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You hear the letters CSI and you picture women in white suits and stilettos, men in crisp shirts, sunglasses, and alligator boots heading out to crime scenes in Hummers with Glock 40s in shoulder holsters.

The truth is the world of forensics isn’t nearly so decked out and is rarely even armed, let alone running after bad guys through abandoned warehouses and over train tracks. (What is our fascination with train tracks? Have you ever tried to run on them? Twisted ankles galore!) Unless they are sworn officers, most crime scene responders aren’t trained to deal with people at the scene. It’s true that collection and preservation of evidence at a crime scene is crucial to getting a case to court. But the bulk of forensic work happens in the lab.

Away from the hustle and bustle of the outside world, a whole universe exists behind locked doors. And, locked they must be. Because evidence is irreplaceable. It has to be protected and preserved. Packaged and documented. Sealed and safeguarded.

Forensic scientists’ expertise lies in what often can’t be seen with the naked eye: latent prints, saliva, hairs, fibers, bullet trajectories, semen, indented writing, scratched off serial numbers, gunshot residue, blood spatter, paint flecks, glass shards, unknown powders, toolmarks, and accelerants. These are just some of minutiae forensic scientists are looking for on any given day. The items submitted to them can be anything from doors, safes and tires to cigarette butts, bullet fragments and candy wrappers.

Employees in forensic laboratories are usually underfunded and overworked. Yet they are resilient. They are a group of internally motivated, well educated, and highly trained individuals who have a gift for solving problems. Whether they’re in a brand new, state of the art facility or in a basement with no natural light, they get the job done. It isn’t always pretty, it’s rarely glamorous, but it’s always quality.

After the lab work, court testimony is on the horizon. I love the original Law and Order and Perry Mason – he always got his man! In fact, he usually got his man to confess on the stand when someone else was on trial. That’s what court is like, right? Even the most televised and sensationalized crimes (think Nicole Brown-Simpson and Lacy Peterson homicides) drag on … and on … and on … and on in court. They aren’t the fast-paced, clear-cut renditions we see on TV. The questions aren’t the stimulating, on-the-edge-of-your-seat, cat and mouse kind, either. Most of the time they are repetitive, highly technical, and S-L-O-W. Jurors struggle to stay awake and lawyers struggle to keep on track.

Forensic scientists testify as expert witnesses and field questions from both the defense and prosecution. They must take their technical analysis and present it in a manner that the jury and the court can understand. Different from any other witness testimony, forensic scientists are actually expected to give their opinion on the stand. But first they have to prove their expert status through their education, training and experience. No one else can spout out their degrees and certifications like a forensic scientist!

Why should the public feel secure in the knowledge that forensic laboratories are producing quality results? They are following strict policies and procedures for just about every aspect of their work. Compliance with these policies and standards set by the International Organization for Standardization is crucial to ensuring quality for the public which they serve. 

Give a shout out to the men and women in your community, dressed in Tyvek and nitrile, who work hard every day to put together the pieces of a puzzle so the bad guys go to jail and the good guys don’t.

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