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September 2006

Forensic Engineering: On the Trail of Truth

By Robin C. Peress

“Forensic” is nearly a household word today, thanks to a nightly splatter of courtroom, crime lab and police shows on TV. Despite being synonymous with gruesome investigations, forensics — derived from the word forum — actually refers to any juncture where specialized professional knowledge is brought to bear in a legal setting to establish and shed light on the facts of a civil or criminal case, or sometimes regarding insurance claims, contract disputes and regulatory matters. The expertise need not be medical or scientific per se; expert witnesses may include psychologists, accountants and photographers who impart knowledge on human behavior, business procedures and digital images, for example.

Patience and Fortitude

Forensic engineers — electrical and electronics, civil, structural, mechanical and so on — investigate and reconstruct failures in buildings, structures, facilities,vehicles and other engineered products and systems, according to the National Academy of Forensic Engineers (NAFE). (NAFE, in Hawthorne, N.Y., is a chartered affiliate of the National Society of Professional Engineers.)

Some forensic engineers refer to their fact-finding missions as “reverse engineering” — for example, unraveling a cable to see if it was inadequately insulated in an electrocution case, or backtracking minute by minute to determine how, when and where a wayward ship’s electromechanical systems failed. Often it’s not one culprit, but a weak link in the man-machine interface.

Put more picturesquely by Dr. Gabriel Robins, professor of computer science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, “In some ways it’s similar to doing pure research in that you are following leads and digging through reference materials, but in the forensic process you are not necessarily pushing the boundaries of knowledge forward. You are exhuming knowledge that is already there. It is very methodical, relentless work; the thing you are looking for could be very basic, just a grain of truth, but it’s very gratifying when you come upon it.”

Dr. Robins vividly recalls the day when “tens of thousands of pages with tens of gigabytes of source code” arrived in his office when he was hired by a defendant to serve as the lead CAD expert on a notorious patent infringement case with billions of dollars in damages at stake. Clear-cut villains and a smoking algorithm aren’t always easy to find. “Just because they are using the same formula doesn’t mean it was stolen,” he said. Dr. Robins’s credentials include more than 80 published works and innumerable awards, grants and fellowships. He has been associate editor of IEEE Transactions on Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) Systems since 2000.

IEEE Senior Member Roger Boyell in Moorestown, N.J., plies his expertise in electronic control and communication systems. He began “moonlighting” in forensics some 20 years ago while working full-time in the defense and aerospace industry. Seven years ago, he turned full-time to the legal arena and has handled hundreds of diverse cases, including acoustical and signal-processing matters, electrical shocks and burns from appliances, accident reconstruction and some Internet sleuthing, to name a mere few. He has performed field tests showing how a breath alcohol analyzer was affected by radio interference, and analyzed a secret tape recording that revealed untranscribed statements hidden in background noise. Boyell relishes his work but knows the task of explaining his work to 12 laymen takes some creativity.

“Juries want physical evidence all wrapped up neatly these days, and when there is none, they’re disappointed. I call it the CSI effect. Sometimes the evidence is a graph or a formula, and you watch their eyes glaze over.”

Ethics Above All

Forensic professionals usually bring to the table longstanding competence in their field, substantial peer recognition, an active role in professional organizations, a knack for translating esoteric concepts into layman’s terms, and above all, unassailable professional integrity.

Marvin Specter, executive director of NAFE, said the group aims to root out the use of “hired guns,” engineers willing to bias their findings in favor of their client. This behavior runs counter to the professional engineer’s credo: “to hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.” Specter has written that “the best service that can be given to a client is the truth, whether it is favorable or not.” James A. Ruggieri, of General Machine Corporation, a forensic consulting firm in Fairfax Station, Va., said, “If the attorney wants you to support something that’s nonsense, you have to walk away.” Forensic engineers must remember that, above all, they are representing the entire profession.

From experience and ethics you derive your credibility, which then becomes the tennis ball being smashed from one side of the “court” to the other.

“To say that cross-examination can be vigorous is a gross understatement,” said Specter. Most forensic engineers tell of days spent under withering attack from opposing counsel. “Some lawyers tear you down with more finesse than others,” says Mr. Ruggieri, who has served as Chief Electrical Engineer for the U.S. Coast Guard, is chairman of the IEEE Bronze Book committee and is the author of ASTM E2345, Standard Practice for Investigating Electrical Incidents. Reflecting the prevalence of this experience, Roger Boyell has even written an article entitled “The Expert Under Stress of Trial” (The Expert and the Law, Vol. 11, No.1, June-July 1993). In all, he has authored more than 20 published papers and several hundred technical reports.

The good news is that the vast majority of cases do not go to trial. But when they do, a polite demeanor and rhinoceros hide are required gear.

At this point it’s worth distinguishing an expert in the forensic sense from an “expert” in the everyday sense, like a chef or gardener. For testimony to be deemed admissible as evidence in a trial, it must survive a gantlet of legal scrutiny. A Supreme Court decision in 1993, known as the Daubert decision (named for Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals), established five factors by which the reliability of expert testimony should be weighed by the judge or “trier of fact”: Whether the theory or technique on which the expert opinion is based has been tested; whether it has been published or subject to peer review; whether there are standards maintained controlling the theory or technique; whether there is an error rate for a specific technique; and whether the theory or technique has been generally accepted by the scientific community.”

“I like to say that the process of how standards are developed satisfies some of the requirements in the legal arena for scientific admissibility,” said Ruggieri, suggesting that engineers’ testimony may be less subject to exclusion or attack than that from other fields. Boyell added that the bar is held so high for engineers’ work to begin with, “it’s more likely their testimony will make it in.”

Making the Transition

Forensic engineering is a consulting niche that one gravitates to often after serving decades as a manager in industry or government, or in a high academic position. “Most NAFE member are about 30 years past their P.E. license and on their second, third or fourth career,” said Specter. To get started, he added, “one may seek out lawyers or insurance companies or corporations that may have a need for their expertise.” Specter described the work as intellectually challenging and offering compensation in “multiples of the pay” an engineer might make working for someone else.

At present, Purdue University in Indiana is the only academic institution offering a master’s degree in forensic engineering, according to Specter, while a few offer individual courses, usually as electives, such as Advanced Topics in Engineering at the University of Texas at Tyler. (Forensic science programs abound, on the other hand.) However, NAFE’s Forensic Engineering Curriculum Committee has outlined a suggested plan of study with five core courses and several electives. Those interested in learning more can contact Specter at nafe@nafe.org.

NAFE’s Guidelines for the P.E. as a Forensic Engineer is a must-read for anyone considering this area of consulting, with chapters on legal procedures, courtroom demeanor and financial arrangements with clients. For more information, visit www.nafe.org. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences [www.aafs.org] has an Engineering Sciences Section for career guidance as well.

Recognizing the growing role that forensics plays in information security, the IEEE recently introduced IEEE Transactions on Information Forensics and Security, a publication of the IEEE Signal Processing Society. However, it is the everyday cutting-edge educational offerings, publications, word-of-mouth contact through meetings and online communities, and job resources that gives IEEE members the best possible foundation for work in forensic engineering.

Above and Beyond

Forensic electrical and electronics engineers may not be ready for primetime, but the benefits of their quietly dramatic work often are felt long after cases are closed.

“If you’re tearing apart a piece of steel or checking out some circuitry, and you figure out what failed, ultimately it goes back to the engineering of the product,” said James Ruggieri. “Sometimes the cause also boils down to sloppy business practices, maintenance failures and human factors issues.

“Once we find out what mechanism failed, it all plays back; folks want to know how they can make it better,” he said, adding, “and then they don’t have the threat of litigation.” In the 1996 accident involving the Bright Field, a Liberian-flagged shipping vessel carrying corn in the lower Mississippi River lost power and struck the Riverwalk in downtown New Orleans; despite many theories, the cause was ultimately a dirty lube oil filter that was long overdue to be changed. “The main thing that came out of that was improved monitoring of maintenance practices and better scrutiny of foreign-flag vessels,” Ruggieri said. In the case of an electrical tester that caused a series of explosions, burning the electrician using it, ”the manufacturer had to put back in what he left out” — the spaghetti wire insulation.

“To me there’s a more direct connection between finding a failure and providing a means to mitigate that failure through standards work. Once you identify a failure, the correction propagates itself throughout the industry.”



Robin Peress is a freelance writer in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Copyright © 2006 IEEE