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Ethical Dilemmas in Forensics

Most forensic “scientists” have little understanding of scientific methodology, do not design or conduct research (and do not know how to), often have not read the serious scientific literature beginning to emerge in their fields. . . . Scientific findings relevant to a given forensic science often are ignored in the conduct of everyday casework.
via: Salem Press Encyclopedia of Science
Abstract:
Although witnesses in American courtrooms are called upon to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, they may be enjoined from volunteering information. A witness’s individual sense of relevance must often bow to a court’s judgment. The legal system seeks truth, yet it sometimes defers to other values, such as fairness and confidentiality, and in general demands acceptance of formalized rules of procedure. In their capacity as experts, forensic scientists typically enjoy greater latitude than ordinary witnesses in expressing opinions and making judgments in the courtroom, but they too must operate within the often cumbersome and sometimes counterintuitive requirements of the “system” of “justice.”

Definition: Principles of conduct, moral duty, and obligation that guide individuals in their decisions and actions.

Significance: As scientists, forensic scientists have a professional obligation to seek and to speak the truth about matters within their purview. As participants in a forensic process, they are subject to additional, sometimes conflicting, duties. This tension generates many ethical dilemmas.

Although witnesses in American courtrooms are called upon to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, they may be enjoined from volunteering information. A witness’s individual sense of relevance must often bow to a court’s judgment. The legal system seeks truth, yet it sometimes defers to other values, such as fairness and confidentiality, and in general demands acceptance of formalized rules of procedure. In their capacity as experts, forensic scientists typically enjoy greater latitude than ordinary witnesses in expressing opinions and making judgments in the courtroom, but they too must operate within the often cumbersome and sometimes counterintuitive requirements of the “system” of “justice.”

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Entrance sign at the Society of Forensic Toxicologists (SOFT) Meeting, July 5, 2012. By Monika M. Wahi (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Forensic scientists are measured against a standard of professional integrity, although the professionalization of the scientific study of crime is far from complete. Professions are substantially self-regulating, usually through agreed-upon standards and codes of ethics, and this creates the need for them to articulate appropriate expectations and the responsibility of members of professions both to act correctly themselves and to provide appropriate correction for their errant colleagues. A case in point is William Tobin’s campaign against the chemical analysis of bullet lead, also known as comparative bullet-lead analysis (CBLA).

Tobin’s Exposure of CBLA

CBLA is a technique that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) used for four decades—the investigation of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 was an early use—to make cases against defendants when traditional firearms analysis (that is, examination of barrel rifling on bullets) was not possible. By measuring the proportions of seven trace elements (antimony, arsenic, bismuth, cadmium, copper, silver, and tin) found in the lead of a bullet in evidence, forensic scientists sought to establish the probability that the bullet came from the same provenance as a bullet in the suspect’s possession. The belief that the comparison of the chemical composition of bullets could connect two bullets rested on unexamined assumptions about the similarities and differences of the source lead from which the bullets were cast. FBI experts testified in thousands of cases that the facts ascertainable through CBLA established likely identity and therefore pointed toward the probable guilt of the accused. Sometimes, as in the case of Michael Behm, who was convicted of murder in 1997, CBLA provided essentially the only evidence of guilt.

In the 1990s, FBI metallurgist William Tobin began to question the validity of the technique. He felt strongly enough about the issue to research the matter, after his retirement in 1998, with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory metallurgist Erik Randich. They analyzed data from two lead smelters in Alabama and Minnesota and discovered that the FBI techniques could not distinguish batches of lead produced months apart. They also discovered that differences existed within single batches. Their research was published in Forensic Science International in July 2002.

Although he still defended the technique, the director of the FBI Laboratory requested that the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences review CBLA. In February 2004, the NRC report, titled Forensic Analysis: Weighing Bullet Lead Evidence, confirmed that only extremely limited claims could be made about the relationship between bullets based on CBLA. Given the NRC findings, a New Jersey appeals court overturned Behm’s conviction in March 2005. The results of the NRC study have obvious implications for many other cases as well.

In an article titled “Forensic Significance of Bullet Lead Compositions,” which appeared in the Journal of Forensic Sciences in March 2005, FBI research chemists Robert D. Koons and JoAnn Buscaglia argued that “compositional comparison of bullet lead provides a reliable, highly significant point of evidentiary comparison of potential sources of crime-related bullets.” In September of that year, however, the FBI announced that it would no longer use CBLA. (In a curious subsequent development, Tobin and a member of the NRC committee, Clifford Spiegelman, suggested that a reanalysis of the bullet fragments from the Kennedy assassination might be in order.)

An article published in New Scientist in April 2002, quoted Tobin as saying of the interpretation of bullet data based on CBLA, “It offended me as a scientist.” In fact, Tobin has a long record as a critic of FBI procedures he regards as bad science and of testimonial practices he regards as unwarranted by the scientific data. To complain about testimony that unreasonably goes beyond what the data can support is to respond equally to the demands of science and the demands of ethics. It is a feature of commonsense justice that the punishment should fit the crime, and a basic requirement of that, in turn, is that the people who are punished should be guilty. Violating that requirement is both bad science and bad ethics.

Joyce Gilchrist’s Tainted Evidence

Is it enough that the accused be guilty of some crime, or does it have to be the one in question? If the accused is guilty of the crime in question, does it matter whether the evidence actually shows that? The belief that one can convict the guilty by tweaking the evidence a little, or shading one’s testimony a bit, is among the most common sources of unethical (and, often enough, criminal) behavior on the part of forensic scientists. The cautionary tale of former Oklahoma City police Department forensic scientist Joyce Gilchrist probably falls into this category.

In May 2007, Curtis Edward McCarty, who was facing his third trial for a 1982 murder, was freed as the result of the improper handling and representation of hair evidence by Gilchrist, who apparently had tried to frame McCarty. The judge dismissed the charge despite her belief that McCarty was probably not completely innocent. This was merely the latest in a series of episodes involving Gilchrist.

Questions about the integrity of Gilchrist’s work began as early as January 1987, when a Kansas City colleague, John Wilson, complained about her to the Southwestern Association of Forensic Scientists, without result. In 1998, Robert Miller was exonerated after he had been convicted a decade earlier based in part on Gilchrist’s testimony regarding blood, semen, and hair evidence. In 1999, Gilchrist was criticized by a judge for having given false testimony (regarding semen evidence) in the rape/murder trial of Alfred Brian Mitchell in 1992. In the spring of 2000, Jeffrey Todd Pierce was ordered released after he had served a decade and a half for a rape he did not commit; he had been convicted based on Gilchrist’s testimony. In January 2001, Gilchrist was criticized for the various judicial reprimands and professional critiques her work had received. In August 2001, doubts were raised about the guilt of Malcolm Rent Johnson, who had been executed for a 1981 rape and murder; Johnson was convicted based on Gilchrist’s testimony.

A month later, in September 2001, Gilchrist was finally fired, after years of reputedly shoddy forensics work, including both mishandling and misrepresentation of evidence, on many cases in addition to those noted above. The world of criminal justice contains innumerable isolated instances of perverse idealism, self-serving cynicism, and simple incompetence, but Gilchrist is one of the most striking cases of flagrant disregard for ethics in the forensics community. Was she genuinely convinced of the guilt of those against whom she testified? (She was certainly persuasive to juries.) Was she cynically distorting her testimony, and the evidence, to help prosecutors gain convictions, or was she just incompetent?

Ethics of Competence

One may well agree with forensics ethicist Peter D. Barnett’s remark that “there is a certain baseline level of competence that every criminalist is expected to understand, and there are certain procedures and protocols that are so fundamental to the practice of criminalistics that failure to follow them is evidence of gross incompetence or malfeasance, which is unethical.” As Barnett himself notes, however, “in the practice of forensic science, the disparate educational and experiential backgrounds of workers in the field make determination of a baseline level of competence relatively difficult.”

This is a problem throughout the American criminal justice system. In June 2007, all sergeants in the New Orleans Police Department were required to attend a four-day seminar to learn how to improve their (and their subordinates’) writing of police reports. This was part of an attempt to smooth out conflicts between the department and the New Orleans district attorney’s office, which claimed that part of its difficulty in prosecuting criminals stemmed from “incomplete or vague reports” by officers. More generally, criminalists frequently lament that frontline officers are not more skilled in observing, protecting, collecting, and preserving crime scene evidence.

One certainly can (in theory) impose reasonable expectations about competence and development in forensic science. However, that is not made easy by the variety of educational backgrounds and practical experience of the people who actually work in the field. In an unflattering assessment published in 2005, Jane Campbell Moriarty and Michael J. Saks bluntly asserted that “in the forensic sciences . . . 96 percent of practitioners hold bachelor’s degrees or less.” They went on to note:

Most forensic “scientists” have little understanding of scientific methodology, do not design or conduct research (and do not know how to), often have not read the serious scientific literature beginning to emerge in their fields. . . . Scientific findings relevant to a given forensic science often are ignored in the conduct of everyday casework.

Moreover, as with the difficulty in defining the qualifications for expert testimony, the fact that crime fighting is not a natural kind of expertise has an impact. Almost any expert might be relevant to a criminal case, depending on circumstances. Given the diverse forms of knowledge relevant to the application of science to crime solving, and to the providing of suitable expert testimony, it may be that the only truly unifying factor is the application of the so-called scientific method, broadly understood as intellectual integrity—the determined effort, as physicist Richard P. Feynman put it, not to fool oneself (or others).

What is impressive about the case of William Tobin is his determination to ensure that his colleagues (or former colleagues) not testify to more than the data warrant, both out of scientific integrity and out of fairness to those whose lives are affected by what scientists say. What is appalling about the case of Joyce Gilchrist is the stubbornness of her effort to resist correction by colleagues or even by the seemingly obvious limits of the evidence itself. Sometimes the individual needs to correct the group, by exposing a bogus or complacent consensus; sometimes the group needs to correct the individual, by identifying willful deception or self-centered fantasy. Unfortunately, no formula exists to guarantee the right result, and that is why ethics remains a constant challenge to conscientious souls.

Ethical dilemmas in forensics

Related Information

  • American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS)
  • American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD)
  • Brain-wave scanners
  • Criminal personality profiling
  • DNA database controversies
  • Ethics of DNA analysis
  • Expert witnesses in trials
  • Forensic journalism
  • Innocence Project
  • Interrogation in criminal investigations
  • Training and licensing of forensic professionals
  • Truth serum in interrogation

Last reviewed: October 2016

Bibliography

Barnett, Peter D. Ethics in Forensic Science: Professional Standards for the Practice of Criminalistics. Boca Raton: CRC, 2001. Print.

Inman, Keith, and Norah Rudin. Principles and Practice of Criminalistics: The Profession of Forensic Science. Boca Raton: CRC, 2001. Print.

Lucas, Douglas M. “The Ethical Responsibilities of the Forensic Scientist: Exploring the Limits.” Journal of Forensic Sciences 34 (1989): 719–29. Print.

Macklin, Ruth. “Ethics and Value Bias in the Forensic Sciences.” Journal of Forensic Sciences 42 (1997): 1203–206. Print.

Moriarty, Jane Campbell, and Michael J. Saks. “Forensic Science: Grand Goals, Tragic Flaws, and Judicial Gatekeeping.” Judges’ Journal 44.4 (2005): 16–33. Print.

Peterson, Joseph L., and John E. Murdock. “Forensic Science Ethics: Developing an Integrated System of Support and Enforcement.” Journal of Forensic Sciences 34 (1989): 749–62. Print.

Derived from: “Ethics.” Forensic Science. Salem Press. 2009.

 

The science behind forensic toxicology

(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) Featured Image -- 122
WRITTEN BY: Katherine Ellen Foley

When we get our blood tested for cholesterol, it doesn’t take long to get the results. And if someone turns up at the hospital with what looks like a drug overdose, doctors can perform a quick test to verify their suspicions before treatment.
But unlike popular crime series like CSI, in which investigators whip up test results in the span of a quick montage, most forensic toxicology reports take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. This can be an excruciating wait after mysterious deaths and unsolved crimes. Why does it take so long?
Quartz spoke with Robert Middleberg, a toxicologist from NMS Labs in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, to find out.
Unlike other medical tests, where technicians isolate a specific compound like cholesterol, Middleberg says that you don’t always know what you’re looking for with forensic toxicology. “If you have a young person who is found dead in bed and there’s no history of drug abuse, you’re looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack,” he tells Quartz.
Testing times

After a body is found and an autopsy is performed by a pathologist, a separate lab will look for any environmental or pharmaceutical toxins that could be the killers. Without any clear clues, Middleberg says they will start testing for about 400 different substances. “We never know what we’re going to get,” he notes. It takes creative intuition to guide a cycle of testing and interpreting the results of tests to inform further testing.
Once an initial analysis returns a match for a particular substance, toxicologists must gather more specifics for the official report. Bodies that have already started decaying produce some toxins naturally, like ethanol (another name for the alcohol we drink) and cyanide, so toxicologists may have to perform additional tests to determine whether these played an active role in the cause of death.
All of this is further complicated by the fact that samples often arrive in less than ideal conditions. “If somebody is pulled out of the water after being missing for two or three weeks, these samples are very, very bad,” Middleberg says.
Unlike testing in an emergency room to confirm an overdose, pathology focuses on specifics. “For [medical toxicologists], sometimes it doesn’t really matter exactly what’s there,” Middleberg says. “In our world, the pathologists want to know exactly what it is and how much.”
Not every test is a complicated affair—despite all of the unknowns, Middleberg says that most labs try to have a turnaround time of 3-5 days for ruling things out and 7-10 days for identifying the specific factors leading to death.
Looking for clues

Like detectives, toxicologists look for clues to narrow down which tests are necessary. Knowing a subject’s history with drug or alcohol use obviously helps. There are also several somewhat macabre rules of thumb that tip toxicologists off to seek substances they wouldn’t normally test for:
Bright red blood as a sign of carbon monoxide poisoning
A green brain as a sign of exposure to hydrogen sulfide
Chocolate brown blood as a sign of excess methemoglobin poisoning
Hair falling out can be a sign of chronic arsenic or thallium poisoning
Blue skin can be a sign of gadolinium poisoning
Cocaine and methamphetamines can change the shape of the heart
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The Making of a Serial Killer / Child Molester: How to improve Police-Community relations?

What’s missing in how to improve police-community relations?

Written on 5/27/201529uwo0l

It’s amazing that no federal, state or municipal political leader; no police administrator; and certainly no media talking head has come forward to ask why only ONE side of the narrative of how police-community relationships should change.

The clear theme that is evident in ALL of these police-involved citizen deaths is that a history of bad life choices made by citizens creates a confluence of circumstances resulting in unintended consequences that unfortunately have led to the deaths of those portrayed in the media and by uninformed activists as “innocents.”

Bad parenting, no parenting, the irresponsibility of young males to impregnate young naive females and then abandon their parental responsibilities; failing to embrace the benefits of education; failure to develop meaningful job skills; drugs abuse; gang involvement; embracing and glorifying gangsta rappers who forward a destructive narrative of drugs, crime, and disrespect/violence against police.535cc702-6d8c-479b-96e8-65c869e0eb6d-original

Nearly every so-called “victim” of these recent police-involved deaths had a history of criminal arrests; were fleeing from detention and arrest on foot and/or in vehicles; had verbally and physically resisted detention or arrest; had assaulted police with weapons; were in possession of weapons; and/or were under the influence of drugs during the encounter and altercations.

Where is the public’s ownership of these poor life decisions? Why aren’t the parents, the political leaders, the community activists, the media talking heads, celebrities, nationally prominent athletes and the jet setting, race bating civil rights “activists” such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton extolling our children and citizens NOT to make these very obvious and poor life choices?

Why do some communities seem to have an overwhelming number of violent crimes, high levels of gang violence and drug abuse and interactions with police – and others either very low or almost no such instances? And why aren’t the obvious differences in these communities discussed?

Why are the false narratives such as “Hands up. Don’t shoot.” forwarded by the media, street activists, and our political leaders? Why are some segments of American society more intent upon assigning blame to the police; rather than accepting responsibility for their poor life choices?

The police are not psychologists, sociologists, criminologists and mental health practitioners. They are “First Responders.” Police respond to society’s problems; they can’t fix them. Police officers come from our communities; not from distant planets. They are us and we are them. Police get the training that YOU provide them with. Can they be better trained? Of course. Do they want and ask for better training and equipment? All the time, but YOU don’t want to pay for it. Do police need to be smart and better educated? Of course, but the problem is that agencies can’t find qualified officers because many who apply lack even the most basic education and personal skills to pass the tests to become a police officer. How are these issues the fault of police? Yet the public, politicians and the media consistently heap criticism on them.

If you want a dramatic national change in police-community relations, begin by first looking into the mirror as citizens and as a society and ask yourselves what are YOU willing to do to bring about this needed change? When will YOU begin accepting responsibility for YOUR actions? When you take this first step, you begin the journey upon the road towards positive change between yourselves and your police.

Dr. Ron Martinelli is a nationally renowned forensic criminologist and police expert with a national presence who investigates and independently reviews high-profile police-involved death cases at: martinelliandassociates.com

Dr. Ron Martinelli

Written on 5/27/2015

It’s amazing that no federal, state or municipal political leader; no police administrator; and certainly no media talking head has come forward to ask why only ONE side of the narrative of how police-community relationships should change.

The clear theme that is evident in ALL of these police-involved citizen deaths is that a history of bad life choices made by citizens creates a confluence of circumstances resulting in unintended consequences that unfortunately have led to the deaths of those portrayed in the media and by uninformed activists as “innocents.”

Bad parenting, no parenting, the irresponsibility of young males to impregnate young naive females and then abandon their parental responsibilities; failing to embrace the benefits of education; failure to develop meaningful job skills; drugs abuse; gang involvement; embracing and glorifying gangsta rappers who forward a destructive narrative of drugs, crime, and disrespect/violence against police.

Nearly every so-called “victim”…

View original post 438 more words

Forensic Psychology; The Cognitive Interviewing of witnesses

Psychlite

IMG_3167The Cognitive interview is derived from a range of sources of cognitive evidence relating mainly in the psychology of memory.  It was formulated by combining a number of techniques to assist in allowing an interviewer, such as a police officer, to provide conditions that would allow for the greatest level of accuracy possible, in essence a systematic set of tools to allow access to someone’s memory without inadvertently altering it or not gaining the full insight due to poor phrasing. The Cognitive Interview (CI) is primarily used for witnesses and victims as it needs to assume a willing party. Suspects cannot be relied upon to tell the truth for obvious reasons, hence alternative approaches have been created for their interviewing, such as the controversial  Reid Technique.  The Cognitive Interview can also be used with children as witnesses, which is a significant advancement in police methods as to the historical

View original post 65 more words

Medical Students Don’t Learn About Death

The following is part 1 in a series about death and dying in the medical context. This reflection was written by me earlier this year, before I sought out a Palliative Medicine elective. Part 2 will follow soon.

death_and_dying-300x239

Until the last week of my sub-internship, I had never had a patient die on my watch. To be sure, I had patients on the cusp of dying – and some who did die, of course, when I was already on another rotation. I have been around dying patients who were on our team but were being taken care of by the other resident/medical student. But never a patient of my own, until my final year of medical school.

I have never been sure whether to consider myself lucky or unlucky. Is that a morbid way to think about it? That maybe I was lucky (and my patients were lucky) that they didn’t die on my watch? That maybe I was lucky that I hadn’t had to experience those awful and heartbreaking conversations with a patient’s family. In the Russian roulette game of hospital care and medical education, I felt spared.

At the same time – and I feel almost selfish for saying this – I considered myself unlucky. I had never been around a dying patient. I had never known what it meant to take care of someone in their final days. I had never had the opportunity to learn and grow as a person and a physician from those difficult moments.

My first clinical experience with death was during my sub-internship, with a woman with end-stage ovarian cancer. I had scrubbed in on her most recent debulking surgery, and I had followed her post-operatively. Though her overall prognosis was poor, she was progressing well after this most recent operation. Her pain and abdominal bloating were slightly improved. She was even about ready to go to a rehab facility; all the arrangements had been made for transfer.

But then she started failing – started not being able to get out of bed. Started being more confused about herself and her surroundings. Started sleeping more of the day. She was physically and mentally breaking down. The cancer burden was overwhelming her body, and she was not able to hold up.

This experience was undoubtedly sad, but the experience for me was compounded by the suddenness and relative unexpectedness of it all. “She was not dying when I met her!” I naively believed.

She did have terminal cancer, after all.

The emotional impact was heightened for me because of the fact that only one of her family members was with her until the end. I felt bad that nobody she knew from outside the hospital was there for; yet I hope our medical team was able to be a somewhat second family to her in her final days. I visited in on her, spoke with her relative, did everything non-medical I thought to try to make her comfortable (I didn’t know much).

When she passed, I imagined the briefest moment of stillness amongst the chaos, but the hospital quickly moved on. There was no closure, no reflection, almost no conversation. When the other team members who had helped take care of her found out the news, there was a general statement of sadness, but then it was back to work as usual. There was more work to be done, other patients to take care of.

I heard that the nursing and floor teams held a small commemoration for our patient later that week (as they do for any patient on the cancer floor who dies). I wasn’t aware it was happening, and I’m positive none of the medical team was present.

Do doctors not mourn, too? Don’t we all need a moment to breathe, to reflect on our relationship with that patient, and to acknowledge our emotions about their passing?

Why don’t they prepare us for this?

markmdmph

The following is part 1 in a series about death and dying in the medical context. This reflection was written by me earlier this year, before I sought out a Palliative Medicine elective. Part 2 will follow soon.

death_and_dying-300x239

Until the last week of my sub-internship, I had never had a patient die on my watch. To be sure, I had patients on the cusp of dying – and some who did die, of course, when I was already on another rotation. I have been around dying patients who were on our team but were being taken care of by the other resident/medical student. But never a patient of my own, until my final year of medical school.

View original post 540 more words

FBI Upgrades Animal Cruelty To A Felony

Posted by: James Lautner, Senior Cats Editor on April 7, 2015 in Editors Choice, News 10885402_1027032530656996_5962253481430927823_n

A report from WMC Action 5 FBI Raises Animal Cruelty to Top Tier Crime reports on how animal cruelty has been raised to a crime against society at the same level as arson, burglary and kidnapping.

A Huffington Post article more fully explains the implications of this:

Young people who torture and kill animals are prone to violence against people later in life if it goes unchecked, studies have shown. A new federal category for animal cruelty crimes will help root out those pet abusers before their behavior worsens and give a boost to prosecutions, an animal welfare group says.

For years, the FBI has filed animal abuse under the label “other” along with a variety of lesser crimes, making cruelty hard to find, hard to count and hard to track. The bureau announced this month that it would make animal cruelty a Group A felony with its own category — the same way crimes like homicide, arson and assault are listed.

“It will help get better sentences, sway juries and make for better plea bargains,” said Madeline Bernstein, president and CEO of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles and a former New York prosecutor.

The category also will help identify young offenders, and a defendant might realize “if he gets help now, he won’t turn into Jeffrey Dahmer,” she said.

Law enforcement agencies will have to report incidents and arrests in four areas: simple or gross neglect; intentional abuse and torture; organized abuse, including dogfighting and cockfighting; and animal sexual abuse, the FBI said in statement. The bureau didn’t answer questions beyond a short statement.

Unfortunately, it will be January 2016 before this vital data on animal cruelty will even start to be collected – apparently it takes that long to put all the necessary systems in place.

This change of status is clearly a step in the right direction in the battle against animal cruelty. It seems to us that legislators still have much work to do in order to make a real difference.

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