What is Forensic Science Administration?

Forensic science administration studies how to reduce error rates in forensic science by reorganizing forensic work. 

Since the advent of fingerprints at the beginning of the last century, dramatic progress has been made in the forensics sciences, including the recent revolution in DNA typing.  In this period, scientific knowledge of how to perform forensics tests has grown exponentially.  Surprisingly little effort has been devoted, however, to the scientific study of how to run our crime labs.  Our knowledge of forensic techniques is running ahead of our knowledge of how to manage forensic labs and workers.  Forensic science administration fills this gap.

Forensic science administration, we have said, studies how to reduce error rates in forensic science by reorganizing forensic work.  It studies the organization of forensics labor in the criminal justice system, using the tools of social science and business administration.  Forensic science administration studies forensic science within its legal and political context.  Forensic science tells us how an alert, skilled, unbiased, and conscientious expert can perform a useful test.  It tells us nothing, however, about what arrangements best ensure that forensic scientists are alert, skilled, unbiased, and conscientious.  Forensic science administration addresses that issue.  Almost nothing has been done in this field of study and its very existence has been only dimly perceived in the past. 

The Institute for Forensic Science Administration, located in Madison, New Jersey, calls for work in forensic science administration.  Our Director has established leading principles of the emerging new discipline.  They are summarized under "Principles" in the menu bar to the left.

Recent changes in the environment of forensic science have led to calls for higher standards of professionalism, verifiability, and scientific rigor in forensic science administration.  At present there is little coordinated effort directed to studying forensic science administration and how it might respond to changes in its legal and social environment.  Research in forensic science administration would tend to promote 1) improved understanding of forensic science as a legal, social, and political phenomenon and 2) improved forensic science administration within the criminal justice system.  We need dedicated scholars of forensic administration providing research, education, outreach, and policy espousal. 

The environment for forensic science administration is changing.  Managers of crime labs must adopt new and higher standards of professionalism, verifiability, and scientific rigor.  The knowledge and skills of lab managers must now go well beyond familiarity with scientific techniques of forensic testing.  Lab managers must be up to date on changes in the legal, political, and social environment of forensic science.  We also need research on how lab managers and the criminal justice system might respond to such changes.

Recent events creating these changes include the advent of DNA typing, changes in the rules governing expert witnesses in our federal courts and many state courts, renewed opposition to the death penalty, and recent revelations of failures of forensic science administration in the Houston Police Crime Lab, the Seattle Crime Lab, the FBI explosives unit, and other centers of forensic science.

 

DNA typing

DNA typing gained admission to US criminal courts only when was shown that the technique had passed high standards of scientific rigor.  This significant advance in forensic science caused judges and lawyers to acquire a heightened awareness of the nature and importance of scientific standards in the testimony of expert witnesses.

 

Rules of evidence

Shortly after the advent of DNA typing, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a new set of guidelines for the admissibility of expert witnesses in its “Daubert” decision of 1993.  In this case, “William Daubert et al. v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc.,” the court adopted a set of guidelines for admissibility of expert testimony.  While Daubert v. Merrell Dow was a civil case in Federal court, the “Daubert” guidelines have been applied in criminal court at both the Federal and State levels.  The Supreme Court cautioned against reading a checklist out of its decision, but lower courts have often done just that.  The Daubert checklist asks

1) whether the theories and techniques employed by the scientific expert have been tested; 

 2) whether they have been subjected to peer review and publication;

 3) whether the techniques employed by the expert have a known error rate;

 4) whether they are subject to standards governing their application; and

 5) whether the theories and techniques employed by the expert enjoy widespread acceptance.

 

This change in the legal environment of forensic science is extremely important, in part because it has brought ideas from philosophy into the courtrooms of America for use in judging evidence.

 

The Politics of the Death Penalty

DNA typing has led to the exoneration of many prisoners on death row in the US.  These exonerations have added momentum to the political movement against the death penalty.  Some participants in this movement have argued that current standards of forensic evidence are too low and that “junk science” from crime labs is causing a needlessly high rate of false convictions in our criminal courts.  The work of the Innocence Project, headed by the famous defense attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, has been very important for this movement.  The Innocence Project is a non-profit legal clinic and not a political group.  Their work in exonerating innocent persons wrongly convicted, however, is often cited by opponents of the death penalty.

Some observers consider the probability of executing an innocent person to be negligible, while others do not.  Some scholarly studies conclude that the death penalty has a deterrent effect, while others do not.  Whatever the truth might be on such matters, the politics of the death penalty are an important element in the environment of forensic science administration.

 

Failures of Forensic Science Administration

Recently, there have been documented cases of failed forensic science administration.  The most important of these is probably that of the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory-DNA/Serology Section.  The Houston television station KHOU first reported on trouble in the lab in November 2002.  An FBI Audit of December 2002 found many serious problems including a report that “on one occasion the roof leaked such that items of evidence came in contact with the water.”   Shortly after this audit, the Houston police discontinued DNA testing at the lab.  This case drew considerable attention in the popular press, especially in connection with the voided conviction Josiah Sutton, who was convicted principally on the basis of now discredited DNA evidence from the Houston lab. 

Other important cases include the Whitehurst scandal at the FBI crime lab in the late 1990s, and the current cases surrounding crime labs in Cleveland and Seattle and the fingerprint unit of the Boston Police Department.  Cleveland was threatened with a $10 million suit over the wrongful conviction of Anthony Michael Green, who settled for a smaller sum only on the promise that Cleveland would investigate all cases involving test results or testimony from the lab technician who had given false testimony in Green’s case.  The events in Cleveland illustrate the claim that failures of forensic science administration can expose local and state governments to expensive litigation and the possible voiding of large numbers of prior convictions.

 

CSI Effect

Finally, the popularity of television shows such as CSI may have led jurors to have high and sometimes unrealistic expectations of forensic science.  Scholarly research, however, has not yet produced clear evidence of this phenomenon.

 

Consequences

The new environment of forensic science administration matters.  Newspaper stories of “faulty forensics” abound, defense attorneys are learning new strategies for questioning forensic evidence, organizations such as the Innocence Project are publicizing (real or imagined) flaws in the system, and jurors are demanding higher standards of performance. These environmental factors put pressure on lab managers to adopt new and higher standards of professionalism, verifiability, and scientific rigor. 

The forensics community must meet the challenge of these environmental changes.  Action on several fronts is required to meet this challenge.  We need research, education, outreach, and policy espousal.  First, we need research on the principles of forensic science administration.  Second, we need to create a separate academic discipline of forensic science administration.  Just as we have the distinct academic discipline of public administration, we need a distinct academic discipline of forensic science administration.  Third, we need outreach programs through which criminal justice practitioners could keep abreast of current developments in forensic science administration.  Fourth and finally, we need policy espousal; we need experts in forensic science administration who will propose new laws, regulations, and government policies aimed at continuous improvement of forensic science administration.  Such research, education, outreach and policy espousal would help the forensic science community meet the challenges facing forensic science today.

Work in forensic science administration includes experimental work studying the influence of workplace organization on the reliability of forensic analysis.  See our research page for examples.  See also the recent work of Itiel Dror and David Charlton.  Larry S. Miller is probably the first pioneer of such work ("Procedural Bias in Forensic Science Examinations of Human Hair," Law and Human Behavior, 1987, 11: 157-163).  Miller had a group of trained forensic scientists do hair analysis under two conditions.  In the first condition, the hair from the crime scene and one suspect hair were compared.  In the second condition, the questioned hair was compared to several known hairs.  In other words, the second condition created an “evidence lineup.”  The evidence lineup reduced the error rate by about 90%.  Scholars should build on Miller’s neglected study by applying the recently developed techniques of experimental economics to a broad range of questions in forensic science administration.

 

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Institute for Forensic
     Science Administration
Silberman College
     of Business
Fairleigh Dickinson
     University M-MS2-02
Madison, NJ 07940-1099
USA

Director:
Professor Roger Koppl
              (973) 443-8846       
koppl@fdu.edu

Associate Director:
Jim Cowan
              (201) 207-6437       
ejcowan2@fdu.edu

Administrative Assistant:
Theresa Tomeo
              (973) 443-8810       
theresa_tomeo@fdu.edu

Sponsored by:
Silberman College of Business