Presentations from the International Symposium on Setting Quality Standards for the Forensic Community (Part 6; Forensic Science Communications, July 1999)
July 1999 - Volume 1 - Number 2
Presentations at the
International Symposium on Setting Quality Standards for the Forensic Community
San Antonio, Texas
May 3-7, 1999
The following abstracts of the presentations are ordered alphabetically by authors’ last names.
Many of the significant developments in quality assurance in the forensic science community have originated in the United States. This presentation gives a brief historical account of these, followed by a more detailed account of current initiatives.
The major federal agencies active in forensic science—the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the Drug Enforcement Agency—have contributed much through their research and standards. A particularly significant contribution was the establishment through FBI sponsorship of the Technical Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods (TWGDAM), which has been followed by many other working groups.
The FBI was responsible for the establishment of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD), which was for many years unique in being a professional society for crime laboratory managers.
ASCLD in turn established the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB), which for almost 15 years provided the only forensic science laboratory accreditation program, and today it is the only such program with international participation. ASCLD also established the National Forensic Science Technology Center with a mission to assist laboratories to achieve the highest quality of operations.
Today, there are major quality initiatives in place. The ASCLD/LAB program is undergoing review to become fully ISO Guide 25 (now ISO Standard 17025) compliant. The review also covers making ASCLD/LAB itself ISO Guide 58 compliant.
The highly visible and sensitive area of DNA analysis is covered by federal guidelines developed by the DNA Advisory Board as a set of demanding quality assurance standards. The TWGDAM concept has evolved into a number of advisory groups, most of which are now titled Scientific Working Groups.
The community also contributed much through the establishment of a range of certification boards, covering, for example, toxicology, questioned documents, and, most recently, criminalistics.
The DNA Advisory Board (DAB) Quality Assurance Standards, as well as the forensic DNA guidelines established by the Technical Working Group for DNA Analysis Methods (TWGDAM), require that a laboratory conducting forensic DNA analysis be audited at least once a year. In addition, the DAB Standard 15.2 requires that a second agency shall participate in the annual audit once every two years. In order to comply with the TWGDAM guidelines, several forensic laboratories joined together in 1994 to organize a DNA forensic audit group to perform the required yearly audits. This organization formed to help reduce auditing costs by sharing in the audit expenses and also to organize a team of experienced forensic experts knowledgeable in the area of forensic DNA analysis and TWGDAM guidelines. It is advantageous to have the audit inspection conducted by not only individuals familiar with DNA analysis, good laboratory practices, and standard quality assurance practices but also with detailed knowledge of forensic laboratory procedures.
The forensic arena has additional requirements beyond good laboratory practices. Chain-of-custody procedures, rules of criminal procedures, and evidence handling procedures are just a few of the additional areas that need to be addressed during a forensic laboratory audit. The Potomac Region Audit Group consists of nine forensic DNA laboratories. A memorandum of understanding was signed between the participating laboratories, and an audit document was designed on the basis of the 1995 TWGDAM Guidelines for a Quality Assurance Program. Members of the audit group were either from an ASCLD accredited laboratory or members of TWGDAM that had experience with laboratory assurance procedures.
To give credibility to the audit process, the MidAtlantic Association of Forensic Scientists (MAAFS) formed the Forensic DNA Auditor Training Certification Committee (FDATCC) in 1997. The purpose of the committee is to oversee the training of forensic DNA auditors, review credentials, and assure auditors meet necessary experience and training requirements before certifying them as an auditor. All members of the Potomac Region Audit Group have become certified auditors. The audit group meets annually to update the quality assurance requirements, to refine the audit document according to DAB/TWGDAM revisions, and to address audit issues.
This presentation describes, in detail, the FDATCC committee’s responsibilities, the training program, the memorandum of understanding developed between the member of the Potomac Region Audit Group, the audit document used by all of the auditors, and the training and certification program record documenting the auditor’s credentials. A description of the audit process, the scheduling of the laboratory audits, recent audit issues, and the revised DAB formal audit document is also presented.
The United States Supreme Court has become increasingly involved in questions of expert evidence. Until its decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993), in which the Court provided guidance to lower courts for determining whether a particular scientific method was admissible, the leading case in the United States on expert evidence was a 1923 case, Frye v. United States, 293 Fed. 1013 (D.C. Cir. 1923), a lower court decision. The Supreme Court recently revisited the area of expert evidence in Kumho Tire Co., Ltd. v. Carmichael, 1999 U.S. LEXIS 2189 (1999) in which the concept of scientific proof was held to apply to conclusions derived from experience. Such interest in the issue of scientific proof by the Court is a barometer of the extent to which there is increasing reliance on such evidence.
Whether a technique is sufficiently reliable to permit its use is, under these cases, a question for the trial court to determine. Once a technique satisfies the Daubert-Kumho standard for admissibility, the question of quality control arises. How are quality control issues to be handled? This question was addressed in a leading DNA case, United States v. Shea, 957 F. Supp 331 (D.H. H. 1997). After discussing the admissibility of DNA evidence as a general matter, the court turned to defense objections based on alleged deficiencies in handling and quality control procedures. Citing other decisions, some in other areas of evidence, the court stated:
“I need not address the merits of Shea’s arguments. Instead, I join the many courts that have addressed similar issues by concluding that because such arguments concern the way in which a method is applied in a particular case, rather than the validity of the method, they affect the weight that should be given the evidence, rather than its admissibility.” (957 F. Supp. st 340-41)
Unless the case involves such defective quality control procedures that a court would not permit a jury to consider the evidence—a rare case—questions of quality control are for the jury to resolve. Their resolution then is intimately tied to the credibility of the expert or experts presenting the evidence.
Obviously, the best method to avoid problems in this area is to avoid quality control problems in the first place. Assuming, however, that there are such issues and, indeed, that there may be disputed evidence on quality control, what general observations can be made on the credibility of forensic witnesses that might have an impact on how their credibility and hence quality control issues are resolved? There are three:
- Use all methods available as demonstrative evidence. A common lament of trial judges about trial lawyers is the under-utilization of demonstrative proof. No area is as amenable to such proof as explanations for scientific conclusions. If a case is important enough to tax the resources implicit in the use of complex scientific proof, it is important enough to demonstrate the reasoning process behind such proof to the jury as effectively as possible.
- Consider the personality factor. Especially in cases where there is a conflict in expert proof, at least some jurors may be lost and will grope for a method of resolving the dispute. In such a case, there is certainly a good chance such a juror will resolve credibility issues in favor of the more likable expert. This may be because many experts, from time to time, demonstrate a certain imperiousness and condescension to the participants at the trial. Although the experts’ views may be justified in many cases, imperiousness and condescension are not likable traits and if they come across clearly, may by themselves be a reason an otherwise unsure juror will resolve a credibility issue against the expert showing such traits.
- Keep role in mind. An expert is on the witness stand to present facts, not to argue a case. Occasionally experts cross the line from witness to advocate. This is especially likely during cross-examination and perhaps at the end of cross-examination, when the expert may be mentally tired and the discipline that keeps the expert in the proper role begins to break down. Although occasionally effective, such a metamorphosis in role is more often damaging to the expert’s credibility because the jury has a sharp sense of the part each of the participants in the trial process plays. Expert conduct inconsistent with that sense of role may translate into a loss of credibility.
The law leaves quality control issues to the jury. Although no trial technique can alter given facts, where quality control issues involve disputed facts, they become questions of credibility. Credibility is not a fixed concept unaffected by trial dynamics. On the contrary, credibility issues are inevitably intertwined with many variables, three of which have been discussed and all of which are under the control of the witness and the party calling the witness.
There is a growing need to facilitate acceptance of test data on a worldwide basis under provisions of international and regional treaties such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Agreement, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and a variety of directives of the European Union. But today’s emphasis on quality has heightened awareness of the importance of good data and competent testing laboratories. Laboratory accreditation has been identified as a cost-effective means to promote the acceptance of test data while assuring the quality of data. This has been the ultimate goal of the International Laboratory Accreditation Co-operation (ILAC) and regional multilateral agreement bodies such as the European Cooperation for Accreditation (EA), the Asia Pacific Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation, and the Inter-American Accreditation Cooperation.
Ways that existing accreditation bodies can cooperate, through multilateral mutual recognition arrangements (MRAs), create in effect one international system, thus paving the way for worldwide acceptance of test data. The EA approach is to create a forum for arriving at a MRA among various accreditation systems. This means that appointed representatives from the laboratory accreditation systems who are members of EA perform an assessment of an applicant laboratory accreditation system on behalf of all the systems in the agreement. If the basic requirements are met, then the accreditation is recognized by all systems party to the agreement. This model is being used as a basis for similar MRAs in other regions of the world, most recently, in the Pacific Rim countries. Efforts are also being made in the Americas to forge an MRA among accrediting bodies under the auspices of ILAC.
ILAC has embarked on a plan to develop one MRA that would pull together the regional MRA efforts and provide a loose umbrella over the whole process.
The quality assurance program for a forensic science laboratory begins prior to the actual hiring of an employee. The ability to select quality forensic scientists can only enhance the laboratory’s capability and image. The Illinois State Police uses a seven-step process to hire forensic scientists:
- Recruitment. A good recruitment program is a continuous process in which laboratory management maintains an ongoing relationship with colleges and universities. The Illinois State Police also has full-time recruiters for sworn candidates who also recruit for code when applicable. The use of brochures and posters is encouraged and adds a degree of professionalism to the recruitment process.
- Educational Requirements. All individuals applying must have at least a bachelor’s degree in a natural or forensic science. Additionally, they must have a minimum of 20 semester hours of chemistry courses and 60 semester hours of science for any chemical disciplines. If the applicant is interested in forensic biology/DNA, they must also have course work in at least two of the following: biochemistry, cell biology/molecular biology, and genetics. If they meet these requirements, they are eligible to proceed to the next stage of the process, which is eligibility determination.
- Eligibility Determination.Applicants who meet the educational requirements can choose from one to three of the following options:
- A. Pattern Evidence
- Latent Prints
- Questioned Documents
- B. Chemistry
- Drug Chemistry
- Trace Chemistry
- C. Biochemistry
- Forensic Biology
- A. Pattern Evidence
Once options have been selected, applicants will be invited to take a written examination for those options. The written examination is managed by the State Central Management Services Department. They also grade the examinations and determine if an individual qualifies for grades of A, B, C, or Fail. The written examination or examinations cover the following subject areas:
- Written communication skills
- Reading comprehension skills
- Analytical problem-solving skills
- Basic knowledge of laboratory science
Option A and B: Pattern recognition skills
Option A: Mechanical aptitude
Option B: Knowledge of basic chemistry
Option C: Knowledge of basic biology
- Interview Process.The following seven interview criteria areas have been selected by the Illinois State Police:
- Personal Projection
- Experience and Training
- Analytical Aptitude
- Interpersonal Relations
Each of the seven criteria are assigned a specific weight with the total for the seven areas being 100 percent. Questions are designed to address at least two of the criteria areas. In many cases a question can be used to measure several areas. Additionally, a scoring scale was developed to rate individuals. These are
- Did not meet this criteria: 1–2
- Partially met this criteria: 3–5
- Fully met this criteria: 6–8
- Exceeded this criteria: 9–10
The Illinois State Police has further defined the scoring scale for each criteria. Scoring is accomplished by using a preprinted form that includes the scoring scale definitions, with room for writing personal observations.
An interview team captain is selected to join two other interviewers. At times it may be necessary to have more than one team. If this is done, training should be accomplished to ensure consistency of applicant scores. One way to accomplish this is by mock interviews. If multiple teams are used, team numerical scoring should be compared and discussed to see if consistency is being obtained.
Additionally, the Illinois State Police requires that if the scoring on a criteria area deviates between interviewers by more than two points, a discussion must occur and be reconciled within two points. This ensures open discussion on potential issues that one interviewer may have seen that another did not. A software program has been developed that collects the scores from all three interviewers, factors in the criteria weight, and gives a single numerical score for the applicant. A current roster of applicants, listed from highest to lowest score, is provided to each interviewer.
Finally, each applicant is asked a question such as: “Is there anything in your background that would be revealed by a polygraph test or extensive background investigation that we should know about or that will affect your employment with a law enforcement agency?” This provides an applicant with an opportunity to be truthful about their background prior to discovering an issue by other means.
- Polygraph. The agency determines areas of interest and potential thresholds, and then questions are asked accordingly by a polygraph examiner.
- Drug Testing. All potential employees are required to give a urine sample for drug testing. Notification is given 24 hours in advance of the test. At that time they are told where and when to report. Drug testing and collection is done by contract laboratories, not by Illinois State Police laboratories.
- Background Investigation. An extensive background investigation is conducted by the Illinois State Police investigators.