Ethics in Forensic Science

The temptation for the forensic scientist ... is to become a servant of the police and the criminal prosecutor’s office to the extent that truth is sacrificed.. Such forensic scientists improperly join in the chase for a likely suspect and resolve doubts in support of their colleagues in the police department.

—William Curran


Forensic science is a historical science applied to criminal investigation and legal matters. It is the association of people, places, and things involved in criminal activity. The goal of investigation is to answer questions such as what crime was committed, who committed the crime, and what evidence is pertinent to the crime. Evidence is anything that helps prove or disprove material facts and may be physical or testimonial. The goal of forensic scientists is to examine evidence, to piece together facts based on evidence, and to convey the results to investigators, attorneys, judges, and juries via reports and testimony. Criminal investigation involves police, attorneys, and scientists. It is the job of the police officers, detectives, and/or crime scene investigators to report to the scene of a crime. Once the scene is processed, forensic scientists analyze the evidence that crime scene personnel have recovered. Forensic scientist positions used to primarily consist of trained biologists or chemists who received on-the-job training and gained experience for the legal aspects of the job. Within the past 20 years, undergraduate and graduate programs in forensic science have become the norm. Since the O. J. Simpson trial, the public has become increasingly aware of the value of forensic analysis and the importance of conducting exams consistently, by applying standard protocols. With the increased popularity of the science have come a number of television shows depicting Hollywood’s version of forensic science. Although glamorous and fast paced, the media depicts a deceiving reality of forensic science. The public is led to believe that important evidence is found in every crime, that cases are always solved and quickly, and that, with the aid of technology, instruments do the work for the scientists. Another misconception is that one person is responsible for a number of areas within the investigation, as opposed to specializing in a particular discipline. The true value of scientists is skewed by the Hollywood characters’ ability to carry guns, to question witnesses, to process crime scenes, and to analyze a variety of evidence when, in reality, such a job is conducted by many people (and unless the crime scene investigator (CSI) is a sworn officer, the person does not carry a gun). The issues mentioned may facilitate unethical behavior if a scientist allows such hype to become a distraction or an influence. This chapter looks at the reality of forensic science.

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