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Critical Review of Forensic Trace Evidence Analysis and the Need for a New Approach

NCJ Number
Date Published
June 2015
12 pages
This article reviews the historical development, contributions, and limitations of the two traditional approaches to trace evidence analysis.
The first approach was as generalist practitioner, looking broadly at an assemblage of many different particle types. The second was that of specialist practitioner, with attention focused on one specific particle type. Four factors have significantly impacted the effectiveness of these approaches: (1) increasing technological capabilities, (2) increasing complexity in the character of manufactured materials, (3) changes in forensic laboratory management, and (4) changing scientific and legal expectations. The effectiveness of each approach is assessed within the context of these changes. More recently, new technologies have been applied to some trace evidence problems, intended to address one or more limitations. This has led to a third approach founded on discrete, highly technical methods addressing specific analytical problems. After evaluating the contributions and limitations of this third approach, the article considers the various ways that technologies could be developed to address unmet needs in forensic trace evidence analysis. The route toward effective use of new technologies is contrasted with how forensic science laboratories are currently choosing and employing them. The conclusion is that although new technologies are contributing, we are not on a path that will result in their most effective and appropriate use. A new approach is required. Based on an analysis of the contributions of each of the three existing approaches, seven characteristics of an effective trace evidence analysis capability were determined: (1) particle traces should be a major problem-solving tool, (2) there should be readily available, straightforward methods to enable their use, (3) all available and potentially useful particle types should be considered, (4) decisions to use them should be made in the context of each case, guided by what they can contribute to the case and how efficiently they can do so, (5) analyses should be conducted using appropriate technologies, (6) findings should be timely and directly integrated with case-specific problems, and (7) new technologies should be used to improve the overall effectiveness of the capability. Clearly new technologies have the potential to revolutionize forensic trace evidence, but just as clearly some of the traditional capabilities have been rendered ineffective, or lost entirely, by the way we have come to approach the problem. Having critically defined the current limitations of and the desired outcomes, the next focus should be consideration of alternative approaches that might achieve such a result. (Publisher abstract modified)
Date Published: June 1, 2015