AMU Law Enforcement Original Public Safety

Incorporating Humility and Honesty into Forensic Science

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By Dr. Dena Weiss
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice

Law enforcement often builds criminal cases around the forensic evidence found at crime scenes. The pressure on forensic technicians to find the clues to the puzzle is immense in some situations. Victims’ families want answers, top brass wants the case solved yesterday and a state attorney looms nearby to prepare a prosecution.

Overall, everyone involved in criminal justice wants people in the community to feel safe and remain confident that law enforcement is keeping murderers off the street. However, humility is key to working a case honestly and methodically.

Humility Plays a Crucial Role in Good Criminal Justice Leadership

Thorough analysis of a crime scene requires a team comprised of different personalities with varying analytical skills. The crime scene supervisor must lead with humility. In other words, that supervisor must listen to team members not with the attitude of he or she knows all the answers; instead, that leader should be eager to hear the opinions of those involved in collecting crucial evidence.

How a leader acts at a crime scene influences the interaction patterns of all involved in the criminal investigation. Humility is not about being above those you work with, but improving yourself by learning from your employees’ successes and failures.

Fostering the development of others is also important in good leadership. As a leader, you should encourage your subordinates to speak their minds and share ideas. You should also provide honest feedback that encourages their professional development.

Forensic crime laboratories that analyze the evidence collected at crime scenes have suffered several recent setbacks with the realization that not all forensic techniques being used to prosecute offenders are based on sound scientific techniques. Insufficient training of forensic analysts and lack of protocol in some agencies have resulted in faulty court testimony.

The FBI and the Madrid Train Bombing: A Case Study of Why Honesty and Humility Are Important

In 1992, Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck at the Cardozo School of Law formed The Innocence Project to exonerate those who have been wrongfully convicted. Although misidentification by eyewitnesses and poor attorney representation have contributed to many wrongful convictions, forensic science errors have also been a significant problem. Approximately 52% of wrongfully convicted individuals were incarcerated due to flawed forensic practices.

One case that involved erroneous forensic analysis was the Madrid train bombing case. In 2004, FBI personnel entered a latent print from a plastic bag linked to the case into the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS). The IAFIS fingerprint analyst who entered the fingerprint into the system concluded that the unknown print from the bag contained the same features as a fingerprint from the IAFIS system candidate list. Several other latent print examiners agreed the two fingerprints originated from the same individual.

However, the law enforcement agency in Spain that requested the assistance from the FBI in searching the IAFIS for a match disagreed with the findings. Ultimately, it was determined the FBI had inaccurately come to the conclusion regarding the print from the case and the candidate list. The FBI had misidentified an individual as being involved in a terrorist bombing and now had a very serious situation on their hands.

Several of their own experienced latent print examiners had not followed protocol and were now left to explain themselves. Rather than make excuses or deny the error, the FBI swallowed their pride and showed humility.

Later, the FBI’s Quality Assurance and Training Unit formed an international review committee to review what went terribly wrong. The review committee assessed the following:

  • The effects image capture and compression may have had on the examination
  • The risks in two agencies both working on the same evidence examination
  • Methods designed to identify policies, procedures and guidelines to avoid errors in the future

The review committee determined that the latent fingerprint examination protocol referred to as ACE-V methodology was not followed in this case. The FBI quickly identified a weakness in the system and accepted full responsibility for the mistake.

As a consequence of addressing this mistake with honesty and humility, the end result was more than just the FBI learning from the experience. The recommendations suggested by the review committee benefited the entire latent print community and forensic laboratories across the globe.

Humility Is Needed in Criminal Prosecution and Seeking True Justice

Humility is also needed in the prosecution’s approach to old cases where evidence introduced in trial is being questioned years later. DNA technology advances have resulted in biological evidence testing capabilities that did not exist 25 years ago.

Because of this change in technological capabilities, many convicted felons have petitioned the court for post-conviction analysis of forensic evidence that was not examined in preparation for their trials. There have been incidents where prosecutors have argued against these claims of innocence and the validity of the appeal.

For these prosecutors, is this a power play? Are they not interested in pursuing every avenue of justice?

Prosecutors must be willing to admit mistakes do happen on their watch. Justice is not always the outcome, no matter what appears to be the truth at the time.

In a 2016 article written by attorney Steven Becker for DePaul University’s “Journal for Social Justice,” Becker states that the virtue of humility is an essential quality in seeking justice. This principle should apply to all those in the law enforcement and justice community. We must all self-reflect when needed and admit our own weaknesses.

In a career field where every day brings a new challenge, there is much to learn from those around us. Whether you are an officer, forensic scientist, judge, or attorney, you must have the fortitude to face the more difficult days filled with adversity with honesty and humility.

About the Author

Dr. Dena Weiss is an associate professor at American Military University, teaching courses in criminal justice and forensic science. She recently retired after working 24 years as a crime scene investigator and fingerprint examiner for a central Florida police department. Prior to that position, Dr. Weiss was a serologist for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Her court experience includes testifying in more than 200 federal and circuit court cases in over 15 Florida counties.

Dr. Weiss is also an active member of the Florida Emergency Mortuary Operations Response System (FEMORS). Her educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and sociology, a master’s degree in forensic science from Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as a Ph.D. in business administration with an emphasis in criminal justice. 

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