Ethics in Forensic Science: Professional Standards for the Practice of Criminalistics, Forensic Science Communications, July 2002
July 2002 - Volume 4 - Number 3
Ethics in Forensic Science:
Professional Standards for the Practice of Criminalistics
Peter D. Barnett
CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida
Melissa Anne Smrz
DNA Analysis 2 Unit
Federal Bureau of Investigation
With the advancement of forensic science, both in general and within specific disciplines such as forensic DNA analysis, the role of the criminalist and forensic scientist is growing increasingly more important and is subject to greater public scrutiny. Whereas forensic scientists have long faced ethical challenges, these scientists must now consider ethical issues routinely. Peter D. Barnett, in his book Ethics in Forensic Science: Professional Standards for the Practice of Criminalistics, examines existing ethics codes in criminalistics and forensic science and defines the need for such codes. He provides examples of situations not uncommon to forensic scientists that merit examination of ethical practices. He also discusses developing a code of ethics for forensic science organizations that do not yet have one or are struggling to establish one. He points out the dilemmas organizations have faced in enforcing ethics codes among the membership.
Ethics in Forensic Science: Professional Standards for the Practice of Criminalistics is divided into two sections. In Section One, the author examines existing ethics codes. For each code cited, he emphasizes its strengths, weaknesses, and differences. The author also discusses the need for and importance of professional ethics codes. He cites examples of situations in which rules, organizational mandates, and competency guidelines are at present inadequate. He discusses the differences between legal and scientific principles and how these differences can “muddy” obligations the forensic scientist might have. This section then delves into the application of various codes of ethics and how they impact the forensic scientist on a daily basis. It covers such topics as the interaction among the forensic scientist, investigators, and attorneys, both prosecuting and defense. It also covers the interaction between the forensic scientist and laboratory colleagues.
In Section Two, the author puts the codes and considerations discussed in Section One into practice by citing hypothetical, yet specific, case scenarios that forensic scientists could face in their daily practice. He outlines examples of case situations involving professional practices and technical competence, suggests possible actions, and then discusses relevant ethics (or the lack thereof) to which the case applies. Section Two of Ethics in Forensic Science: Professional Standards for the Practice of Criminalistics would be excellent in a training setting as a source for discussion topics, particularly for those scientists new to the field.
One of the strengths of the book is its commentary regarding ethical issues in different forensic disciplines. The issues and cases allow forensic scientists to become more aware of the work done outside of their area of expertise, knowledge that could go far in avoiding some of the ethical problems mentioned throughout the book. However, whereas the topics discussed are relevant to the practicing forensic scientist, the book might leave a layman with the impression that because there are so few established formal ethics codes, ethics are not generally considered important by criminalists or forensic scientists. The author fails to emphasize the growth of scientific and technical working groups in the forensic science disciplines and their work in establishing training, validation, and interpretation standards. The author also fails to discuss the legal standards that now apply to forensic DNA testing laboratories. These working groups and legal standards indicate that the forensic science profession is interested in good scientific practices. This would then minimize the author’s issue with competence. At the same time, it would assure the author and the general public that professionals were becoming cognizant of the various ethical dilemmas that are part of the legal-scientific world and are being trained to cope with them.