No Forensic Background? No Problem
Washington, DC, United States (ProPublica) – by Leah Bartos, Special to ProPublica
This story was co-published with PBS Frontline.
This is how I — a journalism graduate student with no background in forensics — became certified as a “Forensic Consultant” by one of the field’s largest professional groups.
One afternoon early last year, I punched in my credit card information, paid $495 to the American College of Forensic Examiners International Inc. and registered for an online course.
After about 90 minutes of video instruction, I took an exam on the institute’s web site, answering 100multiple choice questions, aided by several ACFEI study packets.
As soon as I finished the test, a screen popped up saying that I had passed, earning me an impressive-sounding credential that could help establish my qualifications to be an expert witness in criminal and civil trials.
For another $50, ACFEI mailed me a white lab coat after sending my certificate.
For the last two years, ProPublica and PBS “Frontline,” in concert with other news organizations, have looked in-depth at death investigation in America, finding a pervasive lack of national standards that begins in the autopsy room and ends in court.
Expert witnesses routinely sway trial verdicts with testimony about fingerprints, ballistics, hair and fiber analysis and more, but there are no national standards to measure their competency or ensure that what they say is valid. A landmark 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences called this lack of standards one of the most pressing problems facing the criminal justice system.
Over the last two decades, ACFEI has emerged as one of the largest forensic credentialing organizations in the country.
Among its members are top names in science and law, from Dr. Henry Lee, the renowned criminalist and pathologist, to John Douglas, the former FBI profiler and bestselling author. Dr. Cyril Wecht, a prominent forensic pathologist and frequent TV commentator on high-profile crimes, chairs the group’s executive advisory board.
But ACFEI also has given its stamp of approval to far less celebrated characters. It welcomed Seymour Schlager, whose credentials were mailed to the prison where he was incarcerated for attempted murder. Zoe D. Katz – the name of a house cat enrolled by her owner in 2002 to show how easy it was to become certified by ACFEI — was issued credentials, too. More recently, Dr. Steven Hayne, a Mississippi pathologist whose testimony helped to convict two innocent men of murder, has used his ACFEI credential to bolster his status as an expert witness.
Several former ACFEI employees call the group a mill designed to churn out and sell as many certificates as possible. They say applicants receive cursory, if any, background checks and that virtually everyone passes the group’s certification exams as long as their payments clear.
Some forensic professionals say the organization’s willingness to hand out credentials diminishes the integrity of the field.
“I am insulted by it,” said Dr. Victor Weedn, a forensic pathologist for Maryland’s chief medical examiner office and the vice president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. “They seem like an organization that’s all about the money.”
Robert O’Block, ACFEI’s founder, vigilantly defends the group’s work, saying it has helped make forensics more accessible. He told ProPublica and PBS “Frontline” that the ACFEI credentials are not designed to qualify experts in court and emphasized only a judge can make that determination.
O’Block also said he’s been unfairly criticized by other professional groups that compete with ACFEI in certain regards, including the AAFS, Weedn’s group.
“I have been fighting for 20 years for an open educational certification and accreditation in forensic examination,” O’Block wrote in an email. “But they have painted me as the bad guy.”
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The judges who must determine whether to qualify a witness as an expert face an alphabet’s soup of organizations with differing standards. Some, like the American Board of Criminalistics, vet members extensively, requiring them to pass intensive board exams to demonstrate their skills. Others, as noted in the NAS report, are far less stringent.
Experts in the field worry that inconsistent standards and training for forensic examiners can lead to miscarriages of justice – to the guilty walking free and the innocent being locked up or worse.
“There are a lot of people practicing, but there’s no assurance that they have the requisite training and board certification to see if they do have the skills to do the practical ,” said Dr. Marcella Fierro, one of the NAS report’s authors and the former chief medical examiner of Virginia.
Under state and federal rules of evidence, judges decide whether prospective expert witnesses can testify, but they sometimes rely heavily on the titles and letters around someone’s name.
“Credentials are often appealing shortcuts,” Michigan circuit court judge Donald Shelton said. Fancy titles can have a disproportionate effect on juries, he added. “Jurors have no way of knowing that this certifying body, whether it’s this one or any other one, exacts scientific standards or is just a diploma mill.”
– Provided by ProPublica.org