|John Lentini is the manager of fire investigations at Applied Technical Services, Inc., in Marietta, Ga. He has been chairman of ASTM Committee E30 on Forensic Sciences since 2000. He has served as co-chair of the International Association of Arson Investigators Forensic Science Committee, the first civilian elected to the American Board of Criminalistics board of directors, the principal organizer of the ABC Operations Manual, and the first editor of the ABC newsletter, Certification News.
It Takes a Community
Liaison Is a Hallmark of Committee E30 on Forensic Sciences
The development of voluntary consensus standards can be problematic in any industry, and the forensic sciences have been no exception. While it is easy to see how standards can benefit steel manufacturers by specifying the appropriate elemental content of alloys and standardizing the test methods for determining elemental concentrations, it took the forensic science community a little longer to see the benefit of having standardized procedures.
Certainly, the cases presented to forensic scientists are not standard, nor is the evidence. The techniques required to determine the elemental composition of a roll of steel are quite different from those required to determine the composition of a minute paint chip. Petroleum industry standards for the composition of fuels do not translate well when a fire debris analyst is attempting to characterize a tenth of a microliter of ignitable liquid extracted from a kilogram of fire debris.
It was only when the U.S. Supreme Court told the forensic science community that it needed standards that the community decided to address that need. Only then did it become possible to develop standards that would be meaningful and accepted throughout the community.
The Early Years
When ASTM International Committee E30 on Forensic Sciences was established in 1974, there was little impetus for standardization in the forensic sciences. Accreditation of laboratories was a new idea, and individual certification had not even been suggested. Standard methodologies were unheard of, and each laboratory had its own set of protocols, some written and some not.
Engineers working on product liability cases understood the need for some guidelines in their field, and, within Committee E30, produced the first general practice standards dealing with such things as the reporting of incidents and opinions, collecting and preserving information and evidence, and testing items that were the subject of product liability litigation. Other forensic scientists seemed to lose interest, however, and the engineers formed their own group, allowing the committee to become dormant.
Committee E30 was reconstituted in 1989 at a meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in Las Vegas, Nev. AAFS, as the umbrella organization for most legitimate forensic science in the United States, was kind enough to provide the venue for the rebirth of E30, in part because by that time ASTM had become the publisher of the Academy’s Journal of Forensic Sciences. Since 1989, the generous support and cooperation of the AAFS and its professional staff have allowed E30 to put down roots and flourish within the larger forensic science community.
An Invigorated Committee
The first new standards promulgated by E30 were in the area of fire debris analysis, spurred by a demand from the consumers of fire debris analysis services. In the late 1980s, the leadership of the International Association of Arson Investigators had grown weary of the wide variety of analytical techniques some reliable, some not used on fire debris samples. They tasked their Forensic Science Committee with the development of a standard reporting format. The IAAI Forensic Science Committee published its guidelines for laboratories in 1988 and, while generally accepted by most private laboratories, these guidelines lacked the status of standards produced by a real standards development organization.
E30’s rebirth could not have been more timely for those interested in improving fire debris analysis. Reformatted according to the ASTM manual, Form and Style for ASTM Standards, the IAAI guidelines yielded seven ASTM standards six practices and one test method. Most of these standards have now been through several revisions and, as a group, are widely accepted both in the United States and elsewhere, describing the proper way to analyze fire debris.
Fire debris analysis, by 1999, was singled out as a subdiscipline of trace analysis in good standing because there is sufficient published work on the analysis and interpretation of the material involved. Standard guides for the examination and interpretation of chemical residues in fire debris have been published through the consensus process of ASTM E30 on forensic science.1
The same document that reported fire debris analysis in “good standing” reported many other disciplines in need of additional standardization. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Forensic Sciences: Review of Status and Needs, identified standardization as one of the common needs for the nine disciplines of forensic science.
A Quality Triangle
The early 1990s saw a small but growing membership in E30. The leadership of the committee understood voluntary consensus standards were just that. They could not impose standards on the community; the community had to impose the standards on itself. The ASTM International system was merely a tool.
In 1993, five regional forensic science organizations (the Northeastern, Mid-Atlantic, Southern, and Midwestern Associations of Forensic Scientists and the California Association of Criminalists) joined in forming the American Board of Criminalistics as a certifying body for that wide-ranging field of forensic practice. Committee E30, realizing the mutual benefits that could be had by participating in a certification program, became a member of the ABC. This was a natural fit. In order to prepare credible examinations, the Board found it useful to have standard methodologies from which to draw knowledge-based questions.
It was after the incorporation of the ABC that the forensic science quality triangle (Figure 1) started to become the new paradigm for forensic sciences. ASTM methodologies could provide not only the basis for examination questions, but also standard methods for proficiency testing. Further, in accreditation activities, auditors could count on the validity of laboratory practices based on ASTM standards. In the mid-1990s, Collaborative Testing Services began referring to ASTM methodologies in their flammables analysis proficiency test.
|Figure 1 The Quality Triangle in Forensic Science
1993 was an important year for the forensic sciences for another reason. The Daubert decision came down from the United States Supreme Court that year, and it did not take the forensic science community long to realize that it would be necessary to respond to the court’s demand for validity in forensic science testing and testimony. The Daubert decision was the main focus of the 1995 AAFS meeting in Seattle, Wash., and the Academy held a special session on the development of ASTM standards, guidelines and practices for the forensic community.
Investigators outside of the traditional forensic sciences also saw the utility of E30’s standards. The National Fire Protection Association Technical Committee on Fire Investigations published the first edition of NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations, in 1992. This document, which has since become the standard of care in fire investigation, advised, even in its first edition, “evidence for accelerant testing should be collected and tested in accordance with ASTM E 1387, Test Method for Flammable or Combustible Liquid Residue in Extracts from Samples of Fire Debris by Gas Chromatography.” The current version of NFPA 921 now refers specifically to other ASTM standards for the testing of physical evidence from fire scenes, and there is a permanent organizational link between the NFPA technical committee and E30.
Responding to the need for the rapid development of standards, the U.S. Justice Department funded and organized technical working groups in various disciplines of forensic sciences. The leadership of several of these groups quickly realized that the ASTM system provided their documents community-wide review and international credibility. TWGMAT (Technical Working Group on Materials Analysis and Testing) became the first such group to provide E30 with new raw material, which would become E 1610, Guide for Forensic Paint Analysis and Comparison. Other TWGMAT (later SWGMAT, changing “Technical” to “Scientific”) standards followed, including a test method for glass and several test methods for the analysis of fiber evidence.
In 1999, TWGFEX (Technical Working Group for Fire and Explosions) was established. Its members, many of whom were already E30 members, understood the value of the extant ASTM fire debris standards. Rather than attempting to write their own new standards, the leadership of TWGFEX has made significant contributions to the revision and maintenance of the existing fire debris analysis standards.
First established in 1997 by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, TWGDRUG (Technical Working Group for the Analysis of Seized Drugs), invited Committee E30 to a seat at the table in its first meeting; Jack Mario continues to represent E30 in this international group. TWGDRUG, now evolved into SWGDRUG, saw the value in submitting its documents to the wider review provided by E30. Several SWGDRUG documents have become ASTM standards.
Questioned document examiners have always been an important subcommittee within E30, claiming the first (and for years the only) E30 standard, E 444, Guide for Scope of Work Relating to Forensic Document Examiners. SWGDOC (Scientific Working Group for Forensic Document Examination) now provides E30 with numerous standards for everything from typewriting analysis to printer identification to training and continuing education. Meetings of Subcommittee E30.02 on Questioned Documents, which consisted of a chairman and three or four attendees in the early 1990s, now overflow the rooms provided by AAFS with 50 or more practitioners, many of whom are carrying proxies from their colleagues.
E30’s continued cooperation with technical and scientific working groups promises to provide the forensic science community with an adequate supply of voluntary consensus standards as future needs may arise.
Its interaction with other organizations within the forensic science community has allowed E30 to provide the resources necessary to ensure that work done in forensic science laboratories is valid and reliable. This outreach to other organizations will continue to be a hallmark of E30, even as the leadership of the committee changes. Young forensic scientists, who may feel timid about writing standards, are invited to join the process and help to influence the future of their profession. More experienced scientists are invited to share their knowledge and respond to a need that was once difficult to understand, but which is now an important component of admissibility. //
1 U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, Forensic Sciences: Review of Status and Needs, Project No. 92-020IA, February 1999.