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Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward
recent survey of “nontraditional forensic service providers” conducted by researchers at West Virginia University.2
In addition to forensic laboratories, about 3,200 medical examiner and coroner offices provided death investigation services across the United States in 2004.3 These entities—which may comprise a coroner system, a medical examiner system, or a mixed system at the county or state level—conduct death scene investigations, perform autopsies, and determine the cause and manner of death when a person has died as a result of violence, under suspicious circumstances, without a physician in attendance, or in other circumstances. These offices are described in greater detail in Chapter 9. In addition, standard setting, accrediting, and certifying organizations are described in greater detail in Chapter 7, and education and training programs are described in Chapter 8.
The committee’s first recommendation, appearing at the end of this chapter, calls for a more central, strategic, and integrated approach to forensic science at the national level.
CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION
Evidence recovery and interpretation at the crime scene is the essential first step in forensic investigations. Several organizational approaches to crime scene investigation and subsequent forensic laboratory activity exist, sometimes involving a large number of personnel with varied educational backgrounds. Conversely, in some jurisdictions, a single forensic examiner might also be the same investigator who goes to the crime scene, collects evidence, processes the evidence, conducts the analyses, interprets the evidence, and testifies in court. In other jurisdictions, the investigators submit the evidence to a laboratory where scientists conduct the analyses and prepare the reports. Crime scene evidence collectors can include uniformed officers, detectives, crime scene investigators, criminalists, forensic scientists, coroners, medical examiners, hospital personnel, photographers, and arson investigators.4 Thus, the nature and process of crime scene investiga-
T.S. Witt, Director, Bureau of Business and Economic Research, West Virginia University. “Survey of Non-Traditional Forensic Service Providers.” Presentation to the committee. December 6, 2007.
R. Hanzlick, Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Center and Emory University School of Medicine. 2007. “An Overview of Medical Examiner/Coroner Systems in the United States—Development, Current Status, Issues, and Needs.” Presentation to the committee. June 5, 2007. The Bureau of Justice (2004) omits Louisiana and classifies Texas as a medical examiner state, and accordingly reports the total as 1,998. According to Hanzlick, many of Texas’s 254 counties maintain justice of the peace/coroners offices. The total number includes Justices of the Peace in Texas.
B. Fisher, Director, Scientific Services Bureau, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Presentation to the committee. April 24, 2007.