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Forensic Science: A Small Part in a Big Play
By Jim Fisher

In thirty years of teaching criminal justice courses, there have been trends in what topics or aspects of the field the profession, the media, and my students think are hot. When I first started it was police/community relations, then crime prevention, drug enforcement, special weapons and tactics, serial killers, psychological profiling, and now, forensic science.

After all this time, however, the police still don't get along very well with the community, crime isn't prevented (it's just moved around), the country is awash in drugs, and while every police department has a SWAT team, violent crime still exists, and serial killers, because of the randomness of their crimes, are still hard to catch. (Being told by a profiler that you are looking for an angry white male between 20 and 40 still doesn't help.) So thirty years from now, what will be the fate of forensic science?


  • Fewer crime scenes be bungled?
  • There be more crime labs?
  • There be fewer bogus experts?
  • Criminal investigators be better trained in the uses of forensic science?
  • More criminals be sent to prison on the strength of physical evidence?
  • There be fewer wrongful convictions based on false confessions and unreliable eyewitness identifications?
  • Juries be more receptive to physical, circumstantial evidence?
  • There be higher crime solution rates?
  • Judges learn how to distinguish between real expert witnesses and the phonies?

If the history of forensic science predicts the future, the answer to these questions is NO. My students don't realize it, but forensic science existed before the O.J. Simpson Case.

Forensic science in America was in full bloom by 1935. There were major crime labs in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. The FBI laboratory had been in operation two years. Major textbooks and manuals had been published in the fields of fingerprinting, firearms identification, forensic chemistry, questioned documents, forensic pathology, toxicology, odontology, and forensic anthropology. Textbooks on general crime investigation emphasized crime scene investigation and the interpretation of physical evidence. Every court in the country accepted the testimony of forensic science experts, and defendants were being convicted solely on physical, circumstantial evidence. This was a time of great optimism among the pioneers in the various forensic sciences who believed that science and scientific crime detection would someday conquer crime.

Seventy years later we have DNA, NAA, AFIS, the scanning electron microscope, and some 2,000 colleges offering degrees in criminal justice. We also have a history of bungled crime scenes and extremely poor crime solution rates. It's hard to name a celebrated case that hasn't involved what could best be described as mediocre police work. So why haven't the dreams of our pioneers been fulfilled?

For one thing, crime has a life of its own independent of the quality or lack of quality of criminal investigation and forensic science. For another, ninety percent of crime fighting has nothing to do with criminal investigation or forensic science. I tell my students that if they are curious about what law enforcement is like, watch a year's worth of "Cops."

Forensic science is not always practiced in a laboratory in a controlled environment, and most of the people who handle physical evidence are not scientists. A lot can go wrong between the crime scene and the courtroom, and there is little the forensic scientist can do about it.

Even competent crime scene investigators cannot control the weather or police officers and emergency people who trample the evidence. The scenes of arson are particularly vulnerable to being compromised. And what can a forensic scientist do about investigators who do not gather or interpret physical evidence? Crime scene blunders cannot be corrected, and they are errors that can seriously damage the case.

The application of forensic science also involves a legal component. Physical evidence that has been acquired unconstitutionally cannot be admitted into court. Physical evidence is also made inadmissable when the prosecution is unable to account for it during the period between its crime scene acquisition and courtroom presentation, the so-called chain-of-custody. These are matters outside the control of forensic scientists.

There are other problems in the uses of forensic science. Jurors have to have common sense minds, and the educational background to comprehend the inferential nature of science and circumstantial evidence. Modern jurors are drawn from a society that does not understand or respect science, or practice rational thinking. We live in an age of magical thinking. It is not what you know that is important, it is what you believe. People who believe in crop circles, ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot, and astrology, may not be impressed with scientific evidence and expert testimony. A defendant's fingerprints, or DNA, may be at the scene of a crime, but if he doesn't look like a criminal, he may not be convicted. Jurors must also believe that the police do not frame people with planted evidence, and that expert witnesses are competent and honest. If there is someone on the jury who believes that Elvis Presley was murdered by operatives of the FBI, and that scientists in Roswell have brought him back to life, chances for a hung jury are good notwithstanding overwhelming evidence of guilt.

Jurors are also confronted with dueling experts. If judges don't screen out the pseudo scientists, hired guns who muddy the water and create reasonable doubt, jurors will simply disregard the physical evidence completely. This almost always hurts the prosecution.

So why is forensic science now so attractive to criminal justice students and the public?

If the pioneers of forensic science came back to life and did nothing but watch television, particularly "The New Detectives," "Forensic Files," and "CSI," they would think that their dream of the future had come true.

Most television shows are fiction, and bad fiction at that. Nobody believes that sitcoms represent real life. But, when I watch the so-called serious dramas like "The West Wing" and "E.R.," I think I'm seeing what it is really like inside the White House and in a trauma center. These shows are made to look and sound authentic, and I have no way of knowing if they are not. I would imagine that there are forensic pathologists who were influenced years ago by "Quincy."

CSI looks real. They have all the gadgets, instruments, and tools, and the terminology to go with it. The science itself may be fairly accurate, but the people in the show who practice forensic science are not. The show is horribly out of context, and for young people looking for careers in criminal justice, and people interested in the role forensic science plays in the administration of justice, the show is terribly misleading. The protagonists in the program function as crime scene technicians, crime lab scientists, and criminal investigators, all rolled into one. And, as crime lab scientists, each actor is an expert in every branch of forensic science. It's no wonder the show is so appealing to students thinking about careers in criminal justice.

The people who produce and write CSI have every right to take dramatic license. It is not their intention to mislead, but to entertain. Still, television is a powerful medium that can create false impressions. And the false impression created by CSI and other forensic science programs is this: That American detectives rely heavily on physical evidence, and do careful crime scene work. In reality, investigators in America have always gone for the quick solution to a case, preferring direct evidence in the form of eyewitness testimony, jail house informants, and confessions. Moreover, many prosecutors are uncomfortable pursuing circumstantial cases based entirely on physical evidence. Trials are less about truth finding and justice than about winning and losing, and prosecutors want to win. Because circumstantial cases are risky, time consuming, and costly, prosecutors tend to avoid them. In reality, forensic science does not play nearly as big a role as it should in the solution and prosecution of criminal cases.

The investigation of crime generally, within the criminal justice system, has never enjoyed top priority. As law enforcement agencies become more and more paramilitary in nature, focusing on drug enforcement and terrorism, even less attention is being paid to the art and science of criminal investigation. Look at the FBI web site, criminal investigation is eighth on their top ten list of mission priorities. The FBI has gone from being primarily a criminal case investigative agency to an intelligence gathering organization. This is reflected in the agency's declining bank robbery solution rates which have gone from around eighty percent to sixty.

Shows like CSI widen the gap between public expectation and police performance. One wonders what the pioneers in forensic science would think of the O.J. Simpson case. It would be like Thomas Edison coming back to life in 1995 to a world still lit by candles. Science is the hallmark of modern society, it has been the answer to so many of our problems. It is therefore too bad that science is not playing a bigger role in the administration of justice.

This page was last updated on: Monday, January 7, 2008

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com