Sleuthing scientific evidence information on the Internet.

Author:Henderson, Carol
Position:The Role of the Courts in Improving Forensic Science: An Empirical Research Agenda for the Forensic Sciences


There is no ignoring the impact of scientific evidence in the legal system today. New developments in science and technology are advancing at a rapid pace. Digital and multimedia sciences, canine scent detection, and touch DNA are just a few of the scientific fields that continue to perplex the justice system as they evolve at an exponential rate. Judges, attorneys, scientists, and law enforcement need to keep abreast of scientific advances. Non-uniformity among forensic laboratory operational and accreditation standards has contributed to the challenge faced by the legal community as a whole. A sturdy framework of interdisciplinary communication and scientific training has become a necessity for the legal and forensic communities to more effectively and reliably use scientific evidence, particularly in criminal prosecutions.

While scientific evidence is a key component of proof in many legal matters, it is not infallible or free from misapprehension. It is the ethical responsibility of judges, attorneys, and expert witnesses to understand and reliably explain this increasingly complex evidence to the jury. The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct 1.1 and 1.3 regarding competence and diligence require an attorney to provide reasonably competent representation, which could include seeking expert advice and additional scientific testing. (1) Unrealistic juror expectations of forensic evidence and its accuracy (the so-called "CSI Effect") has become a prevalent issue among criminal prosecutors and defense attorneys alike. (2) Lawyers need to be aware of the ethical implications of errant experts, and failing to diligently verify the credentials of expert witnesses. (3) Lawyers also need to be prepared to challenge opposing experts in order to test the veracity of an expert witness' testimony and the scientific principles of his expert opinion. (4) The lawyer who turns a blind eye to these advances and expectations does so at her own peril and to the detriment of her client and the justice system as a whole.

Congress recognized the importance of scientific evidence to the legal system and called for the creation of an independent forensic science committee at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to identify the needs of the forensic science community, including assessing present and future resource needs of labs, medical examiner, and coroner offices; identifying potential scientific advances that will assist law enforcement in using forensic technologies; and determining how to disseminate best practices and guidelines to ensure quality and consistency in the use of technologies and techniques." This effort resulted in the report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward (NAS Report). (6)

The NAS Report noted that "[l]awyers and judges often have insufficient training and background in scientific methods, and they often fail to fully comprehend the approaches employed by different forensic science disciplines and the strengths and vulnerabilities of forensic science evidence offered during trials." (7) Additionally, the NAS Report stated:

The fruits of any advances in the forensic science disciplines should be transferred directly to legal scholars and practitioners, ... members of the judiciary, and [other members of the justice system] ... so that appropriate adjustments can be made in criminal and civil laws and procedures, model jury instructions, law enforcement practices, litigation, strategies, and judicial decision making. (8) Further, "judges need to be better educated in forensic science methodologies and practices." (9)

Two government entities were established to address the NAS Report's recommendations: the National Commission on Forensic Science (NCFS), (10) whose mission is to develop policy, and the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC), whose mission is to develop discipline-specific practice standards and guidelines. (11) OSAC has a Forensic Resource Committee and NCFS has a Training on Science and Law Subcommittee, providing insight into how scientific developments and regulations will ultimately impact the law of admissibility, and how the educational requirements of lawyers and judges must be adapted to meet the needs of modern forensic sciences. (12)

What follows is an overview of some of the valuable resources on scientific evidence that the legal profession needs and the criminal and civil justice systems require for justice to be served in today's science and technology-driven climate. These resources range from general information on scientific disciplines to professional organizations and discipline-specific research databases. Those who research scientific evidence topics often use the internet in their quest for information and resources. It may be helpful to begin researching more generalized databases and websites that offer encyclopedic information on different scientific disciplines. This guide provides some of the essential online resources for scientific evidence that can be accessed by judges, attorneys, and scientists to keep abreast of trends and issues in science.


The National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology, and the Law (NCSTL) at Stetson University College of Law was created to address the justice system's escalating need for information on science, technology, and the law. (13) It provides a website that gathers a wide variety of forensic-related information in one place, freely available to public users. Its forensic database of bibliographic information includes books, scientific and legal journal articles, newspaper and magazine articles, multimedia, seminars and conference sessions, dissertations, and organizations. (14) Books and articles indexed in NCSTL's database are available through interlibrary loan from the Stetson Law Library. (15) The website's "Resources" section provides a directory of hundreds of scientific and law-related links that are useful for forensic researchers. (16)

NCSTL's educational programming has provided a wide variety of classes for lawyers, judges, scientists, and others. (17) The Education and Training section of the website provides handouts created for professional development presentations by NCSTL staff, as well as transcripts, podcasts, and webcasts of lectures on forensic science and technology. (18) It includes modules such as:

The Law 101: Legal Guide for the Forensic Expert module provides thirteen educational modules for non-lawyers regarding policies, procedures, and protocols that exist when serving as an expert witness. (19) Some of these modules include:

* DNA for the Defense: The NCSTL, National Institute of Justice (NIJ), and an expert advisory group produced DNA for the Defense, which provides training to defense counsel regarding the uses of DNA evidence in judicial proceedings, as well as how this evidence is used throughout case assessment, discovery, and trial. (20)

* Forensic Science for Capital Litigators 2009-2012: NCSTL presented a series of in-person Forensic Science for Capital Litigators courses from 2009 to 2012. Course materials and both audio and video are available on NCSTL's website. (21)

* Forensic Science for Capital Litigators Online Course: In 2014, NCSTL produced an online course that provides educational information in over fourteen major forensic topic areas, including DNA, forensic anthropology, digital and multimedia sciences, and toxicology. (22) The course focuses on information useful to lawyers preparing capital cases. (23) Lawyers can earn continuing legal education credit for this course. (24)

* SANE-SART Training: A collaborative effort between NCSTL and SANE-SART Resource Services provides both in-person and online training for various types of forensic examinations by nurses. (25)

In 2015, NCSTL received a Bureau of Justice Assistance grant to develop courses under the Capital Litigation Initiative: Crime Scene to Courtroom Forensics Training program. (26) NCSTL is producing eight webinars and two live symposia for prosecutors and defense attorneys who litigate capital cases. (27) The first two webinars, Crime Scene Essentials and Crime Lab Essentials, are available in the Education and Training section of NCSTL's website. (28) Bibliographic resources for the webinars and symposia are also available. (29)

The NIJ's Forensic Sciences webpages provide the full text of many NIJ publications related to forensic sciences, as well as descriptions of related NIJ programs and funding sources. (30) One of the essential works for forensics is the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Handbook of Forensic Services, the text of which can be found online at the FBI website. (31) This online version is divided into four major sections: Introduction, Submitting Evidence, Evidence Examinations, and Crime Scene Safety. (32)

A database of books from both FORENSICnetBASE and LawENFORCEMENTnetBASE provides the texts of dozens of forensic science and criminal justice books, which are available in full text. (33) Forensic topics include general forensics, forensic pathology, computer crime investigation, and arson and fire investigation. (34) It is available from CRCnetBASE for an annual subscription fee. (35)

Several useful forensic-related websites provide either research pathfinders or a categorized directory of web links, or both. Gelman Library's Forensic Sciences Pathfinder is an excellent resource. (36) Provided by George Washington University, this site provides information about forensic-related...

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