Arlington, VA, near Pentagon City… Where else would you want the first ‘International Symposium on Forensic Science Error Management – Detection, Measurement and Mitigation’ to take place? From July 20th to 24th, we had the opportunity to attend and present posters at this event. This was a very exciting opportunity for us, as we are both involved in research concerning error detection, measurement and mitigation in fingerprint examination – and here was a whole symposium entirely dedicated to this area of research – situated near the Pentagon and FBI headquarters!
The keynote address was held by Brandon Mayfield, and his former attorney (now legal director of the Innocence Project Oregon) Steven Wax. The way they recounted their story of how Brandon Mayfield was wrongly arrested for supposedly being involved in the 2005 Madrid bombing, made the audience feel as though they were in a theatre. However, it was a real case where FBI fingerprint examiners had wrongly identified a partial fingermark, found on a plastic bag containing detonating devices at the crime scene, as belonging to Brandon Mayfield. Mayfield and Wax took turns, the attorney presenting the investigative procedures which took place at the time, Mayfield portraying how these legal procedures were affecting his work, family and in the end, his life. It was a touching and poignant address, especially as you could feel the lasting effect this experience had on Mayfield.
Further plenary sessions focussed on human factors, the change in attitudes towards error in practice and policy, and the importance of trust and collaboration among academics, forensic practitioners, and the legal profession. The afternoons offered breakout sessions on a variety of different topics, from criminalistics over digital evidence, human factors, lab management, to legal factors, and quality assurance. With so many interesting sessions happening in parallel, it was sometimes very hard to choose which ones to attend!
On the last day of the conference, after learning much about present research and future directions of forensic science error management, we were treated to a moot court presentation. This was held by William Thompson (Dept. of Criminology, Law & Society, University of California-Irvine) and Jason Tully (Public Defender Service of DC, USA), who charmingly convinced the attendees of the benefits of being an expert witness who is prepared and aware of the limits of their field, their knowledge, and the possibility (and impact) of error. Within this presentation, we especially noticed the emphasis laid on issues regarding accreditation within the laboratories, as well as questions regarding the methods used by experts.
Overall the NIST symposium was a very good chance for us to engage with the people who are working in the same field as we are in INTREPID Forensics. It was great to experience the way practitioners from other countries work and think about forensic science, and to make contacts for further collaborations with our projects. It was also interesting to learn that the field of error in forensics is still a big and rather novel area, which requires more innovative research, and needs to be embraced by both academics and practitioners. Let’s see what the future holds!