What Really Happens Inside a Crime Lab?

How Crime Labs Translate Evidence Into Proof
By Beth A. Bechky

Locard’s principle states that any contact between two objects results in an exchange. In crime scene parlance, that means stuff left behind. Good news for cops and prosecutors, bad news for criminals. Evidence bagged at a scene or tweezed from a body in a morgue can result in conviction of the guilty or exoneration of the innocent. Clues such as blood, powder and residue are the primary sources of forensic science and what make it such a powerful tool.

The title is catchy, the cover provocative, but for readers seeking the standard sortie into the inner workings of a forensic lab, Beth A. Bechky’s book offers something quite different — a live, human angle. The author is a sociologist interested in how relationships function in different work environments. And “Blood, Powder, and Residue” grew out of her observations at a Midwestern crime laboratory.

The book is what Bechky calls an “organizational ethnography” covering the four units she observed: forensic biology, responsible for collecting biological fluids and performing DNA profiles on those samples; chemistry, in charge of identifying drugs; toxicology, in which traces of narcotics in the body are picked up; and comparative evidence, where fingerprints, firearms and tool marks are processed.

For those working in these units, three overlapping social settings determine much of their world: the lab, the criminal justice system and the broader public. Each has its own expectations, attitudes and protocols that shape how these criminalists maneuver through their jobs.

Bechky examines what she calls the “culture of anticipation,” a mind-set she claims is prevalent in every crime lab. It can be seen in the way criminalists must balance their handling of evidence and their interpretations of data with the needs of lawyers and the courts, all the while striving to maintain the integrity of their science.

The specter of court testimony often shapes the thinking of “captive” forensic scientists, she writes. Bechky points out, correctly, that crime lab workers, in addition to mastering their field, must also develop finesse in translating their findings into forms understandable to the broader public (i.e., jurors) and to those in the criminal justice system.

In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences released a report outlining problems with forensic science and making suggestions for correcting them. The report, critical of many disciplines and scathing with regard to several, exploded like a bombshell in the forensic community. Bechky examines the responses from various fields and from professional organizations.

The one exception to the academy’s criticism was DNA analysis, which, in Bechky’s words, has become the gold standard and the envy of practitioners in all other forensic disciplines. She suggests, again correctly, that analysts in every specialty have felt pressure to develop protocols and best practices in line with those of DNA profiling.

Bechky’s portrait of the daily conflict faced by crime lab workers should prove enlightening to outsiders. Pulling criminalists one way is their allegiance to neutrality and objectivity concerning their science. Pulling them the other way is their constant need to foresee the demands of the criminal justice system.

The writing is crisp and jargon-free, and the text includes many interesting anecdotes. Though repetitive at times, this account of a fascinating work world manages to be both scholarly and engaging.

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