Bringing the Forensic Sciences into Focus
SOMETIMES the difference between guilt and innocence can hang on a single fiber, be it a bloodstained thread or a strand of DNA. The traces of a crime are fragile and can be difficult to find, collect, process, and interpret. It requires experts with years of training and experience to fit the pieces together and reconstruct what happened and who’s responsible.
But in order for these experts to do their jobs, they need the right tools and access to the highest quality resources and data. They need performance and procedural standards. They need NIST.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Headquartered in Gaithersburg, Md., with campuses in Boulder, Colo., and Charleston, S.C., NIST is a national laboratory dedicated to the advancement of measurement science (metrology) and the development of standards that affect a variety of disciplines and industries.
NIST’s reputation for impartiality and expertise and our commitment to excellence and exactness drew the attention of criminal investigators in the years immediately following its founding in 1901. As a result, NIST served as the nation’s de facto criminal forensics laboratory from 1913 until the FBI hired its first scientist in 1932. Since that time, NIST has continued to play an important role in improving the accuracy and reliability of forensic science by developing calibration standards and advancing the state of the art of measurement techniques and technology.
NIST forensics science research and resources include:
Forensic DNA Analysis: Leaders in the field of forensic DNA typing, NIST researchers have written classic instructive texts on the subject and produce certified standard reference materials to aid with quality assurance in the laboratory. NIST scientists are now developing methods to decrease the time required to perform a DNA test and assisting with the evaluation of prototype rapid DNA typing instrumentation. NIST is also collaborating with others in the law enforcement research community to develop new techniques such as genetic kinship analysis, which enables authorities to use the DNA of a close relative to narrow in on an unknown suspect.
Arson Investigation: According to the FBI, nearly 59,000 cases of arson were reported in 2009. These crimes caused an average of $17,411 in damages and resulted in hundreds of deaths. NIST has long aided the development of technologies and strategies to prevent, combat, and investigate fire. NIST’s newly expanded large fire laboratory allows researchers to study in detail all types of fire scenarios. NIST has also developed sophisticated modeling software that can help investigators recreate fire conditions and simulate the movement of heat and smoke through enclosed spaces. NIST works closely with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) for standards creation and ASTM E30 for documentary standard development.
Computer and Cell Phone Forensics: Because nearly everyone owns a cell phone or other mobile device, they can be important sources of information during criminal investigations. Forensic computer analysts need to know that the tools they are using are able to retrieve that data fully and faithfully. NIST researchers assess the capabilities of these tools and devise ways to establish reference test materials and test procedures for them. NIST has released more than 80 publications addressing computer and cellular forensics since 1998.
NIST is presently looking to build upon and expand the scope of its efforts to support the important work of forensic scientists. NIST and the Department of Justice are working together to address the concerns raised in the 2009 report by the National Research Council (NRC), Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.
In consultation with the forensic science community, NIST has identified six key areas on which to focus for future investment:
These investments will go to the heart of the fairness and reliability of the U.S. justice system. Forensic science, properly applied, is arguably the only objective science and fact-based approach toward understanding what the evidence means, and overcoming human bias in the investigation and prosecution of crime. A major outcome of these investments will be to strengthen the utility and reliability of forensic evidence in the courtroom.
This work also has the potential for significant cost savings for the U.S. justice system by reducing the number of mistrials or retrials related to questions about forensic analysis. One economic analysis of cost savings from forensic DNA testing alone estimated a cost savings of $35 for every dollar invested; the same analysis predicted that if DNA testing were fully utilized U.S. justice system could realize $12.9 billion in annual savings.
The anticipated results of NIST’s current and future efforts in forensic science are expected to include:
For more information about how NIST can help your investigative team, please contact the Law Enforcement Standards Office (OLES).
Law Enforcement Standards Office (OLES):
Telephone: (301) 975-2756 or 2757