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What the NAS Report Doesn’t Say

I am going to get to the subject of what’s going on with ASCLD, ASCLD/LAB, and AAFS, but first I want to address the paranoia and end-of-the world hysteria that has gripped the forensic science community (those who are paying attention, anyway) regarding the NAS Report.

I say those who are paying attention because I have had conversations with some forensic scientists who, after a couple of minutes, confess, “Actually, I don’t know much about it and I haven’t really been paying attention.” Others only know what they have been told by those who are losing their ever lovin’ minds over whatever they have been told by someone else who wants them to lose their ever lovin’ mind over the damn thing.

The NAS Report does not say that forensic science is invalid. I have heard numerous forensic scientists and prosecutors say that the NAS Report is an attack on forensic science. It is not. I have heard more than one firearms examiner say that the NAS Report states that firearms and tool mark analysis (and other disciplines of forensic science) are invalid. It clearly does not. The report clearly states that “the scientific knowledge base for toolmark and firearms analysis is fairly limited” and more research needs to be done. It does not state that the work that we do is invalid. There is a huge difference between those two statements.

Why would any forensic scientist fight a report that repeatedly says “give them more money and resources to prove that they are doing their jobs right”? That’s stupid. Stop it.

In terms of the various fields of forensic science, the NAS Report recommends that Congress provide funding and resources for research to be done to support forensic science. Period. The NAS Report does not recommend that any part of forensic science be shut down until more research is done. If you aren’t going to take the time to read the report for yourself, at least read my posts summarizing what the damn thing says.

The NAS Report does not attack forensic science. Defense attorneys attack forensic science because it is often used against them, because forensic scientists often do a poor job of explaining themselves, because defense attorneys are not given equal access to forensic science resources, and because there have been too many high profile instances of people working as forensic scientists who shouldn’t be and who screw it up for the rest of us.

Prosecutors have an entire criminal justice system that brings them everything they need for their case- evidence, analysis, witnesses. If they need something else, they pick up the phone and call the crime lab or the police department and tell them they need more. Defense attorneys have none of that. So stop acting so surprised that defense attorneys are left to question what the prosecution brings to court.

Well, how much research is enough? When will it stop?

Is that a real question? These people want to give us money to make our science into a broader, more respectable field, one that can’t be reasonably questioned, with more research, more support, actual college degree programs for each discipline and there are people who want to know “when will it be enough?”

No one is going to lose their job because forensic science starts getting more funding for research. Let me rephrase that… no one who is willing to practice their science correctly, and you know who you are, is going to lose their job because forensic science starts getting the attention it deserves.

There isn’t going to be an army of pointy-headed research scientists who come in and redefine the field of firearms and tool mark identification or blood stain interpretation or friction ridge analysis. That is not what they want to do. That is not what the NAS Report instructs them to do.

You are not going to pry a research scientist with a PhD kicking and screaming from their warm university chair, where they make their own hours and have their own lab, only to plunk them down in a crime lab where they have to work for someone with a room temperature IQ whose greatest accomplishment in life is that they passed a civil service exam that allows them to force real scientists to focus on production stats, not science, and on keeping track of their 15 minute breaks. Oh, joy.

People don’t get PhDs in biochemistry or neuroscience because they think they are going to do 2 or 3 research projects that are going to answer every question that needs to be answered and that will be it. It won’t be that way with forensic science, either. While research projects have a start and an end (eventually), research just keeps going and builds on itself.

If you want to see what a real body of research looks like, go to this website and, in the search bar at the top of the page, search the term “neurotoxicology.” That’s the field I was doing research in before I came over to forensics. That’s not even that specialized. Try “methlymercury.” That’s one neurotoxin. Or “polychlorinated biphenyls.” See how many articles you come up with.

But what about Defense Attorneys? They ask me hard questions!

What about ‘em? It is a defense attorney’s job to give their client a vigorous defense. Most of the time forensic scientists are testifying as a witnesses for the prosecution. If you are there to give testimony that is likely to be used to send someone to prison or death row, you should be prepared to be vigorously cross-examined and have everything you say called into question.

If you are personally insulted by this process, you are either a medical examiner, you have something to hide, or you are in some other way delusional about your personal importance to this world. If you are merely intimidated, congratulations. That is a perfectly normal response.

From the moment that most people walk into a crime lab their first day on the job, testifying in court is portrayed as a nerve-wracking experience to be avoided at all costs. It combines public speaking, which most people are terrified of, with the near-guarantee of being publicly attacked while wearing uncomfortable clothes. I know a lot of people who are terrified of it. I know a few who avoid doing case work just so they won’t have to testify.

While I completely understand the nervousness and anxiety that comes with testifying, what I don’t understand is the reaction that I have heard from some forensic scientists that they are insulted that they and their science are being attacked.

What many forensic scientists seem to have lost sight of is that the end result of what they do every day is likely going to be used to try to put someone in prison. The discomfort and anxiety that a forensic scientist has in preparing for a Daubert hearing or in going through a particularly nasty cross-examination is being treated as if it is superior to the rights of the accused to a fair trial.

Someone is going to say “What about the rights of the victim?” That’s what the prosecutor is there for. A forensic scientist is supposed to be objective. It is not your job to make the prosecutor’s case. It is not the defense attorney’s job to show whatever you think is proper respect for your credentials.

It is your job to be objective in offering testimony. It is also your job to be able to explain yourself in court. You speak for the evidence… not for prosecutors, not for law enforcement, and, no, not even for victims. You speak for the evidence. The minute you start “hiding behind a prosecutor” or seeing yourself as an avenging angel, you just started the countdown to becoming the next Fred Zain or Joyce Gilchrist or Christy Kim or David Kofoed or Duane Deaver or James Ribe.

If you overreach in your effort to please prosecutors or because you think you’re speaking for the victim, you will end up screwing up a case and being the reason a guilty person walks and causes more harm. Or you will be responsible for sending an innocent person to prison and that person will be a victim of you. Think that doesn’t happen? Click on each of those names up there.

If you aren’t comfortable with your testimony or with answering tough questions, that’s something you need to work on. Plain and simple. You need to be comfortable explaining yourself no matter how a question is asked.

So start practicing and getting comfortable speaking in public. Starting singing out loud in the lab. Badly. Start practicing your testimony with others in your lab. Don’t be easy on each other. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Face your fears, because they aren’t going away.

What All The Fuss Is Really About

The fact of the matter is the NAS Report calls for more research to “[establish] the scientific bases demonstrating the validity of forensic methods.” (Recommendation 3). There is a boatload of discussion leading up to this recommendation in which the NAS Committee says it wants this research done specifically to help the forensic science community. Here’s part of it (emphasis added):

Little rigorous systematic research has been done to validate the basic premises and techniques in a number of forensic science disciplines. The committee sees no evident reason why conducting such research is not feasible; in fact, some researchers have proposed research agendas to strengthen the foundations of specific forensic disciplines. Much more federal funding is needed to support research in forensic science and forensic pathology in universities and in private laboratories committed to such work.

The forensic science and medical examiner communities (see Chapter 9) will be improved by opportunities to collaborate with the broader science and engineering communities. In particular, collaborative efforts are urgently needed to: (1) develop new technical methods or provide in-depth grounding for advances developed in forensic science; (2) provide an interface between the forensic science and medical examiner communities and basic sciences; and (3) create fertile grounds for discourse among the communities. The proposed National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS) should recommend, implement, and guide strategies for supporting such initiatives.

What part of that is an attack on forensic science? None of it. And you can see that the report also suggests that forensic scientists be included in any research efforts. Anyone who claims otherwise has been given bad information or has a bad agenda.

I do a fair amount of research before I print most things here, but I think I can say without hesitation that every crime lab in this country requires that all permanent hires must be at least 18 years of age. Considering that, I would like to suggest that we all put on our big girl panties and start acting like adults about this. Stop freaking out and start looking at things rationally.

Forensic science and forensic scientists are not being attacked by the NAS Report. Defense attorneys are still just doing their jobs. More research needs to be done and there are people who want to give us the money and resources to grow our field into what it should be.

And there are people who lurk in the world of forensic science who want to prevent that because it doesn’t serve their purposes.

There are 13 recommendations in the NAS Report. Much of the money and power would go toward building research and support programs for forensic scientists. A little bit of the money would go toward establishing an accreditation and certification system. A real one that actually finds, solves, and prevents problems.

But some idiots think that if they could convince congress that no research needed to be done, then all the money could go to accreditation. So maybe if they just scare the living shit out everybody and make them think that the NAS Report is an attack on forensic science…

I just wonder where those idiots think all that money would go.