Beth Bechky, UCDavis, Rotman ROTMAN OBHR Speaker Series,

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Criminalists work at the boundary between science and law, analyzing evidence and drawing conclusions that are used in legal proceedings. In this talk, I show how what I call the "specter of testimony" creates anxieties that narrow the ways that evidence is presented. Criminalists do not testify often, but testifying is an emotionally challenging event, the impact of which is heightened through vicarious and simulated testimony experiences. Criminalists balance the tensions between the norms and rules of engagement of two different institutions - science and law - by becoming advocates for the evidence. To do so, they achieve confidence in the scientific facts, enhance their feelings of external control, and create comfort in the courtroom. These findings help us to understand how emotions shape work at institutional boundaries.

In the middle of research, no working paper, yet


Criminalists are applied scientists, bachelor or master's degrees

  • Work inside a lab
  • Testify in court, deal with judges, lawyers, jury

Not people people, they're geeks

  • Not like CSI tv show: going into field, because police go into field, and most CSI don't carry guns
  • Somewhat like Abby on NCIS, in the lab, but she's a generalist whereas most are specialists

Tv shows have had impact on public expectation of evidence

Science applied to a crime

What happens when scientific truth meets legal proof?

  • Institutional overlap

Story: how criminalist in lab have communal lab sorting through junk, to become individual experts in court

Criminalists anxious about testifying, yet few actually go to court

  • Went to court 4 to 5 times in the year she did research

Criminalists testify in < 2% of cases

  • Firearms 2000 cases in 10 years, testified 40 times
  • West count crime lab: 19,000 cases in 2009, 1800 major cases, 87 testimonies

Often officer can testify to report (e.g. it's narcotics), or lawyer can stipulate

  • Some times talk to D.A., then don't go

Sometimes get dressed up, go to court, then defendant cops plea

Written report several pages, with conclusion

Spectre of testimony

  • Coming back from vacation on Monday, court on Wednesday, drew a blank, asked for a moment, phoned back to lag
  • Prep: going over notes, handed-down lists of standard questions they might be asked
  • Having to admit mistake on stand, defence attorney challenges her as expert, judge said she found own mistake
  • Defendant walks, could have asked about a hankerchief, a test of urine that isn't normally done, defense attorney schmoozed her beforehand, then hit her hard with questions

Institutional boundaries, important to understanding organizations

Overlapping social worlds, not just structural

  • Hughes 1984, understand whole work, social interaction and change

Conflicting institutions

  • Institutional complexity, pressures, hybrid organizations
  • Too much cognition in institutional theory, need more emotion, e.g. Hallett 2010 in schools; working paper by Creed, role of shame in institutional change

Boundary spanning and uncertainty

  • Used to study boundary spanning more, e.g. contingency theory
  • Roles / activities at boundaries, Tushman 1977, 1979; Ancona and Caldwell 1992
  • Diffferent social worlds, Katz and Kahn 1978
  • Want to hear about external boundaries, and how we deal with them

Boundary spanning new work

  • Institutional work and instituional entrepreneurs, Lawrence and Suddaby 2006
  • Boundary work of scientist, Gieryn 1999

Data: Fiat Justitia Per Scientiam, Justice Done through Science

Org structure of crime lab

  • Patchwork, path-dependent
  • Labs report to different agencies
  • Juridictionally based
  • FBI, everyone goes to DNA
  • Criminal agencies control the budgets

Institutions with different nroma and practices

  • Science; "Advocates for the evidence": buy into norms of judgement, represent truth of their worlds
  • Justice: Truth through adverserial positions
  • More overlap than images suggest: Keeping track of stuff

Fingerprints were used, then discredited; DNA now, could be pushed out in the future

Very first ethnography was a study of lab of mitichondria

  • Forgot how boring bench work can be

In D.A. lab for 1.5 years

  • 65 people
  • Spent 6 months in DNA
  • Prefer ethnography to do work, but allowed to try things on own samples, e.g. pipette of own cheek swab, now in state database; processed indented written; test-fired firearms
  • Sat with every analyst, some several times, supervisors
  • Attended statewide association meetings
  • Then 25 formal interviews of supervisors, and subset of analysts, oversampling
  • Lots of tours, after giving failed attempt for access

Grounded theory, trying to write a book

Want to say why testify in scary, and then the impact on lab work

Academy of Forensic Science and Criminalist

  • Only went to local / state meetings

Accreditation: ADCLAD (crime lab directors)

Don't usually present work, often vendors will show trial protocols

Spectre of testifying

  • Hostile, intimidation: way the lawyer asks questions
  • Being pawn in game: making a game of science, they want you to say what they want
  • Being on one's own: when on the stand, nobody is your friend, can't trust D.A. to help you

A lot of people say they haven't had bad experience, they tell stories of others

Creating the spectre

  • Actual testifying
  • Vicarious testifying: witnessing (I saw it); stories (heard of others)
  • Simulated testifying: courtroom presentation class, talking about credibility against a report with 20 Ph.D.s signed; mock court with proficiency tests

Why so scary? Outcome has consequences

  • Neutrality: advocate for evicence
  • Sense of pride
  • Responsibility for toucome
  • Career implications, litle upside with huge downside of mistake: one case where person can't do case work because FBI found different analysis

See people come into office at 7 a.m., sit reading notes for 4 hours waiting for phone call

What does it mean in lab?

  • Tension between
  • forensic science as communial process
  • testifying as individual

Testifying focuses forensic concerns

  • Lawyers aren't scientists
  • Lawyers are busy and lazy: hadn't even read report
  • Lawyers are adverserial: conclusions as true, always, three types of attacks
    • Flawed work, contamination
    • Expertise, credibility: muddy waters, quiz on journal articles if you bring them
    • Bias: who do work for? They work for D.A., only have testified for prosecution, not for defense

Becoming the voice of the evidence

  • Have to take ownership of conclusions: getting confidence from communal work
  • Translating across boundaries
  • Protecting what is at stake, for science and scientists

Taking ownership

  • Communal scientific process: local reviewing (with sticky notes asking questions), auditing and protocols, e.g. DNA major contributor versus minor contributor, are you sure?
  • Reproducibility: documentation, could go to court years later
  • Scientific versus legal conclusions: Worth prosecution? Is it hash or marijuana, which is varying levels of refinement, had to get opinions of other in lab

Translating across the boundary:

  • It takes a lab to write a report: communally-acceptable answer, then acros two boundaries
  • Anticipating the court into the report: what will we say in report, e.g. GSR, police collect with swab that says left and and right hand, but residue has super-mobile, can only say it's been in the vicinity of someone who fired a gun, uncomfortable with saying that
  • Educating D.A.: know D.A. isn't scientist, try to have pretrial conferences, but lawyers don't have time; had furlough days for lawyers which used for continuing education

Protecting what's at stake

  • Simplify the science, juries have average Grade 8 education, don't use jargon (and court reporters may not know to spell); use visual aids (e.g. PTR using Xerox example)
  • Assert credibility: qualifications, don't sell yourself short; DNA in root of hair, but DNA analyst is not a hair analyst
  • Maintain neutrality: Distance selves directly and indirectly, e.g. work for supervisor for lab director, even part of D.A.'s office; don't say our lab, say forensic science community


  • Boundary work
  • Emotion: anxiety

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2012/03/14 11:30 Beth Bechky, "Advocates for the evidence: Forensic science as boundary work" UCDavis, Rotman OBHR Speaker Series