The State of Forensic Science: A Q&A With NIJ's Director of Investigative and Forensic Sciences

Sidebar to the article Forensic Science: A Time of Transformation by Jim Dawson

In his role as director of NIJ's Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences, Gerry LaPorte oversees more than $20 million in annual federal funding for forensic science research. LaPorte, who was the chief research forensic chemist for the United States Secret Service before coming to NIJ in 2009, works with four of NIJ's physical scientists each year to manage and review scores of research proposals.

The hundreds of projects that NIJ has supported under LaPorte's direction cover a wide range of forensic science disciplines, including DNA, trace evidence, firearms and tool marks, fingerprints, toxicology, crime scene investigation, forensic pathology, and forensic anthropology.

LaPorte, who began his career in 1993 as an autopsy assistant at the Jefferson County Coroner/Medical Examiner's Office in Birmingham, Alabama, is keenly attuned to the unrest in forensic science brought on by the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. That report cited serious deficiencies in the nation's forensic science system and called for major reforms and new research.

Several days before presenting the opening remarks for NIJ's daylong Forensic Science Research and Development Symposium at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences Annual Scientific Meeting in Las Vegas, LaPorte discussed what he sees as the main issues confronting forensic science.

NIJ: The forensic science community is struggling with how a forensic analyst should testify in court about uncertainty. Traditional scientists note nothing in science is absolutely certain, so how does a forensic scientist testify about evidence?

LaPorte: That is a major challenge for forensic scientists: how you testify when you are not able to quantitatively express your limitations — or articulate uncertainty. Forensic scientists are asked to analyze evidence from a crime scene and determine the origin of that evidence. After a complete analysis and consideration of all of your observations and data, forensic scientists are often looked upon to quantify their certainty, such as, "What are the chances a certain item came from another source?"

Forensic scientists struggle with words to describe their conclusions and have used terminology like "consistent with" or "similar to" instead of using the words "the same." Without properly defining our terminology and by using terminology inconsistently, words become ambiguous and mean different things to different people. We struggle to try to come up with the words that qualify our conclusions.

NIJ: S. James Gates, the physicist on the National Commission on Forensic Science, said one of the problems with forensic science is the lack of error rates that are standard in established science. Partly for that reason, he described forensic science as "its own unique thing, as opposed to hard science." Is he correct?

LaPorte: I agree with [Gates] that we often don't know what the plus and minus is, and that's why we come up with these terms "consistent with" and "similar to." I'm a chemist, and in the world of chemistry, we can measure uncertainty. In the impression and pattern evidence disciplines, we don't have that measurement of uncertainty.

NIJ: Why not require rigorous scientific measurement of error rates in forensic science?

LaPorte: Very rarely do I say you can't do something — and as a scientist, I won't say something is impossible — but quantifying uncertainty in the impression and pattern evidence disciplines is very, very difficult based on the way crime scenes are. Every time somebody looks at a latent print from a crime scene, they will not have seen the same thing previously, and they will never see the same thing again. They will always get something different. It is not like DNA, where you have statistical information about the frequency of certain loci that occur in a certain population.

NIJ: The lack of national training standards is also an issue in the forensic science community. How does training play into the current debate?

LaPorte: Training and continuing education are the most overlooked needs in the forensic science community, and when agencies are cutting their budgets, training and continuing education are often the first thing to be cut. Laboratories are ultimately responsible for conducting forensic analysis and providing results to their stakeholders. Of course, quality is always the number one priority, but without a commitment from jurisdictions to provide forensic laboratories with training and continuing education, they are ultimately doing a disservice to the criminal justice system.

There is immense pressure on laboratories to train new analysts, and this is something that should never be rushed. But even after training is completed, when analysts are confined strictly to casework, they might not stay abreast of new technologies and methods; they may not hear how their peers are addressing certain challenges; they won't be able to refine their skills — they will simply be isolated from learning more about their own fields. One of the biggest challenges our nation's laboratories are facing is the lack of standardized training and how that training is administered.

NIJ: If you look five years into the future, what changes would you like to see in forensic science?

LaPorte: Undoubtedly, I am an optimist. I've been in the field for over 20 years, and I've seen many positive changes. Just about every forensic scientist I know is so committed to their discipline; we all continually strive to make things better. Overall, if you look at the thousands of cases that involved the forensic sciences over the years, I'd say we've been pretty successful but certainly not perfect. Like any science, though, forensic science can be strengthened. Studies generally show that the error rates are very low. Where we'd like to go is to be able to express things more quantitatively. At the end of the day, it really comes down to understanding your limitations and conveying where your error bars are. In five years, we will be better than we are today.

Back to: Forensic Science: A Time of Transformation

Date Created: June 14, 2016