July 01, 2015

Scientific Evidence Resources on the Web

By Carol Henderson and Diana Botluk

There is no ignoring the impact of scientific evidence in the legal system today. New developments in science and technology are advancing at a rapid pace. These include digital and multimedia sciences, canine scent detection, touch DNA, and others. Judges, attorneys, scientists, and law enforcement personnel need to keep abreast of the scientific advances, as well as changes in the rules of evidence. There has also been much discussion about increasing juror expectations regarding such evidence (the so-called CSI effect).1 The judge who turns a blind eye to these advances and expectations does so at his or her own peril and to the detriment of the justice system. Judges must be aware of the ethical implications regarding errant experts and attorneys’ duties to verify their experts’ credentials and challenge those of the opposing party.2

Congress recognized the importance of scientific evidence to the legal system and called for the creation of an independent forensic science committee at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to identify the needs of the forensic science community, including assessing present and future resource needs of labs, the medical examiner, and coroner offices; identifying potential scientific advances that will assist law enforcement in using forensic technologies; and determining how to disseminate best practices and guidelines to ensure quality and consistency in the use of technologies and techniques. This effort resulted in a report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.3

The NAS report noted, “[L]awyers and judges often have insufficient training and background in scientific methodology, and they often fail to fully comprehend the approaches employed by different forensic science disciplines and the reliability of forensic science evidence that is offered in trial.” Additionally, the report stated, “[T]he fruits of any advances in the forensic science disciplines should be transferred directly to legal scholars and practitioners, . . . members of the judiciary, and [other members of the justice system] so that appropriate adjustments can be made in criminal and civil laws and procedures, model jury instructions, law enforcement practices, litigation, strategies, and judicial decision making.” Further, “judges need to be better educated in forensic science methodologies and practices.”

Two government entities were established to address the report’s recommendations: the National Commission on Forensic Science (NCFS) (https://www.nist.gov/forensics/ncfs.cfm), whose mission is to develop policy, and the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) (https://www.nist.gov/forensics/osac/subs.cfm), whose mission is to develop discipline-specific practice standards and guidelines. OSAC has a Forensic Resource Committee and NCFS has a Training on Science and Law Subcommittee, both of which are committed to greater interdisciplinary knowledge sharing between the legal and forensic science communities.

What follows is an overview of some of the valuable resources on scientific evidence that the legal profession needs and that the criminal and civil justice systems require for justice to be served in today’s science- and technology-driven climate.

General Scientific Evidence Resources

The National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law (NCSTL) at Stetson University College of Law was created in 2003 to address the justice system’s escalating need for information on science, technology, and the law. The NCSTL website (http://ncstl.org) gathers a wide variety of forensic-related information together in one place, freely available to users. Its forensic database of bibliographic information includes books, scientific and legal journal articles, newspaper and magazine articles, seminars and conference sessions, dissertations, and organizations. Books and journals indexed in NCSTL’s database are available through interlibrary loan from the Stetson Law Library. The related links section provides a directory of scientific and law-related links. The education section provides handouts created for professional development presentations by NCSTL staff, transcripts, podcasts, and webcasts of lectures on forensic science and technology.

The National Institute of Justice’s Forensic Sciences website (http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/topics/forensics) provide the full text of many NIJ publications related to forensic science and descriptions of NIJ programs and funding sources. The FBI’s Handbook of Forensic Services, the text of which can be found at http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/lab/handbook-of-forensic-services-pdf, is divided into four major sections: introduction, submitting evidence, evidence examinations, and crime-scene safety.

A database of books from FORENSICnetBASE/LawENFORCEMENTnetBASE (http://www.crcnetbase.com/page/forensic_ebooks) for an annual subscription fee provides the full texts of dozens of forensic science and criminal justice books.

Several useful forensic-related websites provide either research pathfinders or a categorized directory of Web links, or both. Gelman Library’s Forensic Sciences pathfinder (http://libguides.gwu.edu/content.php?pid=9061&sid=58816) is an excellent resource. Provided by George Washington University, this site provides information about forensic-related resources in both print and online formats. Additionally, Science and Technology Resources on the Internet (http://www.istl.org/03-spring/internet.html) by Cynthia Holt, describes and links to the best forensic resources on the Internet. A Guide to Information Sources in the Forensic Sciences updates the article.

Zeno’s Forensic Site (http://forensic.to) is a Web directory of hundreds of forensic-related sites. An interesting feature of the site is its user ratings option offering useful feedback. It provides the opportunity to be informed by email when new links are added. Forensic researchers can also use Reddy’s Forensic Page (http://www.forensicpage.com), which is a topically organized directory of dozens of links related to forensic science and law.

Some unique forensic-related sites can be found online. These include Crime and Clues: The Art and Science of Criminal Investigation (http://www.crime andclues.com), a site that gathers articles about aspects of criminal investigation. It includes information about different types of scientific evidence, crime scene and death investigation, and testimony and ethics. Additionally, the National Museum of Crime and Punishment offers an online Crime Library (http://www.crimemuseum.org/crime-library) that provides background information on crime, forensic investigation, and famous cases.

Oxford Reference offers Suzanne Bell’s A Dictionary of Forensic Science (http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199594009.001.0001/acref-9780199594009), which is available for a fee and contains over 1,300 terms and concepts. A smaller but free forensic glossary can be found at Forensics: Examining the Evidence (http://www.forensicbasics.org/reference-center/glossary).

Keeping up to date in any discipline can be a challenge. The Crime Lab Project Forum (http://crimelabproject.wordpress.com) is a blog that reports on the latest news about crime labs and other forensic-related stories. Readers who wish to follow the frequent updates can opt to have them delivered to their email addresses by means of a Yahoo! group. Additionally, Daubert Tracker (http://www.dauberttracker.com) is a subscription-based service that tracks U.S. federal and state court decisions and supporting documents about “evidentiary gatekeeping.” It provides a database of all reported decisions and many unreported decisions dating back to 1993. It also supplies information regarding the expert’s name, discipline, area of expertise challenged, and results of the challenge.

Finding Forensic Science-Related Articles

Forensic Science Abstracts (https://www.elsevier.com/journals/forensic-science-abstracts-section-49-embase/0303-8459) makes it easy to find forensic science articles. Found in hard copies in many libraries, it is also part of the online collection of fee-based EMBASE, a biomedical and pharmacological database available from Elsevier (http://www.elsevier.com/online-tools/embase).

PubMed (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi) is a free service from the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. It includes over 16 million citations to life science and biomedical articles dating back to the 1950s, as well as links to online sources of the full text of indexed articles, and a list of libraries that hold the articles.

When searching for dissertations, researchers can use ProQuest Digital Dissertations (http://www.il.proquest.com/products_umi/dissertations), which indexes and abstracts dissertations and theses in all disciplines. Guests can search the most recent two years, while full subscribers can access the entire database of over two million records.

The National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS) is sponsored by several offices within the U.S. Department of Justice and Executive Office of the President. NCJRS provides one of the largest criminal and juvenile justice libraries and databases in the world, the NCJRS Abstracts Database (https://www.ncjrs.gov/Library.html). The NCJRS collection contains more than 220,000 publications, reports, articles, and audiovisual products from around the world. These resources include statistics, research findings, program descriptions, congressional hearing transcripts, and training materials dating back to the 1970s. The Abstracts Database is available online for free and links to the full text of documents when available.

The multidisciplinary database at NCSTL (http://ncstl.org) indexes forensic-related articles that focus on science, technology, law, or criminal justice. It links to free articles and provides information to purchase articles not freely available.

Most journal articles can be accessed online for a fee, but some journals offer full texts for free. Some of these are the American Journal of Pathology (from the American Society for Investigative Pathology, http://ajp.amjpathol.org), Archives of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine (from the College of American Pathologists, http://www.archivesofpathology.org), Crime Lab Minute (from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, http://www.ascld.org/newsletters/crime-lab-minute-issues), Forensic Magazine (http://www.forensicmag.com), Forensic Science Communications (http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/lab/forensic-science-communications), INTERfaces (newsletter of the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences) (http://www.forensic-science-society.org.uk/Publications/Interfaces), Journal of Clinical Pathology (http://jcp.bmj.com), Laboratory Investigation (from the United States & Canadian Academy of Pathology) (http://www.nature.com/labinvest/index.html), Microgram Journal (http://www.dea.gov/pr/microgram_journals.shtml), NIJ Journal (http://www.nij.gov/journals/Pages/welcome.aspx), Science & Technology Review (https://st.llnl.gov/showcase/st-review), and TechBeat (https://www.justnet.org/InteractiveTechBeat).

Forensic Science Associations

Most forensic associations and societies provide information about the organizations and their membership on their websites. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) (http://www.aafs.org) is a professional society dedicated to the application of science to the law and is “committed to the promotion of education and the elevation of accuracy, precision, and specificity in the forensic sciences.” AAFS was founded in 1948 and has over 7,000 members that represent 11 areas of forensic science. AAFS publishes the Journal of Forensic Sciences. Current abstracts are available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1556-4029, while abstracts for volumes 17 through 50 can be found online at http://www.astm.org/DIGITAL_LIBRARY/JOURNALS/FORENSIC/jofs_issues.html. The AAFS website provides a wealth of information about education and career planning for forensic scientists and links to other valuable forensic science resources.

The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD) (http://www.ascld.org) is a nonprofit professional society of crime laboratory directors and forensic science managers. It is “dedicated to providing excellence in forensic science through leadership and innovation.” The website offers information about forensic science education and careers, as well as the society’s official newsletter, the Crime Lab Minute, and links to other articles focusing on forensic science in the news.

The Canadian Society of Forensic Science (CSFS) (http://www.csfs.ca) is a nonprofit organization of forensic science professionals. The website includes abstracts of the Canadian Society of Forensic Science Journal, a link to the Population Studies Data Centre, raw DNA data and frequency tables, and information about forensic science education and careers.

The Australian and New Zealand Forensic Science Society (ANZFSS) (http://anzfss.org) unites forensic professionals from Australia and New Zealand under one umbrella. The website provides association articles, rules, and membership information.

Formed in 1915, the International Association for Identification (IAI) (http://www.theiai.org) is the oldest forensic science/forensic identification organization in the world. Its website provides information about the association and its many divisions, publications, and professional opportunities.

Websites of other forensic-related associations or societies include those of the American Chemical Society (http://www.acs.org), American Society of Forensic Odontology (http://www.asfo.org), American Society of Questioned Document Examiners (http://www.asqde.org), Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (http://www.afip.org), Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction (http://www.acsr.org), Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners (http://www.afte.org), Association of Forensic DNA Analysts and Administrators (http://www.afdaa.org), Entomological Society of America (http://www.entsoc.org), Evidence Photographers International Council (http://www.evidencephotographers.com), Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences (http://www.forensic-science-society.org.uk), International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts (http://www.iabpa.org), International Association of Crime Analysts (http://www.iaca.net), International Association of Forensic Toxicologists (http://www.tiaft.org), International Board of Forensic Engineering Sciences (http://www.iifes.org), Microscopy Society of America (http://www.microscopy.org), National Association of Medical Examiners (http://www.thename.org), and Society of Forensic Toxicologists (http://www.soft-tox.org).

The Organization of Scientific Area Committees (http://www.nist.gov/forensics/osac/index.cfm) is part of an initiative by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Department of Justice to strengthen forensic science in the United States by developing standards and guidelines and ensure that a sufficient scientific basis exists for each discipline. NIST and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) have convened multidisciplinary groups to examine specific challenges to the forensic science community. The Technical Working Group on Biological Evidence Preservation (http://www.nist.gov/forensics/bio-ev-wg.cfm) provides guidance to help ensure the integrity of biological evidence, the Latent Print AFIS Interoperability Working Group (http://www.nist.gov/oles/afis_interoperability.cfm) helps improve interoperability of automated fingerprint identification systems (AFIS), and the Expert Working Group on Human Factors in Latent Print Analysis examined the human factors involved in fingerprint analysis and published Latent Print Examination and Human Factors: Improving the Practice Through a Systems Approach (http://www.nist.gov/manuscript-publication-search.cfm?pub_id=910745). The OSAC Catalog of Standards and Guidelines (http://www.nist.gov/forensics/osac/standards-guidelines-catalog.cfm) contains standards and best practices that apply to forensic disciplines.

Web Resources Related to Specific Forensic Science Topics

Forensic Pathology

Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/visibleproofs) is an exhibition at the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, with a complementary online exhibit. The website features information about the history of forensic medicine, galleries of famous forensic cases throughout history, libraries of images and videos, and other educational resources.

Forensic Anthropology

The International Association for Craniofacial Identification (IACI) (http://www.forensicartist.com/IACI/index.html), composed primarily of medical and scientific professionals from throughout the world, focuses on craniofacial identification. The organization offers educational opportunities that include classes ranging from “How to Be a Forensic Artist” and “Understanding the Human Face” to both basic and advanced classes such as “Facial Reconstruction Sculpture.” The site includes links to selected historical exhumation projects, as well as nearly 30 related craniofacial identification sites and publications.

IACI member and forensic artist Wesley Neville maintains Forensic Art World (http://www.forensicartist.com), which describes the various facets of forensic art and links to additional resources.

The American Association of Physical Anthropology (AAPA) (http://www.physanth.org) website informs about funding opportunities, graduate program locations, position statements by the organization, job postings, careers in physical anthropology, and the organization’s annual meeting, and offers access to its journal, the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, and links to other related scientific associations.

The Forensic Anthropology Center (http://fac.utk.edu/default.html) at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville is well known for its outdoor anthropological research facility, essential for providing education and training in forensic anthropology. The Center maintains the Forensic Anthropology Data Bank containing 3,400 forensic anthropology case analyses available to researchers upon request.

Biometrics

Biometrics.gov (http://www.biometrics.gov) is the authoritative source for all biometrics-related activities within the federal government. The Biometrics Reference Room tab leads to information about biometrics technology and biometrics programs hosted by federal agencies. It offers Privacy & Biometrics: Building a Conceptual Foundation, a publication offering the government’s perspective on biometrics privacy. Next, the site provides information on the National Science & Technology Council’s (NSTC) Subcommittee on Biometrics, including presentations, publications, and additional technical information. Lastly, it offers the NSTC Policy for Enabling the Development, Adoption and Use of Biometric Standards, as well as the Registry of USG Recommended Standards.

The Biometric Consortium (http://biometrics.org) has hosted annual conferences since 1992 and provides links to conference material from later conferences and information on upcoming conferences. Links to other meetings, educational events, and materials are also available.

Forensic Botany

The Internet Directory of Botany (http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~brach/IDB/botany.html) is an extensive, award-winning alphabetical index of links to online botanical information, including specific databases, articles, and other resources.

Toxicology

TIAFT.org (http://www.tiaft.org) is the official website of The International Association of Forensic Toxicologists. It offers direct links to additional resources from both public and members-only areas. The public section maintains a user-contributed collection of reference analytical data to assist in the identification of unknown toxic substances, an observatory section composed of links and a large directory of all genres of toxicology-related websites arranged by forensic specialty, and a “powersearch” area to search for and access various scientific and medical literature and technological information. Membership allows access to the organization’s therapeutic and toxic drug concentrations list developed by colleagues and medical specialists and from information obtained through the field’s literature, from the pharmaceutical industries, and by comparison with established drug data lists. Members may also access the complete text of the organization’s quarterly journal, retrieve previously published journal Case Notes, read online reviews of various articles focused on state-of-the-art forensic and analytical toxicology topics, and tap into a collection of nearly 1,500 papers presented at TIAFT meetings spanning three decades.

Soft-tox.org is the website of the Society of Forensic Toxicologists (SOFT). The site introduces forensic toxicology and allows public users to download guidelines for the practice of forensic toxicology in the areas of postmortem forensic toxicology and human performance forensic toxicology. Additional downloads include the organization’s Drug Facilitated Sexual Assault Survey and Drug Facilitated Sexual Assault Drug List and Cutoffs, and the new American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) Toxicology Section Mass Spectrometry Database, a comprehensive drug library of the spectra for several hundred substances, including a mini-library of the mass spectra of newer drugs, metabolites, and some breakdown products.

Fingerprints

The FBI maintains a Web page (http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/fingerprints_biometrics/biometric-center-of-excellence/modalities/fingerprint) from which users may access general and historical information on fingerprint identification, become familiar with IAFIS, learn the proper method for taking legible fingerprints, and discover training opportunities.

The Fingerprint Sourcebook (http://www.nij.gov/publications/pages/publication-detail.aspx?ncjnumber=225320), prepared by the International Association for Identification, is a comprehensive resource on the science of fingerprint identification. It is available for free at the NIJ website.

Latent Print Examination: Fingerprints, Palmprints and Footprints (http://www.onin.com/fp/index.htm) is dedicated to latent print examination and is useful for both the novice and the experienced. The website, maintained by Ed German, is an extensive repository of relevant latent fingerprint, handprint, and footprint technology; history; news; case law; and links. Topics from challenges to fingerprint evidence reliability to the latest technologies for crime scene processing and evidence collection are explored in depth, and discussion forums and opportunities to “ask an expert” are available to seek additional information.

CLPEX.com (http://www.clpex.com), the website for Complete Latent Print Examination, allows latent print examiners to locate information they need. It provides links to other fingerprint websites and to reference articles on print examination, and lists of fingerprint consultants, training opportunities, and books about fingerprint examination. It provides a weekly newsletter/blog called the Weekly Detail, with an area to discuss the issues contained in the newsletter, as well as other topics of importance to fingerprint examiners.

DNA

Forensic Bioinformatics (http://www.bioforensics.com) provides articles about DNA and other informational pieces, a small selection of scholarly articles, videos about DNA, information about DNA testing, and even a sample discovery motion.

MITOMAP: A Human Mitochondrial Genome Database (http://www.mitomap.org) offers a comprehensive “compendium of polymorphisms and mutations of the human mitochondrial DNA.” The database can be searched by gene, disease, or enzyme. The researcher may use subsections divided into areas including “MtDNA Polymorphisms” and “MtDNA Mutations with Reports of Disease-Associations,” and organized by mtDNA location or phenotype. The website is supplemented by illustrations and tables, a “Mitomap Quick Reference” section including an extensive bibliography of mitochondrial references, and links to additional databases.

DNA•VIEW (http://dna-view.com) presents a comprehensive look at forensic DNA analysis, particularly as it relates to mathematics. The site provides topical news; articles; archived discussions on DNA identification, including recent identifications after mass disasters; information on DNA identification software; and data tables organized by subject (for example, “Allele Frequencies for US Populations” provided by Cellmark Diagnostics). Topic areas such as “discussions” are enhanced with photos, slide presentations, news, and articles.

Firearms

FirearmsID (http://www.firearmsid.com) provides extensive educational and investigative information including firearm safety, topical articles, expert testimony, firearms testing, and an introduction to firearms and ballistics. It is arranged by categories like the History of Firearm ID and Case Profiles and offers a discussion area, Forensic Forum, and a Resource Area offering a Ballistics Picture Book and Virtual Comparison Microscope and databases containing rifling data and a bullet and Shotshell Component Search.

Robert M. Thompson’s Firearm Identification in the Forensic Science Laboratory (http://www.ndaa.org/pdf/Firearms_identity_NDAAsm.pdf) is a National District Attorneys Association booklet. It describes the science of firearm identification, production of firearm toolmarks on fired cartridges, the examination process, and trial preparation.

Odontology

Forensic odontologist Mike Bowers created the website Issues in Human and Animal Bite Mark (Bitemark) Analysis (http://www.forensic.to/webhome/bitemarks), which provides an extensive overview supplemented by hyperlinks to several case studies (for example, serial killer Ted Bundy and the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 in 2000), photos of bitemark evidence, journal articles, and links to similar websites.

Forensic Dentistry Online (http://forensicdentistryonline.org), from the International Organisation for Forensic Odontostomotology (IOFOS), provides information about bitemarks and bitemark identification, including new resources using DNA from teeth and saliva, as well the legal aspects of bitemark evidence admissibility. It includes sections posting news items and commentaries from users, book reviews, and links to continuing education courses and odontologists.

Questioned Documents

Identifont (http://www.identifont.com/index.html) provides the largest independent directory of online typefaces for type and picture or symbol fonts by font appearance, name, or similarity. Users can also download a wide selection of fonts for free. Similarly, Omniglot (http://www.omniglot.com) provides details of alphabets and writing systems, both current and ancient. Each writing system is illustrated, with information provided about its origin, usage, notable features, and the languages written with it.

With thanks to Megan M. Jarrett, Stetson University second-year law student, for excellent research assistance, and Dr. Susan Zucker, for editing expertise.

Endnotes

1. See Hon. Donald E. Shelton, Young S. Kim & Gregg Barak, An Indirect-Effects Model of Mediated Adjudication: The CSI Myth, the Tech Effect, and Metropolitan Jurors’ Expectations for Scientific Evidence, 12 Vand. J. Ent. & Tech. L. 1 (2009).

2. See Carol Henderson & Kurt Lentz, Expert Witness: Qualifications and Testimony, in Scientific Evidence Review: Monograph No. 9 (Sci. & Tech. Law Section, Am. Bar Ass’n, Cynthia H. Cwik, Jules Epstein & Carol Henderson eds., 2013); Digging Up Dirt on Experts, NCSTL.org, http://www.ncstl.org/education.

3. Nat’l Research Council, Nat’l Acad. of Sci., Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward (2009) [hereinafter NAS report], available at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/228091.pdf.