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Putting the Science in Forensic Science




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As a teenager in Cape Girardeau, Mo., Eric Law soaked in television crime dramas such as “CSI” and, his personal favorite, “Bones.” Taking down villains through fingerprint matching and blood spatter analysis sounded so righteous and gratifying. Law thought, “Why not make a career out of it?”

Like most fans of crime solving entertainment, Law was unknowingly influenced by the “CSI effect,” the public’s expectation from television shows that the path to solving crime through  forensic science is clear, quick and inevitable.

Law, BS ’14, MS ’16, Forensic and Investigative Science, found  out how wrong that was firsthand in his junior year. 

“On TV, when you enter a fingerprint into a database, you’ll see overlays of two fingerprints and it’s an instant match,” he said. “The face of the suspect pops up on a computer and it has all of his information right there.

“It’s not like that at all.”

Instead, fingerprint databases generate a list of potential matches, prompting the examiner to click on each candidate to manually compare the prints. That process alone could easily  fill up an hour of TV time. 

Law is working on his third forensic science degree at West Virginia University, the only university in the country to offer a bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree in the field. And as of 2016, it’s one of two to offer a PhD program in forensic science – the other is Sam Houston State University. Of these two programs, only WVU is designated as a highest-research activity institution by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. 

Law is a member of a growing field that is navigating a path through working as an arm of law enforcement and evolving as a science.

Under the microscope 

Earlier this year, Suzanne Bell, director of the WVU Department of Forensic and Investigative Science, and a small group of fellow scientists published a report in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences of the United States of America titled “A call for more science in forensic science.”

Bell and the scientists were on the National Commission on Forensic Science in the subcommittee on Scientific Inquiry and Research until the U.S. Department of Justice disbanded the commission in 2017.

The recent report led by Bell distilled the problem: “Forensic science is at a crossroads. It is torn between the practices of science, which require empirical demonstration of the validity and accuracy of methods, and the practices of law, which accept methods based on historical precedent even if they have never been subjected to meaningful empirical validation.”

While some aspects of the science are evolving, such as latent fingerprint analysis, others have been discounted, such as bite-mark identification, which the report says has been discredited by scientific studies and false convictions. Despite this, bite-mark identification is still used in the court system because of legal precedent.

Bell believes the government’s methods for evaluating scientific merit and expert testimony is outdated. 

Having a system that is “primarily prosecutorial in nature creates an inherent conflict of interest that can introduce bias. The role of the prosecution and defense is to win their case through competing arguments,” Bell said. “Scientific evidence and testimony is often part of these cases, but neither ‘side’ can or should be expected to evaluate underlying scientific integrity on its own merits.”

As noted in Bell’s recent report, some academic researchers have referred to forensic science as “merely”  an applied science that relies mostly on subjectivity rather than objectivity. 
For example, when a trained professional gives courtroom testimony, he or she often compares pieces  of evidence and offers an expert opinion on whether or not they’re a perfect match. This is called pattern matching. Forensic science critics say that’s not  enough. They contend that only DNA analysis can  be statistically validated. 

“This kind of ingrained attitude can be just as harmful to progress in forensic science as the improper reliance on precedent,” Bell said. “A hallmark of WVU’s program is integration of groundbreaking research in forensic science that clearly counters such misconceptions. Like any diagnostic science, a solid foundation of data and analysis is used to interrogate and integrate data and form opinions.”

Jacqueline Speir
Jacqueline Speir, assistant research professor, has created a one-of-its-kind database of footwear soles in the United States for forensic research.

As Jacqueline Speir, an assistant professor in the department, notes, “all sciences have subjective elements.” 

“Look at the medical discipline, which employs the same pattern-analysis process used in forensic science,” Speir said. “Physicians collect observations through a patient’s self-report of symptoms, which leads to a hypothesis regarding an ailment, which further necessitates laboratory tests, before the pattern of symptoms and test results allow for a diagnosis. Medical personnel have to evaluate all the evidence in context to formulate a diagnosis, which includes both subjective and objective steps. This idea that science is completely objective – that doesn’t really fit with reality.”

Speir believes that forensic science should include a blend of objectivity and subjectivity. 

“We are not at a place where computers can accurately integrate all the subtle variations that a human-observer immediately and seamlessly uses when arriving at a decision,” Speir said. “There will likely always be a need for both – the subject matter expert and the objective metrics she employs.”

In 2014, Speir received nearly $400,000 in grant funding from the National Institute of Justice to research the forensic value of shoe evidence. She used the funding to build a database that’s the first-of-its kind in the U.S. – a database of 1,300 outsoles with 72,306 randomly acquired characteristics, which are features that develop on footwear outsoles as a result of wear, such as scratches and tears. The characteristics are essential for identifying particular footwear as the source of  an impression. 

Speir and her students collected the shoes, a random sampling of mostly men’s athletic footwear, scanned images of the soles and identified their traits.

“Our database can be used to understand how often, by chance alone, we would associate a nick or tear to two unrelated outsoles,” Speir explained. “If I find a nick on my outsole, I would want to be able to say how likely it is that another unrelated shoe by random chance would have the same nick, with the same geometry, of the same size and orientation and in the exact same position.”

The database is ever-growing and Speir hopes the forensic and legal communities find value in it.

“Examiners out in the field are busy with casework and don’t have time to collect, process and analyze this type of data, which is a luxury afforded to researchers,” she said, “but when practitioners and academics work together to answer these questions, the field as a whole can advance in ways not possible if we each work in isolation.” 


As Bell and other scientists advocate for a more accurate understanding of their field, they’re also tasked with training the next generation’s Temperance  Brennan and Gil Grissom.

Four short years after the discovery of DNA analysis, WVU launched a forensic science program in 1998. At the time it was a small partnership with the FBI. Adjunct instructors from law enforcement taught fingerprint data analysis and crime scene investigation. Chemists and biologists oversaw the program because there were very few forensic scientists in academia. 

With support from the University and the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, the program grew both in students and faculty. It earned accreditation, established mock crime scene houses – the largest such complex in the country – and added state-of-the-art laboratories such as the Ballistics Research Laboratory and advanced forensic photography lab.

Crime Scene House
Forensics students review “evidence” left behind at one of the WVU mock crime scene houses. Photo by Jennifer Shephard.

The range of research undertaken by faculty include explosives, synthetic drugs, forensic toxicology, latent fingerprint recognition, printing ink evidence and insect and arthropod biology. 
By 2014, the program blossomed into its own full-fledged department.

“Now that we have R1 status, we’re quite aware of our leadership on the national stage,” Bell said of the University’s standing as a highest-activity research institution according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. “After several PhD programs popped up and died at other universities over  the years, people have looked at us and said, ‘Thank God WVU is in it because it will be done right.’ That’s high praise for the department, the college and WVU.”

Collectively, the faculty has more than 150 years of forensic laboratory experience. Bell worked for the New Mexico State Police Crime Laboratory as a forensic chemist, drug analyst, arson analyst and crime scene investigator. She then worked at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory before becoming a professor and joining the WVU Department of Chemistry in 2003. Her role in the forensic program grew as she taught crime scene and blood spatter courses. 

“I always wanted to be a police officer or federal agent,” Bell said. “My adviser urged me to take chem courses and I ended up a double major in chemistry and criminal justice. I asked, ‘Now what do I do with this?’ He said to visit a lab and go to grad school.  It was a pivotal moment and decision and led me to work with the leading forensic scientists of that time. I was very fortunate.”

WVU is working to make the path to forensic science more direct and robust. Ninety percent of 2016 graduates have either found a job in their field or are working toward an advanced degree.  That same year, the field had 15,400 forensic science technicians, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number is expected to grow 17 percent to 18,000 by 2026.

That doesn’t account for the growth in research and education. 

“There’s a need for our PhD program at WVU,” said Law, the PhD student. “There are problems with the justice system, and error rates in forensic science are frequently criticized. It’s important to have people with scientific and research backgrounds tackle those issues.”

Law’s research takes aim at firearms investigation. He’s been test-firing, studying and replicating cartridge cases in an attempt to make linking cartridge cases to weapons and weapons to individuals more accurate. 

“There’s lots of variability,” Law said. “If I shoot a gun 10 times, they all won’t look identical when comparing them. My master’s thesis was more statistics-based, looking at how many cases you need to capture variability within a firearm.”

Law’s work ties in with that of the federal Defense Forensic Science Center, which is funding research to establish error rates for firearms tracking. 

“Even with statistics, you can never say for sure it’s a 100-percent match,” Law said. “But you can say it’s ‘likely.’ There’s always a little bit of room for error. But the end goal of my research is to capture that variability, to better identify which guns are used in a crime.”

Law has gone as far as to produce replicas of spent cartridge cases using rubber and plastic resin. 

“Plastic reproduction of cartridge cases actually gives you the detail you’d see from that cartridge case perfectly,” he said. 

Down the road, Law sees himself teaching forensic science at a university. But before that, he hopes to gain practical experience in the field, whether through an agency like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms  and Explosives or the Department of Defense, before re-entering academia. 

“One of the things I like most about WVU is that the faculty have real-world experience,” Law said. “That’s why WVU is in such a unique position. It’s our research faculty and our facilities that can’t be beat. 

“With four crime scene houses, a garage for vehicle processing and a ballistics testing facility, I couldn’t get  this experience anywhere else.”