One of nation’s top forensic scientists speaks at Cedar Crest College
In the field of forensic science, there does come a time when the scientist should actually say “I don’t care,” according to Joseph P. Bono, one of the nation’s most highly regarded forensic scientists.
When providing forensic science analysis for a criminal case, “you can’t care about guilt or innocence,” Bono said Thursday night during Cedar Crest College’s Second Annual Forensic Science Leadership Lecture.
Bono, who once headed the U.S. Secret Service Laboratory in Washington, D.C., implored forensic science students that they, now more than ever, must be able to effectively communicate the science behind their conclusions when called upon to testify in court and must constantly question the scientific process they are taking in the lab to develop their conclusions.
Gone are the days, Bono said, of when a forensic scientist in court could justify testimony by saying the conclusions were reached “based on my training and experience,” without fully explaining the science behind the conclusion.
“Scientists need to relay the lab knowledge in a cogent fashion in the courtroom to get the judge, jury and public to understand that we know what we’re talking about.”
Bono said lawyers in more recent years have become more knowledgeable about science, resulting in forensic scientists having to explain how they reached their conclusions in much greater detail.
Bono noted many improvements in forensic science following a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences that said there were an overwhelming number of labs without documented standards/thresholds.
“Things have gotten better because people are changing how they are working in labs; the quality of work has improved drastically,” he said. “People are coming out into the field from places like Cedar Crest who have been taught to think critically, question, and say that we can do this better.”
He said the progress must continue at a rapid pace. “What’s good enough today won’t be good enough five years from now. The bar will be raised even higher. Lawyers are learning more about forensic science; in turn the scientists need to learn more about the law.”
While improvements have been made, Bono noted fields, such as hand-writing analysis, not having set standards and thresholds.
“I fear if scientific organizations don’t set the standards, the government will, and I don’t think we want to go there,” he said.
Bono, a past-president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, most recently worked as Laboratory Director of the U.S. Secret Service before retiring in 2007. During his 14 months heading that laboratory, he oversaw a number of fingerprint identity cases on threats made against President George W. Bush and other elected officials.
Bono focused much of his lecture on what traits make for a great leader.
“A leader never says follow me,” he said. “What a leader should say is, let’s sit down and talk about how we get from Point A to Point B together,” and will channel the information in a way that inspires. “A leader works for the staff; the staff doesn’t work for the leader.”
Before entering the field of forensic science, Bono has originally wanted to pursue a law degree, but said “I just couldn’t afford it.” He soon became interested in forensic science and decided he wanted to pursue “the application of science to the law.”
Bono landed his first job in forensic science with the St. Louis County Police Department in 1974. During his career, he would go on to direct forensic laboratories for the Drug Enforcement Administration, Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Secret Service.
In 2006, he was awarded a Distinguished Service Award from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. During his career, he has traveled around the world to make presentations on the forensic analysis of drugs, laboratory accreditation and certification. Today, he provides various consulting services.
The lecture was sponsored by Dr. Richard Saferstein, former Chief Scientist for the New Jersey State Police.
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