Focus on Forensics

Barry Fisher, director of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department crime laboratory, showed up in Jerusalem this week, invited by the Israeli Police Department to give a couple of lectures and the benefit of his 30 years’ experience to the forensics people of the Jewish state. In a wood-paneled room at National Police Headquarters, along with about 25 Israeli police officers, I caught his second lecture, “Forensic Science After O.J. Simpson.” (I will assume that, despite so many breathlessly absorbing high-profile murders and sex scandals since then, you still vaguely remember O.J. Simpson.)

O.J.’s prosecution was the job of the City of Los Angeles, which runs its own forensics laboratory; Fisher and the county crime lab had nothing to do with it, though Fisher’s forensics textbook was quoted (“largely out of context,” he says) as the Dream Team worked to demonstrate that the police had mishandled the evidence. For his part, Fisher thinks the LAPD “did not do a very bad job.”

The O.J. trial was what Fisher called a “jumping-off place” for the Los Angeles City and County forensics authorities to examine how to do their work more effectively, especially in high-profile cases. Here’s what Fisher says his department learned from O.J. My surprise was that almost none of it has to do with forensics:

1) To maintain an appearance of professionalism at the crime scene. Officers arrive at the scene in business clothes, then change into police jumpsuits and are under orders not to eat and drink at the crime scene (looks bad to the public, Fisher said — “too cavalier”).

2) To explain technical information to the jury by the “K.I.S.S.” method — “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Especially with highly technical details of DNA investigations, jury members have been known to doze off during expert-witness testimony.

3) To train expert witnesses to testify, using mock courts, videotapes of their practice runs, encouragement to use graphs and charts, and reminders that they don’t have to answer only yes or no, no matter what the examining lawyer demands.

4) To prepare for an attack, not only on the findings of forensic science, but on how the crime scene was managed and how the evidence was collected and handled. “If collection and handling was done badly, science can’t help,” Fisher said, recommending to Israel’s forensics teams to develop clear written procedures and clear accountability for their use.

5) To utilize trained, skilled crime-scene investigators, especially in a high-profile case.

6) To work hard to overcome the belief of minorities that they are treated poorly by the police — that is, to build confidence that justice is administered equally. (A couple of the Israeli officers acknowledged that this item, a sociological rather than forensic issue, is a real problem in Israel, too.)

As part of its attempt to sensitize its staff to the multicultural realities of life in Los Angeles, Fisher noted, all Sheriff’s Department employees are required to tour the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance. Knowledge of cultural differences can be crucial, he explained. For example, in the Western World, eye contact generally connotes honesty. But Asians, Fisher said, look down as a sign of respect — that doesn’t mean they’re hiding anything.

There was a non-forensic subtext to Barry Fisher’s visit, as well. Fisher is the current president of the International Association of Forensic Sciences, whose 15th triennial conference is scheduled for Los Angeles this August. He is also one of the eight people who will decide the venue of the next conference, in 2002. The forensic authorities of China, France, England and Australia all want to host the conference, and so does Israel’s chief of police.

Fisher, a member of Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge and the somewhat baffled, not-so-religious father of two sons who have chosen to study at the Orthodox Aish HaTorah yeshiva in Jerusalem (one son in current residence there), seemed sympathetic to having the next conference in the Holy City. But he wasn’t making any promises. In fact, he implied a fair amount of resistance to such a plan among his colleagues. It turns out that a lot of these tough crime-scene guys are scared to come to Israel, which Fisher blamed (rightly, I think) on television’s selective coverage that shows Israel as a dangerous place.

So here’s a relevant statistic for American forensic workers: Los Angeles County has a population of 10 million, a bit more than half again as great as Israel’s 6 million. But it has 10 times as many murders annually — 1,500 in Los Angeles County, compared with Israel’s 150 (and that includes victims of terrorism).

No wonder the kids want to study over here.