Unit I Homework
This homework assignment will consist of two parts: developing your curriculum vitae (CV) and writing a reflective paper.
A CV is an expanded and more detailed version of a resume and is often the preferred document for fire investigators. If you are not familiar with the construction of a CV, you may want to research online or within your own workplace environment to find examples.
SEE BELOW FOR EXAMPLE to access an example that can be used as a guideline in compiling the information for your own CV.
After completing your CV, you are to write a one-page reflection that addresses the areas below.
1. Identify professional development opportunities you can pursue that will augment your CV and help you progress toward the job performance standards identified in this unit’s textbook reading (NFPA 1033 Matrix).
2. Include your analysis of how various professional fire organizations can assist in your development and training.
3. Reflect on how increased professional development will affect your role in future fire investigations, especially those involving death and injury.
Your homework assignment will include your CV and your one-page reflection; however, both sections should be submitted as a single document with a title page.
Unit II Article Critique
For this assignment SEE BELOW FOR ARTICLE
Once you have read the article, you will write an article critique that addresses the elements below.
Identify the premise of the article and its relation to the material in this unit. Explain contextual bias as it relates to fire scene examinations. Explain differences in scientific data and investigative information. Include your opinion regarding if and how scientific data and investigative information should be separated in an investigation. Present your opinion, as compared to the article author’s views, regarding the effect of bias on the science of fire investigation. Do you feel social and cultural factors should be considered in a fire investigation, or do these contribute to contextual bias? Defend your opinion.
Your article critique should a minimum of two pages in length, not counting the title and reference pages. It should be well organized and present a clear opinion on the article’s premise and points. Your argument should be supported with evidence; a minimum of two sources, in addition to the article, must be used. All sources used must be properly cited. Your article critique, including all references, should be formatted in APA style.
Unit III Project
Click the link below, and read pages 29-30 and 44 of the document. Note: Page numbers in the PDF do not correspond with actual document page numbers.
U.S. Department of Justice. (2000, June). Fire and arson scene evidence: A guide for public safety personnel. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/181584.pdf
Additionally, you may want to do your own research to view real examples of fire scene sketches or drawings. The goal of this assignment is to ensure that all relevant data is captured in your documentation of the scene.
To accomplish this, you will organize and sketch a hypothetical structure fire scene as if you are documenting the scene as a part of a fire report. You will create the specific details of the fire scene.
Your sketch should give a complete picture of all the necessary details that should be contained in a sketch, which would be a part of an official fire report. At a minimum, your sketch should include the following information:
“Identifying information such as address, date, time, case/incident number, and sketch author; a legend to describe what the symbols in your sketch represent; measurements, scale, and directional orientation (if not drawn to scale, it should be notated as “not to scale” or “all measurements are approximate”); and pertinent fire scene information and evidence such as damage, fire patterns, and fire travel (as presented in in the readings for this unit).
Next, write a single page narrative explaining your method of examining the fire scene and your method for compiling your documentation. Discuss the findings presented in your sketch to include sources of ignition, fire flow patterns, and ventilation issues.
Your project submission should be at least two pages in length.
Please include a title page with your submission. References are not required for this project. Information about accessing the grading rubric for this assignment is provided below.
Unit IV Essay
A majority of fires may require you to rule electricity in or out as an ignition source. The textbook discusses several sources of ignition by electrical means to consider during an examination of a fire scene.
For this assignment, you will choose one of the possible electrical sources mentioned in your textbook. Using the CSU Online Library, you will conduct your own research on that source of ignition. You will then write an essay addressing, at a minimum, the areas described below.
“Identify the approach you would use in investigating a fire scene where your selected source of ignition is suspected. Identify specific issues you should look for with this source of ignition to assist in determining the probable cause of the fire. Discuss safety measures that must be taken during the investigation when dealing with your selected source of ignition. Describe how arc mapping can assist in determining the area of origin, and in your opinion, if it is effective and reliable.”
Your essay should be a minimum of two pages in length, not counting the title and reference pages. You must use a minimum of three sources. All sources used must be properly cited. Your essay, including all references, must be formatted in APA style.
Unit V Project
Fire investigators routinely work in settings that are, without a doubt, hazardous to their health. When investigating a suspected drug laboratory scene, emergency personnel and investigators must consider the potential for the scene to have been either an explosion or explosive combustion.
For this assignment, you will create your own safety checklist for investigating a fire scene with suspected drug laboratory indicators. This is not to be a copy or revision of an existing checklist.
Your checklist should include measures designed to identify and mitigate safety and security issues unique to a drug laboratory fire/explosion scene. Your checklist should include measures that address, at a minimum, the areas listed below:
Steps in determining if hazardous materials are present or were involved in the fire; steps in safely identifying signs, chemicals, and/or hazardous materials that would indicate the fire/explosion scene was possibly a drug laboratory; the differences in safety measures when dealing with explosions and explosive combustion; and any specific training or equipment that may be needed in a drug laboratory fire/explosion scene response and investigation.
In addition to your checklist, you will write a one-page narrative discussing and supporting the need and importance of the steps in your checklist.
You may create your checklist in any format you feel would be most useful and presents a professional appearance. You may consider creating a table in Word or Excel or simply using a bulleted list. (one page for the checklist and one page for the narrative) in addition to the title and reference pages. You must use a minimum of two sources. All sources used must be properly cited; all references should be formatted in APA style.
Unit VI Essay
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) both include the term willful and malicious burning of property in their definitions of arson; however, many states have drafted their own definitions and statutes relating to arson.
For this assignment, you will research your own state’s definition, statutes, and laws pertaining to arson. You will then write a well-organized essay about arson that addresses, at a minimum, the areas described below.
“Begin with an introduction to arson that includes discussion of the basic elements of proof needed to classify a fire as arson. Identify differences between arson and incendiary fires. Compare and contrast your state’s definition and process of arson investigation to those of the NFPA and FBI. Identify areas of your state’s statutes where you feel improvement is needed to cover areas not currently addressed.”
Your essay should be a minimum of two pages in length, not counting the title and reference pages. You must use a minimum of three sources, one of which may be your textbook. All sources used will be properly cited. Your essay, including all references, will be formatted in APA style.
Unit VII Project
For this assignment, you will be given a scenario and must prepare a final fire investigation report summarizing your investigation findings and conclusions in a methodical manner. You should incorporate the knowledge you have gained thus far in this course to ensure your approach is scientific and addresses the requirements of a thorough fire investigation.
The details for the incident as well as photographic evidence from the fire scene can be accessed by clicking https://online.columbiasouthern.edu/CSU_Content/Courses/Emergency_Services/FIR/FIR4305/16B/UnitVII_Project.pdf. As you will see in the document, the report requires you to provide a sufficient narrative and address, at a minimum, the following topics in your report:
Origin of fire (locations and fuels); combustion properties and extent of damage, from the sources to final points of ignition; causation (according to NFPA classifications); evidence; and estimated value of overall loss (for insurance company report).
Note: All the missing values in this project should be simulated and based on values known or found from publications or Internet research. They should be as real- world as possible in order to reflect a real case scenario.
You may use a standardized fire report template from your own workplace, or you may simply follow the outline in the document to create your narrative and report all findings.
Your fire investigation report should summarize your findings and conclusions in a logical and organized manner. You should describe the process that you use as you document the evidence. Assume this is a fire report that may later be used in a criminal investigation or prosecution. Remember, details, proper procedure, evidence, and referencing of relevant science may make or break the case.
Your fire investigation report should be a minimum of two pages in length, not counting the title and reference pages. External sources used in your report should be properly cited, and the references should be formatted in APA style.
Unit 1 Scholarly Activity
You currently serve as the fire inspector for a municipal fire department and are considered the authority having jurisdiction. A newly planned community is being developed within your jurisdiction, and you have the authority to approve the fire protection water supply system prior to installation. Additionally, you will be responsible for ensuring that inspections and testing of the fire protection water supply system are completed prior to the certification of any occupancy within the planned community. The planned community includes single-family dwellings; multi-family dwellings; commercial buildings, including businesses and mercantile occupancies; and assembly occupancies.
As part of your responsibilities as a fire inspector, you are to ensure that the appropriate type of hydrant is installed and that spacing is in accordance with the local code based on the occupancy types.
In no less than two double-spaced pages, list the type of hydrant to be installed, and why. Also, describe how the hydrants would be tested and maintained. Next, provide the spacing requirements based on your local jurisdiction’s requirements (this could be where you reside). Include a diagram detailing these spacing requirements. Lastly, include the inspection requirements and items to review in regards to the fire protection water supply system.
All sources used, including the textbook, must be referenced; paraphrased and quoted material must have accompanying citations. Any references or citations used should be in APA style.
Unit III Assignment
Inspection and testing of sprinkler systems is a critical component to ensuring systems will operate when needed. For the Unit III Assignment, you are required to complete a safety inspection for one type of fire sprinkler system with the following inspection form:
SEE BELOW to access the Unit III Inspection Form.
Include a brief summary (maximum of 200 words) of your experience along with the completed inspection form. Did you have to answer no to any questions? If so, why? Is this a concern? Did you have to answer NA to any questions, if so, why? Is this a concern?
All sources used, including the textbook, must be referenced; paraphrased and quoted material must have accompanying citations. Any references or citations used should be in APA style.
Unit VIII Research Paper
Throughout the course, we have covered the fire protection and life safety systems that may be found in buildings. These systems are designed for occupant safety, firefighter safety, and property protection. For the final assignment of the course, you will be required to complete a research paper covering at least five different fire protection systems.
For the research paper, you should include the following:
At least five different fire protection systems. These may include fire alarm and connection systems, smoke management systems, fire suppression systems, special extinguishing systems, standpipes systems, and fire pumps, etc.
A detailed description is to be provided for each system selected.
A detailed analysis based on your search
For example, if you describe the automatic fire sprinkler system, details should be included on area of coverage, ratings of sprinkler heads, location of the fire department connection, location of the sprinkler riser, and confirmation on the type of sprinkler system, etc.
Each fire protection system should include how it benefits occupant and firefighter safety (tactical advantages). Your Research Paper must:
Be a maximum of 10 pages (Title Page, 6-8 pages of content, Reference Page).
Be typed, double-spaced, using Times New Roman font (size 12), with one-inch margins on all sides; citations and references must follow APA format.
Include a cover page containing the title of the assignment, the student’s name, and the university name.
Include a reference page. You are encouraged to use your textbook as a reference source in order to write a professional level analysis. All sources must be properly referenced both in-text and on the Reference Page. Make sure to use APA format.
SEE BELOW FOR Example/ Extra needed work
Unit 1 Homework
Detective Lieutenant John Q. Firestorm, Michigan State Police
Commanding Officer, Fire & Explosion Investigation Unit Michigan State Fire Marshal’s Office 1 State Capitol Square Anytown, MI 12345-6789 Office: (999) 555-5555
1976-1979 Electrical Contractor. Uncle Albert’s Electrical and HVAC Repair. Sometown, MI. Duties as a licensed journeyman electrician included on-site wiring & maintenance of electrical systems and evaluation and repair of HVAC systems.
1979-1983 Michigan State Police – Uniformed Patrol Division.
1983-1986 Detective Division, Michigan State Police. EXAMPLE Assigned to Violent Crimes Unit. Duties included the investigation of homicides in cooperation with municipal, state and federal law enforcement and authorities in adjoining states.
1986-1990 Lieutenant, Michigan State Police. Assigned to the Capitol City Arson Task Force participating in fire and explosion investigations as a member of the Capitol City Fire & Police, state police and AFT joint agency arson task force. Duties involved : LIST DUTIES HERE
1990-1996 Lieutenant, Michigan State Police. Assigned to the Fire & Explosion Investigation Unit, State Fire Marshal’s Office. Duties included: LIST DUTIES HERE. LIST ANY SIGNIFICANT CONTRIBUTIONS, ACHIEVEMENTS. SHOW NUMBERS OF CASES WORKED AND CLEARNACE RATE.
1996-present: EXAMPLE Detective Lieutenant and Commanding Officer, Fire & Explosion Investigation Unit, State Fire Marshal’s Office. Principle duty involves daily supervision of 20 State Fire Marshal investigators working within organized fire & arson investigation teams along with municipal and federal authorities statewide. Secondary duties include assigning & reviewing case reports, overseeing budgeting and unit fiscal management. Major achievements included instituting new training approach for cooperation with local fire service and police and ATF investigators, refitting Fire Marshal response vehicles with updated investigative tool kits & support equipment and mentoring and helping create professional development plans for all subordinates.
Formal Education (EXAMPLES shown below)
Graduated Hometown Senior High School in Hometown, MI in June 1976.
Associates Degree in Criminal Justice from Important College in Anytown, MI.
Advanced Training (EXAMPLES shown below)
· IAAI Certified Fire Investigator (CFI). Certification received in 1987. Renewed in 1992 and 1997.
· Attended National Fire Academy 2 week course, “Fire and Arson Investigation” in September of 1985.
· Attended Middlesex County Community College 1 semester 3 credit course, “Investigation of Fires” in the Spring semester of 1986.
· Attended National Fire Academy 2-week course, “Management for Arson Prevention and Control” in April of 1989.
· Attended State Arson Investigators Association in-service school on “Post-Blast Investigation” in May of 1991.
· Trained in the “Carson method” of witness interviewing at 1 week inservice given by Johnson & Smith in March of 1992.
· Attended Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms 2 week course, “Advanced Arson-for-Profit Investigation” in October of 1996.
· Attended Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms 2 week course, “Advanced Cause and Origin/Court Techniques” course in March of 1998.
Publications (EXAMPLES shown below)
Firestorm, John Q. “Shocker! Electrical Hazards at the Fire Scene.” Published in Where There’s Smoke…A Quarterly Journal on Fire. July 1999.
Firestorm, John Q. “”Is that a Spark I See Before Me?: The Elimination of Accidental Fire Causes.”” Published in Electrical and Appliance Fire Newsletter. March 2000.
Firestorm, John Q. and Burns, Paul C. “TQM and the Interagency Team Concept: Lessons for Commanding Officers.” Published in Management and Investigation Monthly. November 2001.
Currently contributing a chapter on incendiary fires made to look like electrical accidents to “Case Studies in Cause and Origin.” Edited by Mary Pyrotech. Book forthcoming from Roaring Flames Press in 2017.
Professional Affiliations (EXAMPLES shown below)
International Association of Arson Investigators
National Association of Fire Investigators
National Association of State Police Officers
Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers
Expert Testimony Experience
OFFER EVIDENCE OF NUMBER OF CASE INVESTIGATIONS, SWORN TESTIMONY, AND/OR CONSULTING.
Unit III Assignment
Name and Address of Building: _________________________________________________________________________
Type of Occupancy: ________________________ Building Construction Type: ________________________________
Type of Control Valve in Place:
Date sprinklers installed: _____
Were building alterations/renovations made since the
Was new sprinkler system added since last inspection?
Any sprinkler system alteration made since the
last inspection? What is system type?
Is building fully protected with sprinklers?
If not, explain: ________
Do sprinkler valves appear in good working order? Is dry pipe valve in heated enclosure?
Are spare sprinklers provided?
Are control valves sealed? Are they locked?
Do they have tamper switches?
Fire Department Connections
Are fire department connections clear and unobstructed? Are protective caps in place?
Are connections identified?
Quarterly Inspections and Tests Recorded
Are quarterly inspections and tests recorded?
N/A N/A N/A
N/A N/A N/A
•N/A (not applicable) means there’s no such feature in the building.
*Adapted from the National Fire Protection Association
Unit II Article Critique
Reference: LENTINI, J. J. (2015). Contextual Bias in Fire Investigations. Brief, 44(3), 40-45.
Scientific vs. Investigative Data
Contextual bias is an issue that has come to the forefront of forensic science in the last few years, and nowhere is contextual bias more likely to influence scientific determinations than in fire investigation. This is largely because many fire investigators also serve simultaneously as law enforcement officers.
This article will explore the different duties, responsibilities, and ethical requirements of the scientist and the law enforcement officer. What data constitute scientific evidence and what constitute investigative information? Can the two be separated? Should they be separated? How does the science suffer when the scientist is influenced by contextual bias? How does law enforcement suffer when a fire investigator is unable to classify a fire based on the physical evidence?
There are no easy answers to these questions. In one case, the ethical and valid response may be obvious, while in the next case, a fire investigator attempting to assist the jury to understand the physical evidence can easily cross the line and conflate valid, but domain irrelevant, investigative data with scientific proof. It is up to counsel to help the expert witnesses delineate between information that can potentially bias the interpretation of the physical evidence, and information that is necessary for its objective evaluation.
“Scientific” Knowledge vs. “Investigative” Knowledge
The fire investigation profession some time ago committed itself to conducting scientific investigations. The result has been a significant improvement in the reliability of origin and cause determinations. In the intervening years, the “relevant investigative community,” represented by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Technical Committee on Fire Investigations, has tried to root out those practices that make arriving at a valid scientific conclusion about the origin and cause of the fire more difficult. One of the obstacles to reaching a valid conclusion is cognitive bias.
The concept of expectation bias was first introduced to NFPA 921: Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations in the 2008 edition, when the following caution about expectation bias was added.
4.3.8 Expectation Bias. Expectation bias is a well-established phenomenon that occurs in scientific analysis when investigator(s) reach a premature conclusion without having examined or considered all of the relevant data. Instead of collecting and examining all of the data in a logical and unbiased manner to reach a scientifically reliable conclusion, the investigator(s) uses the premature determination to dictate investigative processes, analyses, and, ultimately, conclusions, in a way that is not scientifically valid. The introduction of expectation bias into the investigation results in the use of only that data that supports this previously formed conclusion and often results in the misinterpretation and/or the discarding of data that does not support the original opinion. Investigators are strongly cautioned to avoid expectation bias through proper use of the scientific method.[ 1]
The question then becomes, what constitutes “all of the relevant data”? Relevant to what? Relevant to a reliable scientific determination, or relevant to the correct law enforcement conclusion? The two are not necessarily the same.
When fire investigators testify as expert witnesses, they are allowed the privilege of expressing an opinion to a jury, as long as that testimony meets these criteria:
(a) the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;
(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;
(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.[ 2]
Whether the situation is a proper one for the use of expert testimony is to be determined on the basis of assisting the trier of fact.
“There is no more certain test for determining when experts may be used than the common sense inquiry whether the untrained layman would be qualified to determine intelligently and to the best possible degree the particular issue without enlightenment from those having a specialized understanding of the subject involved in the dispute.”
Once he or she has qualified as an expert, and explained fire science to the jury, the members of the jury are likely to perceive anything the investigator says as scientific fact, even when that is not the case. Particularly in a case where there is one individual serving as both the scientist and the law enforcement investigator or case agent, there exists a risk of confusion if the two roles are not distinguished.
A fire investigator’s core competency is determining where the fire started. Recent studies have shown that the error rate for this important task may be shockingly high.[ 4] And knowledge that the homeowner was behind on his or her mortgage or recently had an argument with his or her spouse are facts that are not the least bit relevant to the task.
In Michigan Millers Mutual Insurance Corp. v. Benfield, one of the first reliability challenges to a fire investigator serving in the role of the scientist, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals expounded on the special aura of reliability that surrounds “scientific testimony”:
The use of “science” to explain how something occurred has the potential to carry great weight with a jury, explaining both why counsel might seek to couch an expert witness’s testimony in terms of science, as well as why the trial judge plays an important role as the gate-keeper in monitoring the evidentiary reliability of such testimony. See Daubert, [509 U.S. 579, 590(1993)]. Because of the manner in which this expert’s testimony was presented to the jury, we find no error by the trial court in determining Daubert applied to the testimony at issue.[ 5]
The Benfield decision was handed down in May 1998, about a year before the Supreme Court found that Daubert and the Federal Rules of Evidence apply to all expert testimony, not just scientific testimony. In Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, the Supreme Court held that the federal rules did not distinguish between “scientific,” “technical,” or “other specialized” knowledge.[6 ]Expert testimony is expert testimony, and the court system relies on it in most cases that go to trial today.
Problems can arise when expert testimony is comingled with other investigative information. This problem was recently highlighted in a case decided by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in which it was argued that a law enforcement officer crossed the line when he attempted to put an “expert gloss” on what would otherwise be admissible fact witness testimony:
“Interpretations” of unambiguous words or phrases that are plainly within the jury’s understanding are unlikely to be admissible under Rule 702. Expert testimony does not assist where the jury has no need for an opinion because it easily can be derived from common sense, common experience, the jury’s own perceptions, or simple logic.
… The witness’s dual role might confuse the jury, or a jury might be smitten by an expert’s “aura of special reliability” and therefore give his factual testimony undue weight. Experts famously possess an “aura of special reliability” surrounding their testimony. And it is possible that the glow from this halo may extend to an expert witness’s fact testimony as well, swaying the jury by virtue of his perceived expertise rather than the logical force of his testimony. Or, the jury may unduly credit the opinion testimony of an investigating officer based on a perception that the expert was privy to facts about the defendant not presented at trial. Alternatively, the mixture of fact and expert testimony could, under some circumstances, come close to an expert commenting on the ultimate issue in a criminal matter.[ 7]
The court went on to admonish judges to instruct juries about what testimony is expert testimony and what is not, and it further stated that prosecutors should structure their examination of a witness to allow for a separation of the expert testimony from the fact testimony when the law enforcement officer testifies in a dual role.
The Holistic Approach
In 2009, two ATF-certified fire investigators, Steven Avato and Andrew Cox, published an interesting and provocative article in the Fire and Arson Investigator entitled “Science and Circumstance: Key Components in Fire Investigation.” They provide two scenarios of a fire that resulted in identical physical evidence. In the first scenario, Mr. Smith says “Hello” to his secretary, goes into his office, and closes the door. He then lights a candle and discards the match in a trash can. He receives a phone call and immediately leaves the office, closing the door behind him. A fire erupts in the trash can. In the second scenario, Mr. Smythe angrily storms past his secretary ranting, “I’ll fix them. They’ll pay for firing me.” He then enters the office, slams the door behind him, and throws a lit match into the trash can. He exits the office and closes the door and shouts “Sic semper tyrannis!”9
The authors argue that classifying the second fire as “undetermined” is a result of disregarding relevant data, and state, “This approach is not only a willful departure from scientifically based problem solving, but it is also a dangerous methodology that has most certainly led to erroneous origin and cause determinations.”[ 10] But what are the data relevant to? Certainly, the jury is entitled to learn all of the facts uncovered during the investigation of this fire, but does that allow the investigator, using his or her expertise as a fire scientist, to conclude based on the scene examination that he or she has “scientifically” determined that the fire was intentional?
The second fire was certainly intentionally set, but no expert analysis or opinion is required to reach that conclusion. The jury requires no assistance in determining what happened here. Sometimes the science is not useful, nor is it necessary. In fact, presenting a perfectly logical and correct conclusion under the color of “science” might be considered disingenuous.
Avato and Cox set up several scenarios that do not describe how anyone investigates fires, but they correctly state that it is the investigator’s responsibility to find the “demarcation” between relevant scientific data and data that are not relevant. No matter how that line is drawn, it surely travels through a domain called “witness statements.” Statements that describe observations about the fire, or knowledge of the arrangement of furniture, or when the electricity was disconnected clearly belong in the relevant scientific data column. Statements about motive, means, and opportunity are not relevant to an origin or cause determination, and NFPA 921 specifically states that such “data” should only be considered after the origin and cause have been determined.
This author was requested to examine the evidence in the case where a defendant was accused of pouring gasoline on his girlfriend and setting her on fire. The prosecutor had heard several versions of the event and wanted an independent evaluation of the evidence. Based on the physical evidence, however, three scenarios were equally supported:
A. The defendant poured gasoline on the victim, and then he ignited it.
B. The defendant poured gasoline on the victim, and then the victim ignited it.
C. The victim poured gasoline on herself, and then she ignited it.
Scientific evaluation of the physical evidence was of no help.
In another case, the owner of a retail establishment that sold skiing equipment in the winter and swimming pool supplies in the summer solicited several individuals to burn the store down so she could collect on her insurance policy. Finding no takers, the woman declared she would do it herself, and when her boyfriend challenged her, she wagered $500 that she would, in fact, burn the store down. And burn it did.
It burned so completely, in fact, that an investigative team consisting of five certified fire investigators, an electrical engineer, a fire protection engineer, a chemist, and a canine team who spent three days on the scene were unable to determine either the origin or the cause. It took more than five years to bring the case to trial, and the lack of a demonstrated origin and cause troubled the jury. In the end, however, they did not find that there was reasonable doubt about the store owner’s guilt, and they convicted her. The investigators did the right thing by declaring, even knowing how many times the woman had solicited others to commit arson, that the origin and cause were undetermined. The jury would not have been helped by having an expert opine that the fire was intentionally set. They were able to come to that conclusion themselves, based on common sense and investigative information. This is yet another case where the scientific evaluation of the evidence was of no help. The defendant got a fair trial, and had no grounds to appeal the admission of expert testimony.
Ethics can be defined as the science of human duty in its broadest sense. If we change the word “human” to “professional” we can define ethics for every profession, but those ethics are different for each. Scientists must live by a different set of rules than law enforcement officers. Prosecutors must live by a different set of rules than defense attorneys. One hopes that all of the players in the criminal justice system behave ethically.
One of the most respected forensic scientists on the planet, Dr. Douglas Lucas, spent more than 20 years as chairman of the Ethics Committee in the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. Dr. Lucas has written and spoken extensively on the subject of ethics. He states that one of the major causes of pressure on those who serve as expert witnesses is the adversary system of justice because of the inherent tension between the goals and methods of science and the goals and methods of litigation. This is so even though both make sense, and both serve vital social functions. In describing the different ethical obligations of scientists and law enforcement officers, Dr. Lucas writes:
For a law enforcement officer, acting on information received from another officer is quite proper. For a scientist, however, arriving at a conclusion in the absence of proper scientific data, is quite unethical. This distinction is particularly important, and sometimes difficult, for scientists who are part of a law enforcement agency, and especially for those who are also sworn officers.[ 11]
The tension between science and the law was recognized by Justice Blackmun in the Daubert decision, when he wrote:
[T]here are important differences between the quest for truth in the courtroom and the quest for truth in the laboratory. Scientific conclusions are subject to perpetual revision. Law, on the other hand, must resolve disputes finally and quickly. The scientific project is advanced by broad and wide-ranging consideration of a multitude of hypotheses, for those that are incorrect will eventually be shown to be so, and that in itself is an advance. Conjectures that are probably wrong are of little use, however, in the project of reaching a quick, final, and binding legal judgment — often of great consequence — about a particular set of events in the past. We recognize that, in practice, a gatekeeping role for the judge, no matter how flexible, inevitably on occasion will prevent the jury from learning of authentic insights and innovations. That, nevertheless, is the balance that is struck by Rules of Evidence designed not for the exhaustive search for cosmic understanding but for the particularized resolution of legal disputes.[ 12]
Dr. Lucas served on the Office of Inspector General’s (OIG’s) commission convened in the mid-1990s to investigate allegations of irregularities in the FBI Laboratory’s Explosives Unit. At that time, the testifying experts were required to be field agents as well as scientists, and unfortunately, some of them confused the two roles.
In one instance, a chemist by the name of Rudolph conducted a preliminary examination of a suspected explosive, and got results “consistent with” PETN, the explosive used in detonator cord. He testified positively at the trial of a suspected terrorist that he was as sure as he could be that he had identified PETN, but on cross-examination, he had to admit that he was using a combination of “scientific” and “investigative” information to reach his conclusion. Detonator cord had been found in a garbage container near the defendant’s residence.
At least partly as a result of the devastating cross-examination of Rudolph at the trial, the defendant was acquitted. The United States attorney was not happy. In a four-page complaint to the FBI Laboratory director, he wrote:
The first deficiency in Rudolphs analysis seems obvious. Relying on the hearsay views of field agents in rendering an opinion as to the presence of a chemical compound seems obviously wrong-headed. The FBI chemist is being asked to iruieperuiently ascertain the existence of a substance not just regurgitate information he has received from the field. Secondly, the information from the field agents may be wrong or so speculative as to be accorded little weight. Finally, using any basis other than instrumental analysis for an opinion as to the presence of a chemical or compound leads, as in this case, to insufficient instrumental testing.[ 13]
Because scientific testimony has the potential to carry great weight with the jury, courts have a right to expect that testimony presented as science is based on real science that is independent of other field information. The OIG report stated, “We conclude that Rudolph’s performance in Psinakis was wholly inadequate and unprofessional.” The commission did not, however, find a factual basis to conclude that he intentionally overstated or biased his conclusions.
The OIG also looked into the analysis of evidence in the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. In that case, an FBI chemist named Williams opined that the main charge was 1,200 pounds of urea nitrate, not because it was found at the scene, but because it was found at a bomb factory associated with the defendants, and it would take 1,200 pounds of the explosive to cause the damage to the building. The OIG asked Williams to justify his testimony, and he could not. It was based entirely on contextual bias. The OIG report stated, “Williams failed in his responsibility to provide the court with an objective, unbiased expert opinion.”
In general, the OIG investigation found very few problems with the FBI’s approach to science. But because a very few examiners behaved in an unethical manner in a relatively small number of cases, over 3,000 major criminal cases were cast into doubt, and the otherwise well-deserved excellent reputation of a fine organization was tarnished.
Other Examples of Context Bias
Dr. Itiel Dror is one of the world’s leading experts on contextual bias. After the Brandon Mayfield fingerprint fiascoo, Dror conducted an experiment to test the effect of context bias on five fingerprint examiners. A different pair of fingerprints was prepared for each of the expert participants. Each pair of prints had been previously identified as a match by that same expert five years earlier, within the normal course of his or her work. The latent fingerprints had been obtained from the crime scenes and were all presented again to the experts in their original format. They were told that the pair of prints was the one that was erroneously matched by the FBI as the Madrid bomber, thus creating an extraneous context that the prints were a nonmatch. Three of the five examiners changed their identification to “nonmatch.” One changed to “inconclusive,” and only one held to the original “match” determination.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission (FSC) spent three years (2008-2011) studying the science, and the lack thereof, that contributed to the exoneration of Ernest Ray Willis and the wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004.18 In April 2011, the FSC issued its report, which discussed the cognitive biases to which fire investigators (and all forensic scientists) are subject. The FSC stated, “cognitive biases are not the result of character flaws; instead, they are common features of decision-making.” One of the key recommendations, of 17 made by the FSC, was enhanced admissibility hearings in all arson cases. It is at such a hearing that the potentially biasing “data” that may have influenced the investigator’s determination of arson can be explored. For an attorney on either side of an arson case, this report should be required reading.
Law enforcement is an important and honorable profession. It plays a central role in keeping a civilized society civilized. But it is not science. Lawyers are also not scientists. All have different ethical obligations. Legal “proof and scientific “proof are different. Nor is the problem of finding or failing to find the demarcation between scientific and investigative data confined to fire investigators or to law enforcement. Cognitive biases are a human condition that afflict both the public and the private sector, and both prosecution and defense attorneys.
This author has previously suggested means to minimize expectation bias in fire cases by separating the duties of the principal investigator from the fire scene analyst. This methodology, which involves protecting the scene investigator from potentially biasing information, has been applied successfully. Law enforcement officers can use science to aid in the search for justice, but if the science is to be used fairly and effectively, it is important that scientific evidence be reliable and independent.