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Standards Impact the Forensic Sciences

by John J. Lentini

In the wake of recent court decisions and publicity, the necessity of standards for the conduct of forensic investigations is becoming an accepted fact within the discipline. John Lentini, chairman of ASTM Committee E30 on Forensic Sciences, talks about the committee’s growth in the last decade.

When ASTM Committee E30 on Forensic Sciences was reconstituted in 1989, there was only a small, but determined band of forensic scientists who believed that standardization was a useful concept for processing forensic evidence. The critics of standardization believed that ASTM standards were fine for characterizing industrial parts or for specifying test methods to verify the elemental content of a billet of steel, but in the forensic laboratory, “every sample is different, and most are way too small.”

Much has changed in the last decade. ASTM Committee E30 now has close to 400 members. The 30 or so forensic science standards that E30 has promulgated, while they cannot be said to have changed the face of forensic science, have certainly changed the way many laboratories do business. In those fields where there are applicable E30 standards, they are widely adopted because the accrediting bodies that audit laboratories understand their significance. Thirty years ago, every laboratory had its own set of procedures for every examination, or there were no written procedures at all. Almost all forensic laboratories today have well documented procedures, and many of them reference E30 standards.

The Legal Context

Certainly, the high quality of the consensus standards produced by the E30 committee has much to do with the success of ASTM standards in forensic laboratories, but there were two external events that caused the leaders of the forensic science profession to recognize the need for standards in their laboratories. The first major event occurred in 1993, when the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of Daubert v. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals. This case supplemented the old standard of Frye that required that scientific testimony, in order to be admitted, must be generally accepted by the scientific community. Frye had, for 75 years, been the standard that judges used to determine admissibility of scientific evidence. Daubert stated that Frye was too limiting, and allowed judges more latitude in admitting scientific evidence that was not necessarily “generally accepted.” However, it put on judges more responsibility to serve as “gatekeepers.” It is likely that in the seven years since the Daubert decision came down, more expert testimony has been excluded than was excluded under the entire 75 years of the Frye rule.

The Daubert court, in attempting to provide guidance to judges to help them determine the relevance and reliability of proposed scientific testimony, laid out a series of queries that the judge could apply to the evidence to determine whether it should be admitted. Among these are the known or potential rate of error for a particular technique, general acceptance of the technique, whether the technique has been peer reviewed or published, and whether there exist standards for the technique’s operation. Thus, the peer review to which a method or technique is subjected during the standards development process and the existence of the standards themselves can be the key to admissibility.

The second major event that influenced the desire of the forensic science community to improve the quality of its operations was the O.J. Simpson trial, which riveted the nation’s attention on the minutiae of forensic science procedures.

The original E30 standards were developed with product liability cases in mind, by the committee’s Engineering subcommittee, which at one time was split off into its own committee, E40. E40 has since been reabsorbed back into E30 as the engineering subcommittee, E30.05. The standards produced by this group have been generalized to include all litigation, not just product liability litigation, and the jurisdiction for the standard has been moved to a newly formed subcommittee E30.11 on interdisciplinary standards. The standards in this new subcommittee’s scope are those that apply to all of the forensic science disciplines.

The other active subcommittees have been Criminalistics and Questioned Documents (E30.01 and E30.02). Standards for these two subcommittees were first generated within task groups constituted from among the E30 membership.

Committee Liaison

In recent years, the committee has reached out to external groups, particularly the government sponsored scientific or technical working groups (SWGs or TWGs). These government-sponsored groups were brought together after the Simpson trial in an attempt to formulate standards for the forensic sciences, but members of these groups pointed out to the government officials in charge that there were already some standards in place, and others that would or could be developed by ASTM E30. The leadership of many of these TWGs and SWGs have wisely decided that their most useful function would be to act as a task group for an E30 subcommittee, and after the task group was satisfied with their work product, the really rigorous peer review could take place in the ASTM committee. Then these government generated standards could become E30 standards. Many of the SWG and TWG members are also E30 members, who understand that standards must not only be produced, but also maintained, and that ASTM has in place the infrastructure to maintain standards at no additional cost to the government.

TWGFEX is the Technical Working Group on Fires and Explosions sponsored by the National Institute of Justice. While there are no E30 standards yet for the analysis of explosives, there are a number of E30 standards for fire debris analysis, and the TWGFEX membership decided that it would be appropriate, rather than to reinvent the wheel, to participate in the revision and reapproval of E30 standards in fire debris analysis. The fire debris standards that were first published in the early 1990s are now up for their second round of reapproval.

SWGMAT, the Scientific Working Group on Materials Analysis and Testing, sponsored by the FBI, has provided E30 with several standards for the analysis of glass, fibers, and paint. This working relationship is expected to produce many new standards in the near future.

SWGDRUG, an international scientific working group sponsored by the Drug Enforcement Administration, invited ASTM E30 to send a member to their core group, and E30.01 member Jack Mario has been very instrumental in bringing drug analysis standards forward. E30 anticipates that in 2001, it will be voting on standards produced by this body.

SWGFAST, another FBI-sponsored scientific working group on fingerprint identification, is in the process of producing consensus standards, and is in negotiation with E30 as this article goes to press regarding whether they will also submit their standards to ASTM for review and maintenance.

SWGDOC, the Scientific Working Group on Document Examination, has adopted one ASTM standard (E 1658, Standard Terminology for Expressing Conclusions of Forensic Document Examiners) and has submitted for ballot a new standard on handwriting analysis. Document examiners are particularly sensitive to the need for standardization, as some federal courts have held that the scientific validity of document examination has not yet been proved. The existence of standards is certainly likely to improve the chances that reliable document examination testimony will be admitted.

Reaching Out to Other Organizations

In addition to its liaisons with the technical and scientific working groups, E30 has established relationships with other organizations interested in the implementation of the forensic quality triangle. Committee E30 holds a membership in the American Board of Criminalistics (ABC), an organization of forensic science groups that certifies individuals to perform laboratory analysis of forensic evidence. The ASTM standard on fire debris analysis was heavily used in the development of the examination for certification as a fellow in fire debris analysis. The E30 representative to the ABC, Dr. Carl Selavka, has served as president of the ABC for the last four years.

ASTM Committee E30 also has a permanent seat on the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Technical Committee on Fire Investigations. Currently, this seat is held by John Lentini, chair of E30. The Technical Committee on Fire Investigations promulgates a standard called NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations. This standard heavily references E30 and other ASTM standards in its chapter on Physical Evidence.

At the center of the forensic quality triangle is proficiency testing, a critical component in laboratory accreditation. Proficiency testing brings together all three legs of the forensic quality triangle in that it tests the laboratory, the analyst, and the methodology. Forensic flammables analysis tests produced by Collaborative Testing Services (CTS) in the last three years have allowed a comparison of two ASTM methods—E 1387, Test Method for Ignitable Liquid Residues in Extracts from Fire Debris Samples by Gas Chromatography, and E 1618, Guide for Identification of Ignitable Liquid Residues in Extracts from Fire Debris Samples by Gas Chromatography– Mass Spectrometry. A calculation of error rates among over 200 laboratories participating in the last three CTS tests revealed that users of E 1618 had an error rate roughly half that of users of E 1387. As a consequence, E30 is considering the withdrawal of E 1387, ratcheting up the level of quality expected of forensic testing laboratories.

The last decade has been an exciting one for E30, as it produced standards that have gained acceptance in the forensic science community and in the courts. E30’s standards are currently published in Volume 14.02 of the Annual Book of ASTM Standards, and it is the committee’s hope that with the accelerating pace of standards development, forensic sciences will soon occupy its own volume in the book of standards. //

Copyright 2001, ASTM

John J. Lentini chairs ASTM Committee E30 on Forensic Sciences. He works at Applied Technical Services in Marietta, Ga., where he consults on issues related to fire investigation. Lentini has authored numerous articles on forensic science and is the recipient of E30’s Forensic Science Award.

Sidebar:

The Impact of E30 Standards on Fire Debris Analysis

It has only been 12 years since the first standard for fire debris analysis was published. That standard was promulgated by the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) Forensic Science Committee in 1988. Two years later, that standard was translated into ASTM format and divided into seven different standards, six practices covering sample preparation and one covering the gas chromatographic analysis of sample extracts. Since then, a second analytical standard, covering gas chromatographic/mass spectrometric (GC/MS) analysis has been developed. These standards were rapidly accepted by forensic laboratories performing fire debris analysis, both in the private and public sectors. Chemists from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), including current E30 vice chair Dr. Mary Lou Fultz, were instrumental in applying research done by ATF and NIST in the early 1980s to both the IAAI and the later E30 standards.

The impact of the fire debris standards in the private sector can be measured by examining a recent issue of The Fire And Arson Investigator, the official publication of the IAAI. Ten laboratories advertise in that journal, and of those, nine mention somewhere in their advertisements that they follow ASTM standards.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations, NFPA 921 specifically mentions ASTM E 1387 and ASTM E 1618 as appropriate analytical techniques that fire investigators should expect their testing laboratories to use. Because these ASTM standards are incorporated by reference into this NFPA standard, any fire investigator that utilizes a laboratory that does not follow ASTM E 1387 or E 1618 runs the risk of being accused of not following the prescriptions of NFPA 921. The failure to follow ASTM standards in the analysis of fire debris has caused many cases to be lost, both in civil and criminal court. On the other hand, the fact that a chemist has followed the fire debris analysis standards has worked as a shield to insure the admissibility and acceptance of the analyst testimony.

The fire debris analysis standards are also specifically mentioned when proficiency tests are sent out by Collaborative Testing Services, are heavily referenced in the American Board of Criminalistics Certification Examination for Fellows, and are accepted and quoted by many laboratories in their written procedures required for accreditation.

It is the hope of the E30 membership that the model for the standardization of fire debris analysis can be followed for the standardization of other forensic disciplines as well.