Trust in the Evidence
Evidence collection is the primary source for solving crimes and gaining courtroom convictions for them. The Federal Bureau of Investigations Criminal Justice Information Services Division collects data on crime statistics in the United States in the F.B.I.’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. In 2018, the U.S. population was 327,167,434. The number of violent crimes for that year was 1,206,836, which equates to approximately 368.9 violent crimes per 100,000 citizens. To solve these crimes and provide justice to the victims requires that evidence collection be valid and reliable. The public must be able to trust the collection process and the validity of the evidence if they are to maintain faith in the integrity of law enforcement and the justice system.
Integrity is a substantial basis for evidence collection. So, what does that mean? Merriam-Webster defines integrity as a “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values: INCORRUPTIBILITY.” It gives additional information that helps to guide us to understand its meaning. It provides these alternate definitions of being in “an unimpaired condition: SOUNDNESS,” as well as having “the quality or state of being complete or undivided: COMPLETENESS.” It goes on with other examples and synonyms. It states that integrity can be defined as having uprightness in character and action; it means honesty. It means to refuse to lie, steal, cheat or to deceive. When integrity is applied with honor, as to a profession, there is an implication that the person is trustworthy and incorruptible to the utmost degree. The word defines that the person is not capable of being false to a trust, responsibility, or pledge. It also means that if evidence collection is entrusted upon your position, that care should be taken at all steps, from preserving the scene, collecting the evidence, all the way to keeping records of the chain of custody through the trial. Facts are facts, truth is truth, allowing the evidence to speak for itself, by way of collecting with integrity is how faith in the justice system will be preserved.
Evidence collection from a crime scene can be done by a CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) unit or by law enforcement. The collection process usually depends on the type of crime and the size of the law enforcement agency. Some larger agencies have their own crime scene units, where others may have selected officers trained explicitly in evidence collection. These officers collect evidence of the crime from the scene which can apply to the location but can also include objects, persons, or even multiple places involved in the crime.
The types of evidence from a crime scene can be endless. It can range from the weapon used to the sand or bits of skin left under a fingernail. Some common types of evidence include:
- Biological Evidence
- Body fluids
- Skin or other tissue
- Latent Print Evidence
- Palm prints
- Trace Evidence
- Glass fragments
- Paint chips
- Digital Evidence
- Cell phone records
- Internet logs
- Email messages
- Other Types of Evidence
- Clothing and footwear
- Tire tracks
- Tools and tool marks
The Value of Evidence
Excluding physical evidence, all other sources of information regarding a criminal case suffer from the consequences of limited reliability. When physical evidence is collected and handled correctly, it provides the best prospect of providing objective and reliable information to the courts. The value of proof lies within its credibility and integrity. If the value of the evidence is lost, the evidence becomes inadmissible in the courtroom.
The significance of the evidence lies within its value. The usefulness of even the most meticulously collected and preserved evidence can be lost if there is a problem with the chain-of-custody, or if the records are not properly maintained. Many courts and legal experts argue that chain-of-custody is often the weakest link in all criminal investigations.
Having proper documentation that demonstrates the chronological steps from the collection process through the handling of lab work, storage, and until it reaches the court proceedings, is imperative for any case to proceed using that evidence. This chain-of-custody documentation establishes its connection to the alleged crime. In the judicial process, it is the most important part, to be able to demonstrate every step taken to ensure integrity, traceability, and continuity of the evidence from the crime scene to the courtroom.
Creating Value in Evidence
It is imperative that law enforcement or first responders understand how to create value in the evidence collected. The main goal of any investigation is to properly analyze the facts, reconstruct the events as they occurred, and fully demonstrate what happened. The value or integrity of the evidence can depend to a large extent on the actions taken when responding to the scene of the incident or crime. A great deal of what can be considered as evidence is transient and fragile in nature. The reliability of this evidence depends greatly on the physical integrity kept at the scene, which demands the attention of the first responders or law enforcement who are first at the scene.
Acting with care on the initial response of the scene and following professional guidelines helps to preserve the integrity of all the evidence within the area of the crime scene. Preserving the scene and its integrity is a process that is critical for evidence to be admissible in court. The role of any crime scene investigation is a method of recording the scene as it is first encountered. The investigator or responder must be able to recognize and collect all physical evidence relevant to the case. The value of the evidence to bring to the court for conviction or consideration will fully depend on the integrity of the collection process, the continuity of chain-of-custody as it goes through lab processes and storage, and the ability to provide clear documentation demonstrating all processes followed.
Subjectivity Vs. Facts
To make the evidence more valuable to your case, while you should collect all the evidence available, focusing on the types of evidence that science can prove as fact versus a subjective opinion is far more precise. When the evidence is presented in court, it will be taken as fact.
Sherlock Holmes inspired the very basis of forensic science today. Author Arthur Conan Doyle wrote: “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” While hair analysis may seem factual, and it is still necessary to collect as evidence, the process is very subjective. One lab technician may decide that the hairs are a match, while another may not. According to Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, “When a person says that the probability is one-in-10,000, that’s simply a made-up number. There is no data to support it.” The Innocence Project is a New York-based non-profit organization that works to overturn wrongful convictions using DNA evidence.
If we listen to our forefathers, John Adams wrote this: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
When evidence is processed in a lab and presented by someone who is designated as an expert in a white lab coat, the average off the street juror will put their faith in the opinion of this expert. In April of 2015, the FBI began reviewing several thousand cases. They now believe that scientists presented misleading testimony in these cases, resulting in a guilty verdict. When collecting evidence, presenting the best, most scientifically proven as factual evidence is the most appropriate type that one can pursue in resolving a case. Other subjective evidence should be left only as supporting material. Of the 268 cases that the FBI has presently reviewed, they found objective and misleading scientific testimony presented by scientists and lab technicians. The dangerous part of subjective evidence is that individuals were convicted based on deceptive testimony. Thirty-three were sent to death row, and of those nine individuals have already been executed who may have been found innocent.
Junk Science Vs. Proven Science
Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, a leadership consultant, gave some helpful advice on collecting forensic evidence and adding value to your case that you present. He called it the three Ds.
- Diligence of effort;
- Dedication to the details;
- Devotion to your field of study.
Sattler’s recommendation was this: “If you took those three Ds and you looked at them every morning, you conducted your daily activities with those as your standard, I don’t think you could do wrong.”
During his commentary of forensics, he implored to the audience that your moral principles should direct your decision-making process. He wanted the forensic scientists and others that were present to understand how important it was that their work was always above reproach. He said it was very similar to military tactics, that as someone whose job it is to collect evidence that your very career reputation depends on your trustworthiness. “Truth matters. In your profession, you live and die — you live and die reputational-wise at a minimum — by getting it right.”
The discussion went further to discuss what is now known as “junk science.” There is a concern across the country about wrongful convictions based on subjective opinion versus true scientific standards. Many crime labs are now implicated in scandals, as cases are being overturned. There is now public scrutiny over many long-standing standards that have guided forensic disciplines for many years, and it’s time to understand the difference between subjective opinion analysis and what is a verifiable fact coming from the evidence.
It has been a common misconception for many years that fingerprint, hair, and even bite mark analysis was a way to implicate an individual for a crime. In certain circumstances, this is a fallacy. Fingerprints can be manipulated by the individual lab technician, depending on the technique used for analysis. This type of manipulation during comparisons can lead to false results. Hair analysis is solely subjective, and while these types of evidence should continue to be collected, you should realize that these are not a basis for arrest or conviction. These are considered a secondary source of evidence. Bite marks have been found to be a subjective opinion, and due to the variations of human skin, it cannot truly be determined at times if the marks are indeed bite marks or some other type of mark on the skin. Understanding the idea that these types of evidence should be backed up with hard facts, like DNA, which is scientific and not a subjective opinion, then evidentiary collection processes can yield a broader picture of the crime.
Understanding that a life is on the line, that a career with a reputation is on the line, should make the process as carefully as a military action. No one wants to take a life in error. Much of this new information regarding junk science and subjective opinion being used in forensic analysis was brought forth in a study by the National Academy of Sciences in 2009. It should be required reading for every forensic analyst and crime scene investigator in the country.
The scientific basis for nearly every type of evidence is questioned in this report. Every forensic discipline that is used to convict people and send them to prison is fallible. The study found that, outside of the DNA process, “no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.”
In one case, an exoneree by the name of Keith Harward spent 33 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. The evidence used to convict him was based on subjective opinion on bite mark evidence. Now that he has been freed, he has vowed to stop this from happening again to someone else. He has stated that any courthouse in the country where bite-mark evidence will be used, he will show up. I will contact the media. I will stand on the street corner in a Statue of Liberty outfit with a big sign saying, ‘This Is Crap.'” As a crime scene investigator or a forensic analyst, can your career or reputation stand up to this? Truth matters.