News & Politics


A Forensic Scientist on How TV Portrays His Profession, Evidence That Was Ignored in the O.J. Simpson Case, and How Examining the Results of Crimes Can Change You

At one time, relatively few people had heard of forensic science. But ever since the O.J. Simpson trial–and now with the TV shows CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami, CSI: NY, and Navy NCIS–millions know about it.

"Our field has become highly visible," says Moses Schanfield, chair of George Washington University's Department of Forensic Sciences. "We're out to free the innocent, put away the bad guys, make the real dad pay for paternity. The field has a huge impact on daily life."

Schanfield, 60, was born in Minneapolis shortly after his father died in World War II. His mother later married an accountant. He graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1966 with an anthropology major. He received a master's in the field from Harvard and a doctorate in human genetics from the University of Michigan. He was a postdoctoral scientist in immunology at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco from 1971 to 1975.

For the next three years he was at the Milwaukee Blood Center. He first lived in Washington in 1978, when he worked for the American Red Cross Blood Services. In 1983 he went to Atlanta to start the Genetic Testing Institute. Two years later, he started Allo-Type Genetic Testing, which he relocated to Denver in 1989 then merged it with another company to form the Analytic Genetic Testing Center. He headed a public-safety laboratory in Rochester, New York, before coming to GW in 2002.

Schanfield has been an expert witness in court more than 100 times. He has written articles on such subjects as disease susceptibility, anthropological genetic studies, paternity testing, and forensic sciences. He's a fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, a member of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, and vice president of the American Association of Anthropological Genetics.

He lives in Falls Church with his wife, Patricia, an educational psychologist who teaches learning theory at Loyola College in Maryland. They have four daughters between them: Stephanie, 29, is in school to become a social-studies teacher; Karin, 27, is studying music to become a voice and music teacher; Sara, 26, works part-time; Amanda, 21, is a senior at the University of Denver, where she's studying religion with plans to become a rabbi.

In Schanfield's office, across from his pristine laboratory, we talked about what he's learned.

How good are DNA tests at catching criminals?

DNA evidence doesn't solve crimes. However, it can establish that a biological fluid left somewhere belongs to a particular individual.

With pretty high certainty?

With absolute certainty if we get enough of it. The average power of exclusion now is about 1.5 times 10 to the minus 15th–it's a big number. At that level, we can discriminate two siblings with very high certainty. The only two people who could possibly match would be identical twins.

Does that test prove some guy has done the crime?

No–with two exceptions. One is the case of someone who can't give legal consent to a particular act. So if we find semen on a four-year-old, that's prima facie evidence of a crime. That child couldn't have legally consented to a sexual act.

Second is a "double transfer"–when the victim's blood is on a suspect's clothing and the suspect's DNA is on that victim. It's not likely that both materials could have gotten where they are except during a crime. The court may hear some far-fetched stories, but those DNA tests pretty much prove criminality.

What's so good about the latest DNA testing?

It lets us make new DNA from old, damaged DNA. Often this damaged DNA has genetic markers we're interested in. With new techniques, we can make a whole bunch of DNA susceptible to direct testing.

And this is much better than fingerprinting?

Both are good for forensic markers, as neither changes throughout your life. A DNA sample from ten years ago can prove that it came from you and only you.

When do you use DNA testing rather than fingerprints?

When we get the material. For instance, we rarely get fingerprints in rape cases. It's very difficult to lift fingerprints off bodies and clothes. The ideal surface is hard and smooth, like glass or metal. But we're getting better at lifting fingerprints off more things.

DNA testing isn't the bulk of what a crime lab does. Half to three-fourths of the testing involves drug cases. To charge somebody with a drug crime, you need to prove use or possession.

In my Rochester lab, half the casework was drug-related and a fourth gun-related–most homicides involve guns, since it's so much easier to shoot somebody than to stab him. Only 10 or 12 percent involved biological substances–usually sexual assaults and homicides.

Are the CSI shows accurate?

They make good television but bad forensic science. Actual crime-scene investigations are a team effort. There's the first responder–the law-enforcement person who finds the body or event. Then there's an investigating team. Another team collects the actual evidence–it's a specialized group, trained to do that. Then the evidence is taken to a crime laboratory, where another specialized group works on it.

On CSI, you have the same person discovering the crime, investigating it, testing it, and arresting the guy.

Second, the TV labs are much darker than real ones. Actual crime labs hate darkness. They have overhead light and loads of task-specific light.

The labs on TV have way more equipment than any crime labs I know. Real crime labs are always under budget. We never have enough people or equipment. Forensic-science training programs have even older equipment.

What's so attractive about forensic science that makes you guys TV stars?

It's interesting and important–not only to solving crimes but also to sorting out family conflicts.

We conduct 250,000 to 300,000 paternity tests a year in this country. Thirty percent of these men are happy with our results since we prove they're not Dad. The other 70 percent, many already paying child support, are happy because they know for sure they are Dad.

With all this TV publicity, kids assume there are lots of jobs in the field. Actually, there are fewer than 500 crime labs in North America, and fewer than 10,000 people work in forensic science.

So why does George Washington have a department?

Because there are some jobs. Over the years, our department has trained more forensic scientists than any other program in America.

The GW program began in 1969, when J. Edgar Hoover sought advanced education for his FBI agents. Since we're down the street from FBI headquarters, Hoover proposed a joint FBI-GW program.

Our first graduation, in 1971, was mostly of FBI agents, middle-aged men. For years we were funded by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration to train cops. In the 1980s and '90s, military officers started enrolling along with the FBI agents and a few ordinary students. Now most folks entering the program come right out of college. We no longer get many FBI agents.

Today's students want to become FBI agents. But the bureau doesn't hire right out of school–to become an agent requires at least two years' experience or a master's degree. So some of our graduates go on to the FBI and other agencies as investigators after completing their master's.

How is it that people can be locked up for decades and then DNA tests prove they aren't guilty?

The Innocence Project has sprung 151 people from prison for that reason. Many with the death penalty or long prison sentences–even life terms–were sentenced because of eyewitness testimony.

I would never give a severe sentence like that based on something with such a huge error rate. Eyewitness testimony is dreadful. Most circumstantial evidence is dreadful. If you get good physical evidence, the crime may become fairly likely.

But there was no physical evidence in the bulk of these cases. Even if the authorities had a blood type and enzyme, that's not much to go by. And two-thirds of the time they had no information on any semen donor. So the juries and judges had to rely on very flimsy factors.

What are your thoughts on the O.J. Simpson case?

He could have been easily convicted on the basis of physical evidence that was never tested. Nicole Brown Simpson was found crumpled on the sidewalk at the foot of the stairs. There was a huge drop of blood in the middle of her back. That blood must have dripped off her killer. If that drop had been tested and proven to be Simpson's, in no way could it have been explained away.

Why couldn't it have been hers?

Her throat had been cut. So she'd been bleeding–away from her and down. Somebody else must have dripped that blood from above.

That blood was never analyzed. Why not, I can't answer. You'd have to ask the LAPD. This wasn't a lab foul-up. It was a crime-scene foul-up–maybe due to the animosity between the LAPD and the district attorney's office.

There was another amazing error. An experienced LAPD homicide detective drove around with a tube of blood in his car for two days, when the evidence lockup was ten minutes away.

What breakthroughs are coming in crime detection?

A student here is working to amplify fragmented DNA so we can recover the genetic information in very degraded DNA samples.

In England, they're making progress on getting DNA off fingerprints. This will help in property crimes and carjackings.

More powerful computers can do far bigger and faster comparisons of fingerprints and DNA. There has also been extensive progress in computer forensics and such areas as fingerprint detection.

There's huge growth in information from surveillance cameras. We need more people trained to enhance such digital images. Civil libertarians claim that this expansion of surveillance invades our privacy. But legally, if you're out in public, there's no expectation of privacy.

Where are the jobs and money in your field?

Mostly in civil law. Paternity cases for inheritance disputes is big–whether some guy is the real son or not, or which of the ten of them are real sons.

What lessons have you learned in forensic genetics?

The importance, and difficulty, of dealing with people. Most forensic scientists rarely have to deal with individuals involved in a crime. But I've had to. Since 1995, I've helped identify remains from mass graves. I wind up getting involved with parents, siblings, or lovers of the deceased. It's such an intense and personal thing.

I've learned that no technology provides "the answer." In 30 years. I've seen lots of breakthroughs, each hailed as the final answer to every question. None is. Each is a tool.

We train our students to think of the crime lab as a giant toolbox. We use it to figure out evidence and information on crimes.

I've seen every kind of human horror and depravation. I think nothing could be worse, but then something else arises.

Does that depress you?

On some days it depresses me a lot.

My first death-penalty case involved "the night stalker" in California. My Atlanta lab was given evidence by an analyst I knew from the LA sheriff's lab. I worked on that material, getting out some genetic information. At that time, they had no suspect, or even a lead.

I was driving home one night wondering how I'd feel about putting somebody on death row. I concluded that my job was to test the evidence. Whether he was guilty or not is best left to the jury. Guilt and innocence are legal concepts, not those of evidence.

I've learned what a specialized, scientific, and small field this is. If some student wants to major in English, she won't get a job in forensic science. You need a solid science background.

I've learned how critical forensic science is to law enforcement. On Law & Order, they hype the roles of investigators and trial lawyers. They portray an itty-bitty role for the forensic scientist. But it's the forensic scientist who glues the case together.

A vast majority of all legal cases end with a plea bargain. That mostly happens because there's physical evidence, which we interpret. If they actually had to try every case, the system would never work.

Your lessons of life?

I have various sayings I live by:

"No good deed goes unpunished."

Another comes from Hillel, the Jewish sage: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I'm only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?

Then one from Theodor Herzl, the Zionist visionary: "If you will it, it is no dream."

And the final one is that for every complex problem, there's a simple solution that's wrong.

What do all these say to you?

That we should never look for simple answers for complex problems. That if you dream something and work really hard, you can realize it. And that the likelihood of having a bad outcome from being a good guy doesn't alter the fact that it's still better to be a good guy.