“I believe that judges are teachers of the law, as well as students of the law. I think that applies to all forensic scientists, too. You can be teachers in the courtroom, as far as forensic science is concerned, but you also have to be a student of forensic science.”
Judge Stephanie Domitrovich, PhD, Sixth Judicial District of Pennsylvania
Both science and justice are, in essence, the pursuit of truth. Perhaps nowhere do those two areas come together more directly than in forensic science. A critical element of the justice system, forensic scientists examine and analyze evidence in order to assist in investigations that ultimately may end up in court.
Forensic science is a wide-reaching field that includes numerous subdisciplines: anthropology, criminalistics, digital sciences, engineering and applied sciences, jurisprudence, odontology, pathology and biology, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, document verification, and toxicology.
As the law and the sciences both evolve, so does forensic science. New technologies, new methodologies, and new discoveries are changing the way that investigations and trials are conducted. Now more than ever, it is important for the legal system to understand what is good science and at the same time, it’s critical for the forensic science community to establish and adhere to consensus-based standards. These joint efforts will help safeguard the justice, integrity, and fairness in the criminal justice system and forensic sciences.
This year’s National Forensic Science Week is scheduled to occur on September 19-25, 2021. It is a time to recognize the important role that proper forensic science plays in the investigation of crimes across the nation, from exonerating the innocent to identifying the guilty. Engaging in National Forensic Science Week events and seminars are immense opportunities to advocate for advancing the field through expanding education and developing standards to promote consistency.
To learn more about how the forensic sciences are evolving, and how they are helping to create a more just system, read on.
Judge Stephanie Domitrovich, PhD, has served as a state trial judge of general jurisdiction for the Sixth Judicial District of Pennsylvania (Erie County, PA) by election since 1989. She is also the first graduate to have earned a PhD, a degree of Doctor in Philosophy in Judicial Studies, from the University of Nevada, Reno.
Judge Domitrovich is a Fellow with the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) and past Chair of the Jurisprudence Section of AAFS (2016-2018). She also currently serves as a Board member of the Forensics Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB).
Judge Domitrovich has presented numerous papers to the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners; SWGSTAIN as a member of the Scientific Working Group on Bloodstain Pattern Evidence, Law and Society; the American Psychology-Law Society; the University of Michigan Department of Pathology Forensic and Autopsy Services; the American Bar Association’s Judicial Division; the PA Bar Association Civil Litigation; and the Jurisprudence Section of American Academy of Forensic Sciences.
Judge Domitrovich is also a member of OSAC, the Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science, reviewing forensic science standards for NIST, National Institute of Standards and Technology. She presented her PhD dissertation for Law & Society at Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany in 2007.
Science and technology are playing an increasingly important role in the justice system. Today’s cases are not decided by secondhand testimony or pseudoscience. Instead, court cases are decided with the assistance of reliable complex scientific findings of DNA tests, fingerprint analysis, and digital forensic evidence of cell phone records. The margin for error in the forensic sciences is thin, and the stakes extremely high: someone’s innocence, or guilt, can hang in the balance.
“Better science and better technology have released many inmates who were wrongfully convicted, and they’ve also helped avoid wrongful convictions,” Judge Domitrovich says. “But objectivity is important. It’s the sciences that must testify.”
When expert scientific testimony is presented in the courtroom, its validity is generally assessed through one of two means: the Frye standard or the Daubert standard. Frye, an older standard that remains law in some jurisdictions, focuses on the general acceptability of an expert’s scientific methods. But Daubert, which is the law in federal court and in over half of the states, focuses on evidentiary reliability, with importance placed on the validity of an expert’s scientific methodology.
“Reliability is the key,” Judge Domitrovich says. “It’s the common thread through every forensic science discipline: to make sure that the science is reliable.”
As Judge Domitrovich points out in her introduction to the judicial education edition of Judge’s Journal from the fall of 2017, Daubert made judges the gatekeepers of admitting relevant and reliable scientific evidence into courtrooms. But a 2009 report in the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concluded that judges and lawyers didn’t have sufficient training and experience to assess the strengths and weaknesses of various methodologies employed across the wide array of forensic sciences. Addressing this gap is a critical priority for the forensic sciences and the justice system.
“It’s important that judges, who have the final say, also know about forensic science and scientific reliability,” Judge Domitrovich says. “In fact, law schools are admitting more students from the physical and biological sciences, which is a big change from the past. Most pre-law students used to major in history or English, but today law schools are more interested in the deductive reasoning that one learns about in the sciences. That deductive reasoning is what future lawyers can take right into the courtroom.”
Educating judges, lawyers, and law enforcement officials in the forensic sciences is one part of the equation; establishing consensus-based standards of practice in the forensic science community is another. Standards that define the minimum requirements, best practices, and standard protocols of forensic science help ensure that the results of forensic analysis are reliable and reproducible.
The Academy of American Forensic Sciences (AAFS) founded the AAFS Standards Board (ASB)—the first ANSI-accredited Standards Developing Organization (SDO) dedicated to the forensic sciences. ASB’s commitment to providing accessible, high-quality, consensus-based standards is supported by the work of Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science (OSAC), which maintains a registry of forensic standards and helps promote the adoption and implementation of standards into the forensic community. OSAC has already made significant progress in helping establish standards in sexual assault investigations, in DNA testing, and firearm examination.
“In the aim of reliable science to enter our courtrooms, it’s so important that we have these standards,” Judge Domitrovich says.
Standards and best practices require forensic professionals to continually educate themselves in their field. But standards and best practices also help reduce cognitive or implicit bias, by applying methodologies which prioritize the scientific process, rather than the investigational conclusion. Forensic science relies upon its iterative nature to improve itself, and better grasp the truth; forensic professionals, and legal experts, will increasingly need to do the same.
“I believe that judges are teachers of the law, as well as students of the law,” Judge Domitrovich says. “I think that applies to all forensic scientists, too. You can be teachers in the courtroom, as far as forensic science is concerned, but you also have to be a student of forensic science. You have to actually understand it, the underlying objectives, the best practices, the standards, and how they apply to give us reliability.”
Forensic science is continually evolving, and its advancement can lead to a more just system for all. To connect with the broader community of the forensic sciences and learn where the field of forensic science is headed, check out some of the resources below.
Matt Zbrog is a writer and freelancer who has been living abroad since 2016. His nonfiction has been published by Euromaidan Press, Cirrus Gallery, and Our Thursday. Both his writing and his experience abroad are shaped by seeking out alternative lifestyles and counterculture movements, especially in developing nations. You can follow his travels through Eastern Europe and Central Asia on Instagram at @weirdviewmirror. He’s recently finished his second novel, and is in no hurry to publish it.