Justice Today

Building More Reliable Forensic Sciences (Part One)

March 27, 2023 National Institute of Justice Season 1 Episode 30
Justice Today
Building More Reliable Forensic Sciences (Part One)
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

The scientific basis of several aspects of forensic evidence was first called into question by the 2009 National Research Council report. That report had an immediate impact on law enforcement, crime labs, courtrooms, and the broader scientific community. 

David Stoney, Chief Scientist and head of Stoney Forensic in Chantilly, VA, and Greg Dutton, program manager and physical scientist with NIJ’s Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences, join host Jim Dawson to discuss the concerted effort in many fields of forensics — ballistics, trace evidence, fingerprints, and more — to improve the science underlying forensic evidence in the wake of the 2009 report. Read the transcript.

Listen to Part Two of the conversation. 

Research and Resources from the National Institute of Justice:

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SPEAKER 1: Welcome to "Justice Today," the official podcast of the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice programs, where we shine a light on cutting-edge research and practices and offer an in-depth look at what we’re doing to meet the biggest public safety challenges of our time. Join us as we explore how funded science and technology help us achieve strong communities.

JIM DAWSON: Hello. I’m Jim Dawson, the Senior Science Writer with the National Institute of Justice. And today, we’re doing a podcast on the long transition to a more reliable forensic science. With us is David Stoney, who holds a Ph.D. in Forensic Science and is the Chief Scientist and head of Stoney Forensic in Chantilly, Virginia. How you doing, David?

DAVID STONEY: Doing very well. Thank you, Jim.

JAMES DAWSON: Also, with this us is Greg Dutton, a Ph.D. chemist and the Program Manager and Physical Scientist with NIJ's Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences. How are you, Greg?

GREG DUTTON: Hey, Jim. Happy to be with you.

JIM DAWSON: To get into this subject, The question about the scientific validity of forensic evidence was first raised--it’s an issue that was first raised back in 2009 with the National Research Council report. They questioned a lot of the different fields--ballistics, trace evidence, fingerprints--saying the science underlying those fields might not actually be scientific. And that report had impact on law enforcement, crime labs, courtrooms, and broader scientific community. I know NIJ has supported efforts since that report to look at the science and improve it, and a number of research grants have gone out, including several to David Stoney. Greg, if you could talk about that a little bit, I would appreciate it--NIJ's concern about this and involvement over the last decade.

GREG DUTTON: Yeah, sure. So, the 2009 National Academies Report was a major landmark for the forensic science community in general and certainly for NIJ. So, any--any listeners in forensic science immediately know what I’m talking about, but just for the others, this was the kind of a blue-ribbon panel that was put together to assess the state of forensic sciences in the U.S. in general. And they issued a report that had a number of recommendations and many critical comments, recommendations ranging from standards training to research, which certainly hits NIJ. And so, that--that report...one of the specific recommendations was to support research in especially forensic disciplines that traditionally have been qualitative assessments by human examiners. And it called for  more research into the foundational accuracy and reliability of those methods and development of more quantitative methods. 

And so, that had a major impact on NIJ. So it brought about the creation of the office that I’m in at NIJ that focuses on forensic science, and it prompted a shift in funding at NIJ for research. Before that, you know, we were really, primarily, in forensic science doing forensic DNA research. And after the 2009 report, we made sure that we had ongoing research support for these other forensic—forensic disciplines. And David Stoney, I know, has been supported by his research by NIJ for a number of years and certainly since the 2009 report, so I’m happy to be talking to him today.

JIM DAWSON: David, I know in our past discussions about forensic evidence and the kind of work that you do that you’ve said that there—the changes or improvements in forensic sciences are on a continuum, they’re kind of ongoing. There isn’t an end point. Could you give us a little bit of your view on how things are improving, where we stand, and how they’re improving with more research being done?

DAVID STONEY: Well, certainly. Well, one thing, just to start with the 2009 report, that was a major impetus to change. But then since that time, as you mentioned by way of characterizing it, is that we’re on a continuum of improvement, rather than looking for a particular end point. And there are two things that are important. I think they’re both central aspects to scientific practice, and they’re two things that sort of are leading to ongoing improvement in forensic sciences. 

The first is scientific observation. That is, what we’re doing now is we’re seeking out and recognizing areas that need improvement. So, rather than just say, “We’re—we’re doing everything fine, we’re doing our best, we’re using the money well,” what we’re doing is looking proactively and being receptive and open to recognizing errors or weaknesses and seeing these as an opportunity to correct and improve ourselves. The second thing, which is also a main part of science, is to test what we’re doing. So, if we have something that we recognize as an area where we’re weak, we have a response to that, which is to try something new, but not just throw it into place, but to test it. And as a response to identification of errors or weaknesses, we change our approach, and we test it. 

So, together, these two things, recognizing weaknesses and testing solutions are leading to an ongoing system of improvement. So, I think it’s sort of looking the wrong direction to say, “Are we there yet?” “Things were wrong. Are they right yet?” Rather, what we’re doing is—we have already recognized that we need a system for ongoing improvement and we’ve implemented it.

JIM DAWSON: Ok. And, you know, I know the history of forensic science goes back to the early 1900s, and it’s been a sort of isolated, insular field for much of the century, but the broader scientific community’s involvement, I think you have talked about in the past about that being key to changing the attitude in forensic science and giving it more validity. So, could you talk a little bit about the involvement of more scientists, more disciplines, that kind of thing in forensic science, per se?

DAVID STONEY: Oh, absolutely. The—the source of why this is important is really, if you look at how forensic science developed historically, the crime laboratories in the United States developed in response to law enforcement issues and recognition in celebrated cases such as The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, for example, that we needed crime labs. And so, an individual jurisdiction would recognize the need and fund a laboratory and bring in someone to start it as a laboratory director. 

Now, that’s in contrast to how almost all other professions have developed. Other professions typically develop out of an existing practice, a guild of some sort, and then that leads to standardization of education, professional degrees, certifications, licensure. And academics are specifically involved in that, and they debate it. And guilds, and like most professions, they want to protect and guard the entry into their profession. And that’s what leads to academic control and licensure and the like. 

Well, forensic science didn’t do that. We developed without academic control, and there were isolated centers, crime laboratories, that were controlled by laboratory directors. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s bad, and many of the laboratories are exemplary. But it is different, and it depends on individuals leading laboratories. It doesn’t have the benefit of the community or broader scientific input. 

So, other scientists, when they looked at forensic science before that report, they viewed it as an applied science. "It’s nothing new here, nothing worthy of academic, ivory tower kind of study, and it's not that interesting." They simply viewed it as science being applied to problems that the courts or law enforcement care about, and the 2009 report in a very public way pointed out, "Hey, there’s something special here." Now, the initial focus it took was, "Look, they’re not doing science," but later it developed into what I think is a very progressive and very useful change in how both forensic science works and how scientists on the outside view forensic science.

JIM DAWSON: Ok, thanks. I know crime labs--you were talking about those--they’re still stressed. A lot of them don’t have enough money. They--some are big and organized, some are not, and there are different standards all over the country. They focus on different things. How are they reacting to the changes that are going on and this kind of effort to bring more data, more science, that kind of thing to science research? Are you getting resistance to that? Sort of what’s the picture, if you’re aware of what’s going on out there?

DAVID STONEY: Well, when any profession has a major change in it, there’s--there’s resistance. There’s resistance that comes from a place that there was something going on before and there were special problems in forensic science, and these were being addressed. They were being addressed in a way that wasn’t necessarily ideal, but it was very effective, and it wasn’t bad. There were improvements to be made, and if suddenly there’s input from the outside, which is very good, some of the changes are—well, they’re--they're quick demands and they’re questioning. So, it’s natural that there’s some resistance of--to that type of change. 

But I don’t think the resistance is fundamental. I think both sides, those critics of crime labs and those in the crime labs, are both interested in the same thing, which is improvement. And I think that now things are in a way where there isn’t a fundamental resistance. I think it’s a matter of implementing changes and both sides--if they want to call them sides--are seeing improvement.

JIM DAWSON: The federal effort to move forensic science forward has been substantial over the last decade, particularly since 2014 when the Organization of Scientific Area Committees was established to create standards for forensic science that’s administered by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST. How critical is it to have federal organizations developing standards for forensic science?

DAVID STOREY: The most extraordinary thing that OSAC accomplished, in my view, and of course, the purpose is to generate the standards, and they are doing that, and they are important. But what they did was, they brought together practitioners with their critics and with the broader scientific community and with judges and investigators who are using forensic science. And, as a whole, that group of folks grappled with issues, and the people got to know one another. So, that takes it from a posture of being defensive and reacting to your critics in a--in a very narrow way to one of trying to understand where they’re coming from. And that’s the environment that OSAC created. And from that, then, it’s an ideal place to start talking about standardization. What should your procedures include and what kinds of things should they address so that everybody’s happy with them?

JIM DAWSON: Thanks for listening to Part 1 of this episode and please stay tuned for Part 2 of our conversation about forensic evidence. 

SPEAKER 2: To learn more about today’s topic or about NIJ, visit the links in the episode description and join us for new episodes every month. 

Opinions or points of view expressed in this episode represent a consensus of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. Any products and manufacturers discussed in this episode are presented for informational purposes only and do not constitute product approval or endorsement by the U.S. Department of Justice.