argue that merely by deciding what tests will be performed, police and prosecutors can bias the results of forensic analysis.
While the tools of scientific crime solving and crime prevention- in fact, the tools of legal truth seeking-get better all the time, it is apparent that their use is not as good as it could be. In addition to the prosecutorial bias of most forensic evidence, both law enforcement and impoverished defendants often lack the training, personnel, and money to fully utilize the powers of forensic science, criminalistic techniques, and new technologies. In the mid-1970s, National Institute of Justice tests of crime laboratories found a majority to be deficient in their procedures; the institute cited slipshod laboratory procedures and failure to maintain a secure chain of custody for pieces of evidence. In fact, as of 1997, the FBI Lab was still not accredited by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors/ Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/ LAB).
Forensic science often is not much better in the private sector. In the case of DNA typing, before the FBI and state crime labs developed their own technology, private laboratories performed the majority of such procedures, and government officials spent much time determining how, if at all, to regulate it. As with each new scientific or technical procedure used by police and prosecutors, DNA typing has gone through a rigorous judicial review before being generally accepted as evidence in a criminal trial. Much of the argument about its admissibility has hinged on the question of how the courts can trust the findings of unregulated private laboratories.
Even after most DNA testing was taken over by state forensic labs and the FBI Lab, defendants have continued to question the quality of laboratory analysis. The questions about investigators' findings have also spilled over into the issue of drug testing. More and more employers are doing preemployment drug testing, testing for drug use when there is probable cause, and even random drug testing, despite the fact that independent researchers have shown a high and growing proportion of false-positive results and of careless or inappropriate laboratory techniques.
Even when forensic scientists follow flawless technical procedures, however, a far darker picture may still be painted of many criminal justice-and civil-uses of new technologies. As law enforcement assumes new abilities to investigate crime, it also assumes new abilities to infringe on the delicate rights that all U. S. citizens enjoy to be free from searches, seizures, and unwarranted government interference in their personal effects and communications. Further, these abilities to gather and combine thousands of bits of information about a person are available not only to law enforcement but also to governmental agencies that determine social welfare benefits, to potential employers, to those seeking credit references, and even to those merely selling soap.
The use of forensic science to match physical evidence at a crime scene to a particular suspect cannot be compared to its use in the creation of watch lists and behavioral profiles and the imposition of surveillance on those presumed to be possible suspects in some future crime. Nonetheless, such abuses of technology are increasingly possible, given the state of science and technology as we enter the twenty-first century.
As the science and technology of criminal investigation continue to move further beyond the crime laboratory-out of the hands of police and scientists and into the hands of bureaucrats, analysts, and politicians-the danger to our rights and liberties increases.