…there are important differences between the quest for truth in the courtroom and the quest for truth in the laboratory. Scientific conclusions are subject to perpetual revision. Law, on the other hand, must resolve disputes finally and quickly.
Legal professionals and scientists have different cultural norms, and at times, conflicting ethics. These disparities are at the root of some underlying tensions between science and law.
Lawyers are taught that they should be zealous advocates for their clients.
Scientists and lab analysts are trained to be neutral observers, in pursuit of objective truth.
These different perspectives can lead to misunderstandings: when science is applied to law, it can seem as if there are two sides pitted against one another. When analysts weigh-in with evidence that supports one side, it can seem as if they’ve chosen an adversarial position.
Scientists generally have two types of goals at the core of their work: epistemic and practical.
The epistemic goals of science are intrinsically driven. They include the advancement of human knowledge, the accurate description of nature, hypothesis testing, the elimination of errors and bias, and educating the public and other scientists.
The practical goals of science are focused on using the scientific method and technologies/techniques designed through the scientific method, to improve society through applied sciences.
These two aims often overlap and blend in the field of forensic science.
Another complicating factor between the professions is that science advances at a breakneck pace compared to the development of the law.
Scientific methodologies and protocols can be completely revamped in a year’s time. New technologies seem to emerge from moment to moment. The law, on the other hand, progresses very slowly. Stare decisis builds through years of cases working through the slow-moving legal framework. Legislative changes can take even longer, depending upon current politics, budgets, and public opinion.
There is a potential for conflict as lawyers, scientists, judges, and juries struggle over the merit of emerging methodologies. Courts are forced to make decisions based on the scientific thinking of the time—even though that thinking is almost certain to shift.
Clearly, not all new science will in the end prove to be good science – which is why standards such as Frye and Daubert are invoked. Legal standards are in place in order to push back against the premature acceptance of new technologies and procedures, until the effectiveness can be properly understood, and the science declared reliable.
Because of the adversarial structure of the legal system, all attorneys must watch out for scientist error. Whether it’s an error that strengthens or weakens the attorneys’ evidence, a mistake can be used against the responsible lab for years to come, even if it was corrected and never repeated. Searching for and preventing errors can become an emotionally charged situation.
One of the processes that can help cut down on errors is proficiency testing. Some analysts may feel that the defense bar pushes for proficiency testing in hopes of finding something amiss. The defense bar, of course, describes their motivation as the quest for high quality lab work. Professional proficiency testing operations agree, citing quality improvement as the primary reason for conducting their tests.
Most laboratory directors agree with that reasoning, but some remain suspicious of motivations. While there is little doubt that proficiency testing serves as a useful tool in quality assurance, an error in a proficiency test can still serve as a weapon in the hands of an advocate.
While there is not much to be done about these differing perspectives, it is important to realize that this cultural difference colors the way that legal professionals and scientists view lab error.
Legal ethics codes stress the U.S. Justice System’s adversarial system, where justice is the guiding principle. However, while scientists are expected to be objective and unbiased, there is no unified ethical code for forensic practitioners.
Forensic scientists are often under pressure from both defense and prosecution attorneys, who are working to present evidence in the best possible light for their clients. While working under this pressure and without a consistent ethical code, it is likely that analysts deliver some biased results.
Learn more about the questions that need to be asked and the language to understand while evaluating evidence in the next section, entitled Language.