Home Education Ethics and the Practice of Forensic Science
O. J. Simpson Case
No other case dominated the media’s attention over such an extended period of time as the O. J. Simpson trial, which became known as the trial of the century. It has been suggested that the judge let pretrial publicity get out of hand. Whether this is true or not, the impact of the case itself, the overwhelming media attention, and the focus that the trial would create for forensic scientists and law enforcement were not anticipated.
This case is of particular importance regarding forensic science ethics because the physical evidence was the primary focus. The first major issue was that the medical examiner’s (ME) office personnel did not respond to the scene (at the request of the police) until approximately 10 hours after the victims were discovered. This is significant because it is the responsibility of the ME’s office to arrive at the crime scene as soon as possible to assure that evidence is properly preserved and collected. In addition, the delay in their arrival caused the holdup in determining the time of death, which resulted in a broader, less accurate range. During the pretrial hearing, the ME admitted mistakes in not having a representative investigator or pathologist on scene sooner. Under cross-examination at the hearing, 30-40 errors and/ or mishandled evidence were discovered. The information sustained the defense’s claim that Simpson was being framed by officers. To save their case, prosecutors did not call the ME as a witness in the trial because he handled his role so poorly, as shown during preliminary hearings. Instead, the prosecution had the ME’s boss testify, even though he was not the one to conduct the autopsies; because most of his testimony was based on conjecture, his role was merely to support the prosecution’s theory about what occurred during the crime. The State’s primary case established reasonable certainty that Simpson had motive, means for the murders through a lack of alibi, and the presence of Simpson at the scene with the use of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and blood evidence. The defense countered the prosecution’s lack of alibi with expert witnesses that suggested the murders could have occurred much later than the prosecution stated. The defense also accused police of stealing blood samples to plant them at the scene because the chain of custody was not maintained. Based on this, the defense stated that the prosecution’s DNA results were due to contamination and poor police handling; therefore, the blood and DNA evidence establishing the presence of Simpson at the scene needed to be dismissed. In addition to these key arguments, the trial included the matches of DNA that were leaked to the press, more than 1,000 exhibits presented, 126 witnesses testified, a media circus that was not controlled by the judge, and a jury that was sequestered for 225 days.
The next major issue that was a focus of the Simpson trial was Mark Fuhrman, a Los Angeles Police Department detective who perjured himself on the stand. This occurred when the detective stated he had not used racial slurs in more than 10 years. Unfortunately, for him, the defense obtained his recordings using such language more recently. The primary issues in this trial were accompanied by many, much smaller, yet more significant issues that were not given the proper time or attention such as the chain of custody, contamination, and evidence handling procedures. Many things were learned from this case regarding proper actions of law enforcement officers and forensic scientists and the consequences when those actions are not followed. The trial educated the general public as to the rules of the law, such as what is truly meant by the phrases innocent until proven guilty and beyond a reasonable doubt. The case taught society about the fields of forensic science and pathology, and the use and significance of DNA evidence. Finally, the trial provided an exemplar as to what can be, and should be, legitimately expected from the U.S. legal system. Although the trial brought professional issues into focus, it is not the appropriate standard to which society should judge the criminal justice system or the forensic science profession. The Simpson case was an anomaly. The trial is in the history books much to the chagrin of the forensic community; however, it did provide a basis for the need for standards, validation, continuing education, and the study of ethics for forensic scientists and related professionals (Shiftman, 2000). This case was the impetus for increased government funding to forensic science research and standardization, laboratory accreditation, best practices in the professional culture. No forensic professional wants to see another O. J. Simpson murder case occur.
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