The term forensic science involves forensic (or forensis, in Latin), which means a public discussion or debate. In a more modern context, however, forensic applies to courts or the judicial system. Combine that with science, and forensic science means applying scientific methods and processes to solving crimes. The field of forensic science draws from a number of scientific branches, including physics, chemistry, and biology, with its focus being on the recognition, identification, and evaluation of physical evidence. The science has committed offenders to prison and it has exonerated prisoners.
No one should be incarcerated for a crime he/she did not commit. However, since 1989, there have been tens of thousands of cases where prime suspects were identified and pursued—until DNA testing (prior to conviction) proved they were wrongly accused. Just the facts:
- 20 of 356 people exonerated served time on death row
- 14 years: Average length of time served by exonerees
- 262: DNA exonerees compensated
- 40 of 356: Pled guilty to crimes they did not commit
According to the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals, 342 people have been exonerated as a result of DNA analysis as of July 31, 2016. The Innocence Project’s mission is to free the staggering number of innocent people who remain incarcerated, and to bring reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment. The National Registry of Exonerations lists 1,579 convicted defendants who were exonerated through DNA and non-DNA evidence from January 1, 1989 through April 12, 2015
Wrongful conviction cases have been associated with various causes. One of the contributing factors is forensic science. It is not an exact science. It isn’t infallible. It is most important for forensic scientists to understand that the work they do and the conclusions they reach — either in forensic reports or testimony — have lasting effects on people’s lives. However, the problem involves dealing with scientific principles and people. Hence, mistakes happen.
For example, in May of 2004, the FBI apologized to Brandon Mayfield for mistakenly linking the American lawyer’s fingerprint to one found near the scene of a terrorist bombing in Spain. The FBI said they found his prints on numerous crucial pieces of evidence. That blunder led to his imprisonment for two weeks. Fortunately, the Spanish authorities caught the mistake and released Mayfield. What if this had resulted in a lengthy prison term before exoneration?
The fictional television forensic scientist collects evidence at crime scenes, analyzes it in a high-tech lab, and draws on objective science to reconstruct the details of the crime. Science uncovers lies and reveals the truth. Justice is done when the guilty are convicted. Or, the innocent person is set free. The actors accomplish all of these tasks in less than an hour on TV. In reality, forensic scientists spend a great deal of time in the laboratory, working with evidence collected from crime scenes. They objectively analyze submitted evidence and return an interpretation to the investigator. They Interpretation of the analysis may differ from one forensic scientist to another. They are under duress by the courts to render a scientific analysis, which could prove innocence or guilt.
As a forensic scientist, you must adhere to the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) standards. In 1898, a group of scientists and engineers founded the ASTM to develop a standard to prevent frequent rail breaks. Currently, ASTM’s forensic science standards present the scientific methodologies employed in the course of forensic investigations, which occur in conjunction with criminal or civil legislations. These forensic science standards are instrumental to forensic scientists and criminal investigators in guiding them with the standard procedures for carrying out such examinations.
For example, the ASTM has a standard guide for microscopic examination of textile fibers. The guideline describes guidelines for microscopical examinations employed in forensic fiber characterization, identification, and comparison. Other standards apply to forensic analysis of cocaine, amphetamines, sexual assault, gunshot residue, and paint.
On the positive side, you can affect justice. You can be an integral component of the judicial and law enforcement systems. When justice prevailed:
- Solution rates of property crime doubled by the analysis of DNA evidence (2008)
- DNA evidence is much more effective than fingerprints in crime analysis (2004)
- More homicide cases reached court with DNA evidence
- Forensic evidence in rape cases resulted in 87% conviction rate (2010)
There is another significant fact for you to consider. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median salary for forensic technicians at $57,850 (2017). More importantly, the BLS predicts the job growth to be 17% through 2026 or the change of 2,600 jobs. As of 2017, there were approximately 15,400 forensic technicians employed in the nation.
Future Forensic Scientists
Aspiring students to enter this field should check out the Young Forensic Scientists Forum (YFSF) presented by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. The YFSF is dedicated to the education, enrichment and development of emerging forensic scientists and future leaders of the field. Participants of YFSF come from all sections and membership levels of the AAFS. This organization provides an opportunity for new forensic scientists to interact with and become part of the established forensic science community. You can attend meetings and educational sessions at the annual AAFS conference, receive the YFSF newsletter, and access the Academy’s website.