Lessons from the 2013 AAFS convention

 I just finished attending my third American Academy of Forensic Sciences convention. As usual, there were too many presentations to attend, and most of the presentations are far too short. Unlike most legal CLE, most of the presentations are only 15-20  minutes, which just lets you hit the high points.

It's been a couple of years since the NAS report came out, and it looks like forensic scientists are no longer complaining about it - and have accepted its here to stay. People are still defensive though, and I observed several people comment when it appears their particular discipline was being attacked.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this issue, and while I don't  have answers, I do have some general observations. First, I don't think most forensic scientists are bad people, and out to help the prosecution. There may be a few, but I think they are the exception. Instead, I believe almost all forensic scientists think of themselves as impartial, and try to do the best possible job. As a result, they take offense when lawyers attack them. At the core, I think this reflects a basic understanding of human nature and psychology.

The fact is most forensic scientists work for state labs - as a result, almost all of their contact is with the state, whether it be police or prosecutors. We all tend to relate to those we hang out with. For the most part, they know the officers and prosecutors, and probably have spent a lot of time talking with them. They may even know a few things about their personal lives. If you don't believe this, think about the people you work with. There me be someone you hate, but for the most part you consider co-workers at least casual friends. If there was a dispute involving them and someone you didn't know, you would probably identify with your co-worker.  It's not a conscious decision - instead, you don't give it a second thought.

Why should forensic scientists be any different - they are people just like anyone else. While I don't think they consciously set out to take sides, they can't help but do so. They identify with the prosecution, and I have seen that demonstrated time and time again. When you tell someone you are a defense lawyer, more often than not they make a comment about being on the other side.

The problem is not with the individual scientists, but with the system. The decision to separate crime labs from the police and make them independent is another discussion. But I still don't think that will completely eliminate the problem. Because they still are going to deal primarily with the police and prosecutors.

Everyone involved has the same objective - to seek the truth. While we all recognize that, I don't think we have come to grips with the human dynamics involved.

I've got some more thoughts - particularly on the caliber of the people that attend these conferences, but I'll save that for the next installment.

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