|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 committees growth in the
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 techniques 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 nations attention on
the minutiae of forensic science procedures.
The original E30 standards were developed with product liability
cases in mind, by the committees 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 subcommittees 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.
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
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
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 methodsE 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. E30s standards are currently published
in Volume 14.02 of the Annual Book of ASTM Standards, and it is
the committees 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