Book Review - Forensic Science Communications - October 2006
October 2006 - Volume 8 - Number 4
Shooting Incident Reconstruction
Lucien C. Haag
Academic Press-Elsevier, Burlington, Massachusetts, 2006
Douglas P. Murphy
As a practitioner and occasional instructor of shooting incident reconstruction, I was pleased to learn of a new book on the subject by a well-known and highly regarded forensic firearms examiner. Shooting incident reconstruction, sometimes called bullet trajectory reconstruction, is the process of examinations and measurements that attempts to determine certain facts after a shooting incident. Shooting Incident Reconstruction by Lucien C. Haag is a comprehensive look at the broad array of techniques used in this field.
Because so much of modern forensic science is dedicated to establishing strict protocols for the performance of various tasks, it was encouraging to find that the first chapter of this book deals exclusively with case approach, objectives, and philosophy. This is perhaps the most important chapter of the book, because it deals with such basic questions as What are you trying to determine? and How do you know that your method will work? A general discussion of the scientific method is also included. Although I disagree with the author’s implication that there is one universal scientific method for all sciences, the one he describes is well suited to shooting incident reconstruction.
This introductory chapter also includes a long and daunting list of qualifications considered desirable for someone performing this work. From the list, it appears that only forensic firearms examiners may meet all of these requirements, and in my experience, they are the people most qualified to do this work. However, crime scene responders with good training and an aptitude for accurate measurements can still meet the basic requirements and do excellent work. The chapter concludes with a discussion of some of the objectives of shooting scene reconstruction, such as establishing the range, position, and orientation of firearms at the time of discharge and the number and sequence of shots fired.
The main body of the work consists of chapters covering the various aspects of shooting incident reconstruction, such as bullet characteristics, the examination of bullet holes, useful chemical tests, gunshot residue tests, bullet penetration and perforation, bullet ricochet and deflection, trajectory reconstruction, special motor vehicle issues, wound paths in gunshot victims, trace evidence considerations, cartridge-case ejection patterns, long-range trajectories, and shotgun shootings. In an era of increased specialization, it is unlikely that a single examiner in a forensic laboratory will have the training (or the permission of employers) to offer opinions on all of these topics. However, familiarity with trace evidence issues and common medical examiner practices is certainly of benefit to a shooting scene investigator. The author’s decades of experience are revealed as the individual topics are covered in great detail. Each chapter concludes with a list of references, valuable resources that alone may be worth the price of the book.
Although the bulk of the text deals with facts and procedures, a very interesting thesis is presented in the Introduction and reinforced throughout the book. The author contends that many forensic scientists in government and law enforcement laboratories no longer function as scientists because they perform the specific examinations the evidence-submitting agency requests without considering other options or creating experiments that apply to the specific case. Although I don’t believe that this is enough to disqualify someone as a scientist, the author raises an important issue. As an independent consultant, the author is free to pursue whatever avenue of investigation he believes will provide useful information, whereas examiners in forensic science laboratories are increasingly encouraged or required to conform to already written and validated protocols and procedures. There are certainly many advantages to the current quality assurance paradigm under which most laboratories operate, but there are costs as well, and these costs are rarely discussed or evaluated. No easy answer exists to the question of how much quality assurance and how many operating protocols are enough, but I think the author is justified in raising the issue.
The final chapter concerns report writing, courtroom presentation, and legal challenges to shooting incident reconstruction. The existence of this book may actually help with court admissibility, and the numerous examples of note-taking forms and reporting formats will be useful for most readers. A comprehensive glossary concludes the text.
Shooting Incident Reconstruction is an excellent contribution to the forensic sciences. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.