by Jan Burke
Almost all Americans know something about forensic science, or think they do. What they may not realize is that in the U.S. forensic science is at a critical crossroads, and needs our attention, concern, and support.
Let’s take a quick look back at how we’ve arrived at our current fascination with forensic science.
Twenty-five years ago, in 1986, DNA profiling was used for the first time in a criminal case, to identify the man who had raped and murdered two young girls in a English village. As events unfolded, it also became the first time DNA testing led to the release of an innocent suspect from custody: a young man, Richard Buckland, had confessed to one of the murders, but not the second. It was while trying to prove Buckland was guilty of the second murder that police called upon DNA scientist Sir Alec Jeffreys for help. Instead Buckland was cleared, and eventually Colin Pitchfork, a man who had tried to evade DNA testing in the case, was convicted of the crimes.
Within a year, DNA testing would be accepted as evidence in a U.S. courtroom, but it would be after the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial before many Americans became aware of it. Seeing how little understanding the public had of DNA and other forensic science capabilities, the creators of Medical Detectives, later renamed The Forensic Files, developed a program that was both entertaining and informative. It first aired in 1996, and its popularity led to the development of other forensic science true crime shows.
Of course, crime labs and medical examiners were far from unknown to us. Long before these programs aired, novels of crime fiction had included forensic science in one way or another — some will point to Sherlock Holmes, who used methods even police had not yet adopted. Others note that Whose Body? — Dorothy L. Sayers’ first novel, published in 1923 — included a relatively detailed autopsy scene.
Fictional forensic scientists had also appeared on television — in shows such as Quincy and any number of police dramas. The latter often included scenes with beakers, Bunsen burners, and a thin guy wearing a white coat and heavy-rimmed glasses. It took CSI to really make forensic science sexy.
No other television show has had a greater impact on American viewers’ fascination with forensic science than CSI. Premiering in 2000, it quickly rose in popularity and its franchise has now dominated ratings for more than a decade. CSI, Bones, NCIS and other dramas have led to a skyrocketing interest in the identification, recovery, and examination of evidence by scientists.
There have been some real benefits. One is that more young women are taking courses in science and math. Another is that (aside from swerves from reality for drama’s sake) the public has seen the potential of forensic science at its best. Most of all, we’ve had the enjoyment of watching these high-tech detective adventure stories.
The reality of the American crime lab, however, is a far cry from the futuristic scientific palaces seen on television. Backlogs of untested evidence are overwhelming, causing priorities to be set for “readiness for trial” rather than for solving cases. Most labs are understaffed. Money for training, research, and attendance at professional conferences is hard to come by. Many labs are housed in aging facilities that were built for other purposes. Space is limited, and sometimes labs are lacking in important workplace safety features. What takes an hour on television may sit untested in a lab for a year or more.
Jurisdictions vary tremendously in the quality of the training, resources, and capabilities of their crime labs. Not all labs are accredited or follow quality control standards set by professional organizations. Questions are being raised about the credentials of those who have testified, about the scientific independence of labs under the control of law enforcement agencies, and about the scientific validity of some areas of forensic science.
Death investigation is in a particular mess. We are a country with a patchwork system of coroners and medical examiners offices. Neither “coroner” nor “medical examiner” means the same thing everywhere — each jurisdiction decides what those terms mean in that place. Many coroners and medical examiners have no forensic training whatsoever. There are no uniform requirements, and in many jurisdictions a coroner need only be eighteen years of age, a citizen, and without a felony record to hold office.
Coroners are often elected or appointed without regard to investigative expertise. Many have no permanent office, are still entirely on paper record-keeping systems, and have no refrigeration units for the storage of bodies. Medical examiners may or may not be doctors, and if they are doctors, may be family doctors, obstetricians or in some other specialty rather than pathology, let alone forensic pathology. There is an extreme shortage of forensic pathologists, and we aren’t training many more. Autopsy rates are low, meaning the true causes of death are often unknown. Often the biological records of unidentified remains are not matched (if kept at all) with records of missing persons.
What does this mean to you? It means that criminals may be free to commit crimes when evidence is available to lead to their arrest. It means law enforcement and criminal justice systems operate inefficiently. It means the innocent may be denied liberty. It means diseases go undetected, or we make mistaken assumptions and fail to fund research for diseases that may be killing us. It means families of the missing and victims of crimes wait for answers that are easily within reach, but for which we fail to provide resources. Criminal justice, workplace safety, missing persons, public health, and property protection are just a few of the areas of our lives affected by forensic science.
The Crime Lab Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing awareness of the challenges facing public forensic science. We hope you’ll want to learn more about these issues. To learn where you can find more information, and to find out what you can do to help, please visit our blog.