Police departments, prosecuting attorneys and judges across the country are very worried. Newspaper headlines in West Virginia, Texas and other states tell the story: fake data, "expert" conclusions that were not supported by the evidence, crime lab fraud, wrongful convictions. Some crime scene investigators and lab technicians have been found to have failed their science. This results in overturned convictions. Some cases have the potential to reverse literally thousands of prior court cases.
While the televised "CSI" program has motivated many students to enter this field, the program stresses the few minutes of adrenalin and ignores the many long hours of tedious work. Such evidence officers are occupied with photographing crime scenes. They must ensure the evidence is secured from the time it leaves the scene to when it is finally presented in court. And most laboratory procedures and analyses that are shown in minutes in reality take days to run.
The televised glamour and bravado cover up the actual extent of real laboratory skill, command of statistics, clarity of reasoning and communication, and personal integrity that are essential in this job.
When the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals investigated one crime lab worker two decades ago, they found fraudulent data in every case examined. This included overstating results, misreporting the frequency of genetic matches, stating many items had been tested when only one was examined, altering lab results, and stating that inconclusive results were conclusive. As a result, that high court ruled all testimony and evidence provided by that crime lab worker over a decade "should be deemed invalid."
Such incompetence casts a shadow on hundreds if not thousands of convictions. That is why police, judges and prosecutors have major concerns that their crime lab specialists are solidly trained. And when tainted convictions are overturned and result in the release of bona fide criminals, the public needs to be just as concerned with the educational integrity of programs that train evidence officers.
Professionals in this field are concerned too. You can read their concerns for depth-of-training and rigor-of-program at the Council on Forensic Science Education website (coFse.org): "Forensic science is a unique scientific discipline requiring its practitioners to have in addition to technical skills and knowledge, also critical, analytical thinking skills, communication skills and an ethical awareness of the role of the scientist in our criminal justice system. A complete educational program should therefore create forensic science professionals."
They continue with the following critical assessment: "Recently there has been a marked increase in the number of forensic science programs at colleges and universities. Many programs have been established despite very limited resources, insufficient personnel, lab space, and support for these programs. Students completing these programs expect to find employment in crime labs but are surprised to learn that lab management is not impressed by the curriculum."
Police, prosecutors and judges all know that their work is futile unless these new technicians are well-trained. It takes real labwork with cadavers and hi-tech equipment to develop hands-on skills and technical competency. It takes mathematical depth to understand statistical significance. It takes speaking practice under pressure to develop the verbal reasoning to clearly explain and defend evidence in the courtroom. And it takes direct face-to-face course interaction for faculty to make judgements on personal integrity before recommending their graduates forward.
This is one specialty that we cannot afford to "half train." —Or the felon whose conviction is overturned due to sloppy labwork may move in next door.