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The Forensic Scientist Who Knows How to Build Consensus

A conversation with Jeremy Triplett, outgoing chair of OSAC’s Forensic Science Standards Board

Triplett headshot
Credit: Charlie Moffett, Kentucky State Police

Jeremy Triplett has had a busy three years. Since the inception of the Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science (OSAC) in 2014, Triplett has chaired the organization’s governing body, the Forensic Science Standards Board (FSSB). In that role, he marshals OSAC’s efforts to promote technically sound forensic science standards. He also served as president of the American Society of Crime Lab Directors (ASCLD) for a year starting in May 2016. And through it all he has headed the drug chemistry section of the Kentucky State Police Central Forensic Laboratory, which keeps him deeply involved in everyday forensic practice.

The main job of the FSSB chair, Triplett says, is to facilitate consensus among OSAC members—a diverse set of experts from within and outside the forensic community who have often diverging opinions. This can be a tremendous challenge, but it is necessary if the broad forensic community is to value OSAC-approved standards and, ultimately, implement them.

Triplett will step down as chair of the FSSB at the end of September, and NIST asked him to share some thoughts before he goes. In this interview, Triplett discusses his approach to building consensus and offers some advice for whoever fills his soon-to-be-vacated chair. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

For another perspective, check out our interview with Jim Gates, the theoretical physicist who recently joined OSAC's Forensic Science Standards Board.

NIST: how did you get involved in forensic science in the first place?

TRIPLETT: Growing up I always enjoyed science, and I knew that I wanted to go into some scientific field. So... I don’t think a lot of people know this, but the summer between 8th grade and my freshman year of high school, my grandmother was murdered. It was obviously a pretty tragic time. But there was a detective with the Kentucky State Police named John Sparks. He was the detective on the case, and he was very kind to me. He found out that I liked science, and he brought me to the crime lab. He said, hey, this might be something you’ll be interested in some day, and he introduced me to a bunch of people there. That’s where I work today. Same building. They had an opening in 2003. I had graduated the year before, and I applied and I got the job.

NIST: Why is the OSAC mission important?

TRIPLETT: Standards are critical to making sure that the results of forensic analysis are reliable and consistent across the country. No matter where a crime is committed, whether here in Frankfort, Kentucky or anywhere else, the same high standards should apply. That’s important for those who have been accused of committing crimes, and also for crime victims. Both are seeking justice, and standards will help ensure that forensic science is used in a way that serves the interests of justice.

NIST: What are the biggest challenges when it comes to completing OSAC’s mission of developing rigorous standards for forensic science?

TRIPLETT: One thing that OSAC has going for it is that the organization is made up of people who have volunteered their time and their leadership to this issue. They all have strongly held ideas, and they’re all very passionate. That sometimes makes it difficult to achieve consensus. We’re all used to fighting for our positions, but we have to recognize the need to build consensus and, if you’re outside the consensus, to acknowledge it. That’s how we’ll come to the best consensus, of as many people as possible, and for the right reasons.

I think a second challenge is understanding the formal standards development process and how long it takes. For those of us who don’t have prior experience working with standards development organizations, it’s been a steep learning curve. Standards development is a long and arduous process. But it’s done that way for a reason, and in the end, the result is better for it.

NIST: OSAC approves standards, but standards are only useful insofar as they’re implemented. What have you done to implement standards in your lab?

TRIPLETT: As far as I know, our drug chemistry section [at the Kentucky State Police forensics lab] was the first in the country to write into our SOPs that we will abide by all standards on the OSAC Registry. There may be somebody else out there, but as far as I know, we were the first. Implementing that hasn’t been very difficult yet, because the number of standards on the Registry is still small. But we have committed to adhering to all new standards as they are approved. I think it’s important to signal that we’re willing to do this, and I’m happy to march out in front.

NIST: OSAC includes practicing forensic scientists like you and also academic scientists, many with strongly held opinions about how to conduct a scientific enterprise. In your opinion, what if anything should academic scientists better understand about the work that goes on in a crime lab?

TRIPLETT: This question could be a whole interview by itself. But I’m glad that you asked it. I think the most important thing is for both groups to understand intentions. There have been terrible miscarriages of justice due to the misapplication of forensic science, certain historical forensic analyses that lacked sufficient basis, and even a handful of rogue forensic analysts. But the overwhelming majority of forensic scientists do the right thing every day and to the best of their abilities. So I think the intentions of the forensic science community are pure. I also think the intentions of the academic community are pure, and that they want the best science presented in courtroom.

What both groups need to recognize is that we each hold pieces of the puzzle that the other side doesn’t. Academic science has produced tremendous advances in forensic applications, DNA profiling being just one obvious example. But on the practitioner side, we live in an applied world where we have to produce quality results with a limited budget, on a timeline that respects the right of defendants to a speedy trial, and that supports victims in their search for justice.

For example, my controlled substances lab here in Frankfort has seen a 38 percent increase in case submission in the last three years, and we’ve had no increase in personnel or instrumentation. I have a biannual budget, and it is what it is. But we are a 5-person unit, and that increase creates an operational reality that cannot be ignored.

NIST: What advice do you have for whoever fills your chair?

TRIPLETT: In my role as FSSB chair, I saw myself not so much as an advocate but as a facilitator. It is important for the chairperson to recognize all sides, to make sure everyone feels that their opinions are valued, and to promote discourse. I think that if we understand each other’s perspectives, then we’ll be able to achieve consensus on the best possible standards given the information we have today. That’s an important achievement, and something that we’ll build on in the future.

NIST: Are you optimistic about OSAC’s mission?

TRIPLETT: I think the mission of promoting technically sound standards is critical to the future of forensic science, and I think that OSAC represents the best opportunity we have for doing that successfully today. I think we have the right composition of interested parties, that we have the right people in the right proportions around the table. That’s why I was excited about OSAC when I joined this effort, and I’m still excited about what we’re doing today.

NIST: Are you still in touch with detective John Sparks?

TRIPLETT: No. He retired not long after I met him. I did run into him at a Panera, of all places. That was maybe a year or two ago. I went up to him and introduced myself. He said, “I remember you, that was one of the worst cases I ever had.” I told him about the work I was doing and that he had a really big effect on me when I was a kid. We had kind of an emotional moment. Then I went and got my bagel, and I left.

Released September 26, 2017, Updated October 19, 2018