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Perspective On: A Forensic Crime Lab

The National Academy of Sciences has unanimously recommended 13 measures to address problems plaguing crime-lab forensics, including a call for massive forensic-science research sponsored and funded by a science-based agency outside the Department of Justice.

by Bernard B. Tulsi

Rapidly Growing Forensic Laboratory System Could Use Overhaul

The National Academy of Sciences has unanimously recommended 13 measures to address problems plaguing crime-lab forensics, including a call for massive forensic-science research sponsored and funded by a science-based agency outside the Department of Justice.

“With the exception of nuclear DNA analysis… no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or sources.” This indictment encapsulates the findings of a congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Science (NAS), on the state of forensic laboratory science in the United States.

Citing fragmentation and scant evidence to support the reliability of many of the techniques used in the forensic laboratory system in the US, the NAS report called for comprehensive reform and new research. Upon the release of the report in early 2009, a statement from the National Research Council noted that rigorous and mandatory certification programs for forensic scientists were lacking, as were strong standards and protocols for analyzing and reporting evidence. The Council’s release stated, “… there is a dearth of peer-reviewed, published studies establishing the scientific bases and reliability of many forensic methods. Moreover, many forensic science labs are underfunded, understaffed, and have no effective oversight.”

Seeking to put the report’s findings into context, the New York Times noted, “Forensic evidence that has helped convict thousands of defendants for nearly a century is often the product of shoddy scientific practices that should be upgraded and standardized, according to accounts of a draft report by the nation’s pre-eminent scientific research group.” The newspaper dubbed the NAS report, “… a sweeping critique of many forensic methods that the police and prosecutors rely on, including fingerprinting; firearms identification; and analysis of bite marks, blood spatter, hair, and handwriting.”

The story right now regarding forensic labs is the February 2009 National Academy of Sciences report,” says Thomas L. Bohan, past president, American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) and director of MTC, a forensics consultancy based in Peaks Island, Maine. “Among other things, it led immediately to the creation of a new committee in the Obama White House.”

Writing in the March 2010 issue of the Journal of Forensic Sciences, Bohan noted, “Shortly, a bill will be introduced in the Senate Judiciary Committee addressing the problems cited by the NAS. Concurrently, the White House Subcommittee on Forensic Science, staffed and led by a number of AAFS fellows, is directly tackling key threshold tasks such as ‘gap studies’ to determine where the omissions in validation lie with respect to each of the questioned forensic methods.”

In a letter to the editor of Newsweek magazine published April 12, 2010, Bohan wrote, “Based on my life as a physicist and an attorney, including 35 years of applying science to forensic questions, I believe that all of the NAS report’s assertions are correct, an opinion in which I am not alone. Scientists across the country engaged in, or familiar with, forensic work agree that most of the forensic methods relied on by crime laboratories have neither been validated nor have had their error rates measured.”

Reviewing the NAS report, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward” in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, Bohan stated, “Make no mistake. This book [report] is a harsh indictment of forensic science as practiced by law enforcement agencies and prosecutors in the United States; it is not an everything-is-pretty-good-but-let’s- try-to-make-it-even-better assessment, in spite of the reference to ‘strengthening.’

“And it is not a pronouncement from the ivory tower, but rather the product of a multi-year study by a diverse group of legal scholars and scientists selected by the country’s most respected scientific organization: the National Academy of Sciences. This group unanimously recommended 13 measures to address the problems it asserted have long plagued crime-lab forensics, recommendations that included a call for massive forensic science research sponsored and funded by a science-based agency outside the Department of Justice, and an exhortation that all the nation’s forensic laboratories be independent of law-enforcement agencies. In September 2009, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences adopted a public position statement endorsing all 13 of the recommendations.”

Turning to some of the practical contributors to the woes in the forensic world, Brian Wraxall, chief forensic serologist with the Richmond, Calif.-based Serological Research Institute (SERI), a nonprofit private forensic lab, says that there has always been a series of problems— such as pressure on staff, lack of leadership, huge backlogs, and severe financial constraints. “The backlog, particularly now with DNA, is huge. While the federal government is funding some of that work, there is still a lot that does not get done. In general, lab workers do not have the time to complete everything they have to do. If they are given 20 items of evidence to analyze, in some cases they may do only a couple of them because of time constraints.”

He adds that high-volume, high-pressure working conditions are not a good scenario for forensic work. Funding is always short, and as a result there is always a shortage of qualified staff. “There is bigger staff turnover now than when I started. This means that you train someone, and before you know it they are gone, leaving you to start over,” says Wraxall. Numerous additional requirements now make it difficult to prepare workers for the forensic field in a short time, he says.

“Even if you hired a worker who has accumulated some experience in another lab, it will be necessary to train him or her in your methods and procedures because there is no standardization within the scientific community of forensics. But sometimes you have to be concerned about standardization.

“The NAS report raises the question of standardization. The problem is that when you do that, it takes away the opportunity for people to use their brain, take the initiative, and make use of their full abilities,” says Wraxall.

Turning to the question of leadership, Wraxall says that senior lab management focus less on the proper execution of projects and more on throughput. “That’s not smart, because when you start counting numbers and counting heads, you tend to lose sight of the need to develop and put out useful evidence.” One result is that far too many cases are not addressed properly because of the backlog burden and the pressure on staff, he adds.

The forensic laboratory system in the US consists of both public and private labs. The most well-known public labs are those of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Throughout the country, there are local public labs operated mostly by police departments and staffed by state employees. Private labs also play a crucial role in the delivery of forensic services, and like private labs in other fields, they are organized on the fee-for-service business model. Most of the private labs in the US are classified as small, with just a few large and medium-sized operations.

“Private forensic labs get their samples mostly from public laboratories or law enforcement authorities. Upon completing the analytical work, the labs invoice the state or local government. The work itself is similar in private and public laboratories,” says Karl Reich, chief scientific officer, Independent Forensics (Hillside, Ill.).

Both in the US and around the world, forensic laboratories are on a growth trend, according to Reich. He notes that there has been considerable expansion in forensic laboratory services in many states. Many more private labs were launched over the last several years as well. But there have also been a number of mergers with larger labs or outright closures. “The service model for forensic labs is tough,” he says. At the moment, forensic laboratories make up less than one percent of the total laboratory universe in the US, and the whole area is tiny compared to the full span of medical or diagnostic laboratories in existence today, Reich estimates.

“The way we do DNA forensics now did not exist just 15 years ago, so that area has grown from almost zero to an impressive size.” He sees continued growth overseas, as many countries still do not have forensic services. “No country can afford to be without these services, especially DNA databases for forensic investigations,” says Reich.

Forensic labs are not FDA-regulated, and in comparison to regulated labs, the accreditation that forensic labs need is not very stringent, though it is fairly onerous, according to Reich. Accreditation requires an annual inspection, and external and internal audits every other year, and certain staff members have to take external proficiency examinations, usually two times a year on average.

“In general, but not 100 percent of the time, work that is admissible in court has to come from an accredited lab. There are variations in the statute from state to state. For DNA, however, all the labs have to be accredited—that is not the case for other forensic subdisciplines,” says Reich.

Most private forensic labs are broadly divided into the lab portion that includes analysis, and the support portion that includes office and sometimes sales functions. The lab section is operated by analysts and supervisors who execute and monitor the work, respectively. Both groups generally report to a lab director who is responsible for the general management of the facility. Reich’s lab, Independent Forensics, which focuses on DNA analyses, has roughly this structure with one key difference: it also has a section that carries out R&D, which does not have any direct DNA analysis functions.

“This is a bit unusual compared to other forensic labs. Our R&D section develops new products. In forensics investigations, there is often the need to determine if saliva, semen, blood, or urine is present. So our R&D section developed four specific lateral flow strip tests for the forensic identification of those body fluids,” says Reich.

The dominant focus of most forensic labs today is DNA analysis. “The DNA sections of forensic labs receive the most funding, are allocated the most space, and receive the most attention and publicity. That’s inescapable,” says Reich.

Around 1995, the FBI settled on 13 genetic systems that would constitute a full profile that could be entered into a database, which could then be searched for a match. “The success of this approach has really taken hold in the US, and it is having an impact worldwide,” says Reich. The only analytical instrumentation currently available for this is capillary electrophoresis from Applied Biosystems, and the process reagents are made only by Applied Biosystems [now part of Thermo Fisher Scientific] and Promega.

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology is still very important in the field, according to Wraxall. Both Reich and Wraxall agree that forensic labs do not develop or use technology as fast as other research sectors. “Crime labs in general tend not to do the research. They generally pick up research done by others, such as Applied Biosystems or Promega. Applied Biosystems is deeply involved with new technologies and is constantly at the forefront of developing new systems capable of using smaller amounts of samples and materials. We do have the capabilities to solve specific problems in the forensic area, but, by and large, we are reliant on outside research,” says Wraxall.

“Another reason is the requirement to do validation. If we developed a completely new system, we would have to do all the external validation, and then all other users will have to do internal validation—external carries many more criteria than internal. So most forensic labs allow others to do the external validation and publish the results. They then do their internal validation and incorporate the system into their casework,” says Wraxall. He adds that most crime labs have huge backlogs and generally have no time to engage in research.

Still, non-DNA methods still enjoy considerable application in the forensic world. The main instrumentation for ballistics testing continues to be the microscope. Toxicology analyses rely on gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy, and document analyses use microscopy and scanning techniques.

To be sure, the social impact of forensic work can be compelling. “Working in this field, you get to develop evidence that helps to convict the guilty as well as exonerate the innocent, and that is a unique aspect of this field of work,” says Reich.

In the future, Reich perceives more consolidation because of the service model that dominates the private labs. “It is harder for smaller labs to win state contracts; the bigger labs have an inherent advantage. There will also be some severe fights over new technology, because the field has not modernized. For sure, standards will be much more regulated in the future.”

Wraxall says that while some of the regulations and accreditations are fine, some can be “a waste of time.” We need to develop systems for proper training, and to ensure that workers perform in an environment in which they are not under constant pressure to get results out against horrendous deadlines, he says. “The only way to do that is to employ adequate numbers of people and train them well.”