Is Bloodstain Pattern Analysis on the Way Out?

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of attending a committee meeting of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. The meeting was to consider whether the field of bloodstain pattern analysis (BPA) should be regulated in some form, and if so, how that would occur, and what it would look like. The committee heard from experts across the country. You would think they would have been defensive, and oppose any efforts at regulation. Instead, they recognized the need for uniform standards, and have already taken steps to formulate guidelines for training.

In case you're interested, the National Institute for Science and Technology (NIST), has established the Organization for Scientific Area Committees in Forensic Science (OSAC). OSAC  has established subcommittees, one of which is on Bloodstain Pattern Analysis.  So far, they have come up with several draft documents, one of which deals with proficiency testing, and one dealing with education and training

I was surprised to learn that everyone agrees that a substantial amount of training is necessary to be considered an expert in BPA. Most of the discussion suggested that it requires several years of training, and attendance at several advanced courses, including courses in physics and fluid dynamics. If someone has the education, along with the required experience, I have no problem with BPA and believe it can be reliable and useful. The problem is that I have rarely seen "experts" who possessed those qualifications.

Most of the presenters at the meeting agreed that the "40-hour course" does nothing more than provide you with a basic understanding of the field. They also all agreed that completing the basic 40-hour course does not make you an expert.

Unfortunately, I have seen cases where the so-called expert only had the 40-hour course - usually, it's someone with the local police department, who the police decided was expert enough. Even when their qualifications are challenged, judges ALWAYS let the testimony in. They are then allowed to testify about their "interpretation" of blood stains, and what it means. I can almost guarantee that the opinions they provide are wrong, or at best misleading. If you think about it in another context, would you let a second-year medical student - who has already had way more than 40 hours of training - operate on you? And those are people who start off with a scientific background, which few police officers have.

As with most areas of law, this is an area where an abuse of the process by some is going to make it more difficult for those who do it correctly, and are qualified. If the standards being discussed by OSAC are adopted, I seriously doubt whether more than a handful of experts will be qualified to testify. In my opinion, that's not a bad thing.

This is an issue you need to keep an eye on. The final decision could impact not only future cases but also cases that have already been tried. Similar to arson, the more courts are made aware of the problems, the more likely they are to step in and correct the mistakes that have been made.

The next meeting of the committee will be in February. They will decide what recommendations to make to the full commission, which meets the following day. If they decide to require some type of licensing, that process will take some time. So stay tuned.... 

Walter Reaves
Criminal Defense Attorney Walter Reaves has been practicing law for over 35 years.
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