In 2023, the General Section Historical Committee interviewed Joseph A. Finley, Jr., PhD, on his happenstance entry into the field of Forensic Geology, one of our smallest disciplines, and his progression in that field. Read more for Dr. Finley's story in the interview below.
How did your discipline of Forensic Geology get started?
It's not really known when "forensic geology" first appeared or was utilized as an investigative tool to assist law enforcement. There are a variety of anecdotal stories dating back hundreds of years, but the first documented case was in 1856. Professor Christian Ehrenberg conducted a soil examination of rocks and sand in a silver theft case. Another documented case where soil was used in helping solve a crime was in 1904, when German scientist Geog Popp examined soil collected from trousers of a murder suspect. The field of forensic geology is fairly new and not until 1973 was it pioneered by Dr. Ray Murray, a geology professor at Rutgers University, and became an accepted science as related to criminology.
Tell me about how you became involved in your discipline?
I became involved in my discipline by happenstance, that is, in 1974, the first oil embargo occurred, and field geology positions were very difficult to acquire. As I explored my options, I met two Special Agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and they explained the FBI forensic crime laboratory had the need for forensic examiners in all disciplines. Further, they said that there was a forensic mineralogy unit. This pricked my interest, and I conducted some investigations into how geology and forensic geology intersected. As I discovered, forensic geology connects the branches of geologic science with criminology. The science is the same, but the application and interpretation of the results serve a different purpose.
Was this something you always knew you wanted to do, or did something happen in your life that made you realize what your career path should be?
Aside from the fact that I was unemployed, my family had a history in law enforcement. Once I understood in my own mind that this would have to be a career decision, due to the complexity of the screening process, the path was clear. The FBI would be my career.
What made you focus on your discipline (forensic geology)?
Once I understood the impact that forensic geology and forensic science in general could have on jurisprudence, I shifted focus to three points. The critical nature of evidence, the traumatic impact to the victims of crime and their families, and the legal consequences to the suspect. Knowing that forensic geology was such a specialized area, specifically that state forensic laboratories could not afford such a finite discipline, the FBI laboratory was the obvious choice.
Was there a certification process within your discipline when you entered?
In the mid-1970s, certification programs in forensic science in general were not common or nationalized. The American Board of Criminalistics was in its infancy and did not start certification programs until 1993 in the general criminalist areas. However, there were no programs providing certification in forensic geology. The FBI realized that there was a need to set a certain certification standard in the discipline and in the late 70s instituted a program for certification as a "Forensic Mineralogist." It was a process that all new examiners to the Mineralogy Unit had to complete.
When did you become a member of AAFS?
I became an Associate Member of AAFS in 2004.
Was forensic geology a discipline when you joined AAFS?
No, I was placed in the General Section.
Was education/training a priority in the Academy at that time?
In 2004, the forensic science community represented by AAFS had always fostered a scholarly pursuit as evidenced by the Journal of Forensic Science. Along these lines, the student/trainee affiliate program was in use and educational webinars were just appearing on training platforms. FEPAC was established in 2002 to explore issues related to the development of an accreditation system built on the foundation of the NIJ Technical Working Group on Education (forensic science).
How did your education help you succeed in the field?
Without a degree in Geology, I would not have had the opportunity to be hired and work in the FBI laboratory. It opened the door to opportunities that would not have been there otherwise. This also holds true to membership in AAFS.
How did your education help you succeed in AAFS?
Essentially, having the educational/professional background to become involved with the Academy through forensic geology has provided some opportunities to advance my discipline in the public arena. AAFS provided the following opportunities:
- Press Interview: "Why is it always feet?" Mary Vallis, National Post, Canada, published June 19, 2008.
- Presentation: "Underwater Crime Scene Investigations," American Academy of Forensic Science Annual Meeting, Georgia Aquarium, Atlanta, Georgia, 2012.
- Radio Broadcast: "Forensic Geology and Underwater Crime Scene Investigations," University of Maryland, Forensic Week Live Broadcast, www.ForensicWeek.com, 2014.
How did you realize that forensic geology should be a discipline/priority within AAFS?
In view of the extremely narrow forensic application, having a separate section would not serve any real purpose. However, forensic geology is absolutely a valuable discipline and should be mentioned/included as such in the General Section. Having testified in 37 states and Guam on forensic geologic evidence, it provides a valuable tool to investigators and crime scene technicians. My experience as a forensic geologist has reinforced that it is a valuable part of forensic science.
Are you involved in any education/training opportunities regarding your discipline within AAFS?
If not, are there outside education/training opportunities you are involved in (i.e., do you train other individuals on your discipline?)?
Were you faced with support/opposition? If opposition, how did you overcome that? (How did AAFS help?)
Have you been a member on any committees within AAFS; if so, which one(s)?
Personally, I have volunteered a few times with no success. I spoke during the 2012 meeting at the Atlanta Aquarium, and then participated on a follow-on panel discussion.
How did your work on discipline-relevant AAFS committees affect your progress through AAFS?
What are your thoughts on how to keep advancing the field?
It is incumbent upon the Academy to bring to the forefront the value of geologic material as physical evidence. Forensic geologists have the ability to examine anything that is inorganic in nature to include glass, building materials, safe insulation, precious metal ores, gem stones, soil, etc. This information needs to be included in all crime scene schools/training in the field to give the investigators another forensic tool at their disposal.
How has AAFS helped your specialty?
I am not sure that the Academy has done anything specifically that relates to the enhancement of awareness of the field of forensic geology.
The views and opinions expressed in the articles contained in the Academy News are those of the identified authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Academy.