Volume 23, Issue 1 (January 1978)
Theoretical Field Concepts in Forensic Science. I. Application to Recognition and Retrieval of Physical Evidence
Since the time when modern science was first used in a criminal investigation, its role in the judicial process has been accepted as being worthwhile. Today the call for expanded use of sceince in judicial processes is being increasingly raised by diverse necessities such as Supreme Court rulings restricting certain police practices and requiring independent corroboration of facts, official concern over rising crime rates, and society's view that technology, which has solved many complex problems involving human endeavor, can be successfully enlisted in the service of justice. However, recent expert opinion as well as several empirical studies have indicated that the role of scientific resources in judicial decision making is at best peripheral [1–4] and at worst inconsequential [5,6]. Though Parker  feels that “the problems of the proper utilization of physical evidence are poorly formulated at present, and there is a critical need for research on their solutions,” several factors have been mentioned by forensic scientists and administrators to explain the meager scientific involvement in the justice system. Lack of funds, dearth of trained forensic science personnel, inadequate forensic science facilities, unavailability of forensic science laboratories in many areas, and other factors have been cited by administrators . The reason usually given by the forensic scientists is the dearth of physical evidence submitted to the forensic science laboratories by the people engaged in field investigations because of their inadequate or superficial training in the recognition and collection of physical evidence  and the “lack of knowledge as to how the crime laboratory can aid the criminal investigator” . To increase the flow of physical evidence into the laboratory by education of the police officer, field investigator, and the evidence technician a number of pamphlets, manuals, articles, and books have been written, courses have been offered in academic institutions, and lectures have been given on a regular basis in police academies to explain the importance of physical evidence and the proper procedures for its collection as well as the potentials and limitations of forensic science laboratories. This approach has been predicated on the assumption that forensic science is a coherent discipline based on clearly enunciated principles, well-defined and understood concepts, and agreed upon operational functions and goals. This, however, is not the case, as shown both by expert opinion and empirical evidence. In 1963, Kirk  stated that “there exists in the field of criminalistics a serious deficiency in basic theory and principles as contrasted with the large assortment of effective technical procedures.” And six years later  he asserted: “There is no unanimity as to the true role of criminalistics and its directions,” which Benson et al , a year later, found to be true in their attempt at a systems analysis of criminalistics operations. They found that “criminalistics has often had attributed to it a number of roles that are difficult to identify and quantify with available data” and that it was not possible to determine “what crime laboratories do, or more properly, what crime laboratories should do.” These statements imply several points : 1. Regarding the nature of forensic science, our assumptions are frequently implicit, sometimes quite unconscious, and perhaps often conflicting. 2. Without a properly defined objective, the value of this field to the judicial system in particular and to public policymaking in general will remain questionable, the development of remedial measures in terms of its involvement in the decision-making processes will remain uncertain, and the results of such an involvement will be unpredictable. 3. There is a pressing need to establish a workable theoretical foundation for this field. If such a theory were developed it would allow us to unify the field of forensic science and structure a discipline, define its aim and methods, and specify its role and place in public policy and decision making in judicial process. With this accomplished, it would be possible to derive its scope and specific procedures, clarify the educational and training requirements of its practitioners as well as its users, identify the areas of new research, develop operational stategies which would allow its proper implementation in public policy and judicial decision making, and provide an objective measure of its contributions or lack of them.