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Forensic science and ethics in the headlines.

REMARKABLE TIMING: In this issue, Aric W. Dutelle shares an excerpt from his new book, Ethics for the Public Service Professional. In the article—that we slated for inclusion in this issue months ago—Dutelle states, “A search of recent cases involving mismanagement, improper documentation, unethical testimony, and improper analysis of physical evidence is bound to bring the searcher a plethora of cases associated with such matters.”

That certainly would have been true months ago, but today doing a search for unethical behavior in the crime laboratory will likely turn up one high-profile case in particular that just made headlines in mid-March: The unethical actions of former Army forensic analyst Phillip Mills.

Most readers are likely well aware of the story, but in short: A McClatchy Newspapers investigation brought to light ten years worth of Mills’ “thoroughness issues” (that included “failure to examine all samples”) and “DNA issues” (that included protocol violations and mistaken documentation).

Major national stories such as this may seem to cast a shadow over forensic science, but they actually provide a teaching moment and opportunity for reflection for those within the profession. If you flip forward to Dutelle’s article (Page 24), you will find that taking a closer look at ethics is not just about fishing out disreputable individuals with backward morals. Ensuring that personnel are acting “ethically” means educating them—providing them with the tools they need so that they fully understand that Yes, when you present statistical data on the witness stand, it needs to be backed up with empirical data; or No, your job is not to determine who is guilty—your job is to present scientific findings to the jury.

“Sometimes the motivation is greed; other times, it is power, status, or promotion,” writes Dutelle of unethical behavior. “But more often it is a case of the individual forgetting that his or her obligation is to the truth and not to one side or the other … (And) many times such instances can be avoided through a thorough background investigation, proper ethical training, and correct management practices.”

And it also stands to be said that for every headline about unethical behavior in the crime laboratory or at the crime scene, there are countless untold stories about the professionals who do it right: unbiased, working at the level appropriate for their training and ability, and executing their work to the letter of their agency’s standard operating procedures.
Those correct actions may not make national headlines, but they make all the difference in the world.

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Evidence Technology Magazine

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