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Friday, May 6, 2016

A Short History of American Forensic Science

     By 1935, crime laboratories were up and running in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. The FBI Lab had opened its doors in 1933. The bureau's national fingerprint repository had been operating in Washington, D.C. since 1924, the year J. Edgar Hoover, an early advocate of scientific crime detection, became the agency's fourth director. August Vollmer, the progressive police administrator from Berkeley, California, and Dean John Wigmore of Northwestern University Law School, had been tireless crusaders for forensic science and physical evidence as an alternative to coerced confessions, eyewitness testimony, and jailhouse informants. Wigmore and Vollmer were the main forces behind the formation, in Chicago, of the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory in 1930. In 1938, the private lab beame part of the Chicago Police Department.

     In the 1930s, a pair of private practice forensic chemists and crime scene reconstructon analysts in the northwest, Oscar Heinrich and Luke May, were grabbing headlines by solving high-profile murder cases. Stories involving crimes solved through the scientific analysis of physical evidence had become commonplace features in the fact-crime magazines so popular at the time. Numerous textbooks and manuals had been published on the subjects of fingerprint identification, forensic ballistics, questioned documents, trace evidence analysis, forensic serology, forensic medicine, scientific lie detection (polygraph), and forensic anthropology, the identification and analysis of skeletal remains.

     Criminal investigation textbooks of this era contained detailed instructions on how to protect crime scenes, render crime scene sketches, photograph clues, mark and package physical evidence, dust for latent fingerprints, make plaster-of-Paris casts of tire tracks and footwear impressions, and in the case of sudden, unexplained, or violent death, look for signs of criminal homicide. By the mid-thirties, virtually every court in the country accepted the expert opinions of practitioners in the major forensic fields, and jurors recognized the advantages of expert physical evidence interpretation over the more direct testimony of jailhouse snitches and eyewitnesses.

     Today, nothwithstanding DNA science and computerized fingerprint identification and retrieval capabilities, crime solution percentages in the United States have not improved since the mid-thirties when the FBI started collecting crime statistics. The emphasis on street policing (order maintenance), the escalating war on drugs, and the threat of domestic terrorism has diminished the role of criminal investigation and forensic science in the administration of justice. At a time when DNA technology has advanced far beyond the imaginations of the pioneers of forensic serology (Dr. Paul Kirk and others), rapists, pedophiles, and serial killers are escaping detection and arrest due to DNA analysis backlogs created by a shortage of funds and experts.

     Ironically, one of the byproducts of DNA science has been the release of hundreds of innocent people who have been convicted on the strength of coerced confessions, unreliable eyewitnesses, and the testimony of jailhous informants. In the small percentage of trials involving the analysis of physical evidence, jurors are commonly exposed to conflicting scientific testimony. When faced with opposing experts, jurors tend to disregard the science altogether. The forensic pioneers of the twenties and thirties would be appalled by this hired-gun phenomena and the low productivity of today's investigative services.

     During the first decade of the 21st Century, due to forensic misidentifications caused by substandard lab conditions and incompetent personnel, crime laboratories in, among other places, Houston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Boston, had to be temporarily closed. During this period, for the first time in the history of the science, there were numerous high-profile fingerprint misidentifications. Moreover, modern forensic science has seen the infusion of pseudo-science and bogus expertise into the nation's courtrooms.

      In March 2009, the National Academy of Sciences, an organization within the National Institute of Justice, after an eighteen month study, published a report criticizing the state of forensic science in America. The writers of the widely publicized report recommended that Congress create a federal agency to insure a firewall between forensic science and law enforcement; finance more research and personnel training; and promote universal standards of excellence in the troubled fields of DNA profiling, forensic firearms identification, fingerprint analysis, forensic document examination, and forensic pathology. From this, one might reasonably conclude that modern forensic science, weighed against the hopes and dreams of its pioneers, has not lived up to its potential.

    

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