The 1961 theater piece Die Physiker, by Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt, is a compelling example of the reflections on the ethical implications of scientific advancements and how they are used by humankind. While Die Physiker focuses on the risk inherent in the misuse of nuclear technologies during the Cold War, it is possible to draw analogous considerations about criminalistics and President Ken Williams' 2024 AAFS meeting theme, Justice for All. A valid discourse could be focused on the work ethic expected from criminalists and on fostering inclusion, diversity, equity, accessibility, and belonging. Yet, while acknowledging the paramount importance of these shared values, we believe there is a need to go further and examine more closely the intimate relationship between forensic science and the criminal justice system under the lens of Justice for All, a fundamental need of society. The reflections can be viewed from two perspectives: what criminalists can do to promote Justice for All and how justice stakeholders utilize (or expect to utilize) forensic science (e.g., its tools and outcomes) to achieve the same goal.
In Die Physiker, the protagonist, physicist Ernst Möbius, decides to hide in a mental clinic and pretend to be mad rather than being exploited for his genius at the cost of his breakthroughs being used against humanity. He chooses to hide and conceal his work, but ultimately, he fails. As forensic scientists, we cannot hide or fail. We not only have to produce the highest quality forensic results, but we are accountable and also play a proactive role in ensuring that the generated scientific information is not misused or misunderstood. Such an endeavor is intertwined with the understanding and expectations of forensic science from justice stakeholders and the general public.
It is not trivial to state something about a past event (e.g., a crime) based on what is recovered in the present (e.g., during a crime scene investigation). Investigations rely on many methods to elucidate past events, including interviews and interrogations, eyewitness accounts, surveillance, and obtaining confessions. Historically, forensic science has evolved because these methods have been shown to be unreliable or questionable. As such, the systematic use of scientific approaches to crime investigation evolved in the late 1800s — it is the era in which the eyewitness was superseded by the mute witness (forensic evidence). Forensic science is an accessory of the criminal justice system. Still, it is rarely recognized that it is the most robust, reliable, and transparent of all; if properly utilized, it is the best investigative tool to achieve Justice for All.
Forensic science is typically understood as the application of science and technology to some legal matter. Yet, it is rarely appreciated that, as put by Dr. Peter De Forest, "It is not merely a loose amalgam of sundry techniques and technologies," but "is fundamentally an intellectual endeavor which is concerned with scientific problem-solving."1 Scientific problem-solving that aims for Justice for All requires using a sound scientific methodology, which is: (1) a combination of general principles, an approach, and reasoning, along with the various specialized techniques; and (2) driven by forensic scientists.
What is the relevance of the Sydney Declaration to this? It is the product of reflections between an international group of forensic scientists who found it necessary to reexamine the definition of forensic science, its fundamental principles, its scope, and its prime object of study, the trace.2 Traces, that is, vestiges unintentionally left behind during some activity, are the starting point of a scientific investigation; they do not only underpin the different forensic (sub)specialties but are also the vehicle of information that feeds the many purposes of forensic science using an interdisciplinary approach to ultimately address forensic questions honoring the outcome of Justice for All. The impact of the Sydney Declaration and forensic science in light of the theme of the meeting, Justice for All, will be discussed more deeply during the Interdisciplinary Session: With Liberty and Justice for All — The Role of Forensic Science in Truth and Fairness at the upcoming annual conference (Tuesday, February 20, 1:00 – 5:00 pm).
1. De Forest PR. Recapturing the Essence of Criminalistics. Science & Justice 1999; 39(3): 196-208.
2. Roux C, Bucht R, Crispino F, De Forest P, Lennard C, Margot P, Miranda MD, NicDaeid N, Ribaux O, Ross A, Willis S. The Sydney declaration – Revisiting the essence of forensic science through its fundamental principles. Forensic Science International 2022; 332: 111182.
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.