Randy Balko, a journalist who has frequently linked wrongful convictions to crime lab employees and other witnesses who slant (and sometimes falsify) expert evidence to favor prosecutors, reports the death of “the emperor of junk science.” Robert O’Block, who apparently killed himself in a murder-suicide, founded the American College of Forensic Examiners Institute (ACFEI), an organization that, in Balko’s words, “embodies everything that’s wrong with how forensics is used in the American criminal-justice system.”
The Legitimization of Junk Science
O’Block was fired from his teaching position at Appalachian State University for falsely claiming to have co-authored several academic articles. He was then hired for a teaching position at College of the Ozarks, where he pronounced himself an expert in the dubious field of handwriting analysis. When his application for membership in an organization of handwriting experts was rejected, he formed his own organization, the American Board of Forensic Handwriting Analysis, and credentialed himself as an expert.
According to Balko, membership in O’Block’s organization grew because the Daubert decision created “more space for expertise that had yet to be scientifically scrutinized.” By abandoning the former Frye standard, which rejected expert evidence in an area that was not generally accepted by scientists, the Supreme Court may have opened the door to junk science that reputable experts have never validated. That outcome is ironic, given that proponents of the Daubert standard have pushed for its acceptance in state courts on the ground that it acts as a safeguard against junk science in civil cases.
Balko suggests that judges who are trained as lawyers rather than scientists often take “shortcuts” to decide whether expert testimony meets the Daubert standard of reliability. One shortcut is reliance on a credentialing organization to demonstrate that professional standards exist to validate scientific results. According to Balko, the Daubert decision resulted in an explosion of organizations in various fields of forensic science, as experts sought to bolster the credibility of their work by gaining the imprimatur of membership in a professional organization.
The Rise of ACFEI
O’Block soon expanded his organization to encompass other forensic specialties, offering certifications to anyone who was willing to pay for them. The College of the Ozarks fired O’Block after discovering that he was using his students to do unpaid labor for his forensic science organization.
O’Block had no need for a teaching job at that point, because he was earning a $50,000 annual income from his organization. He renamed it the American College of Forensic Examiners, and later added Institute to the organization’s name to overcome objections from another organization that was using the same acronym. The Board of Directors at that point consisted of O’Block, his wife, and his two minor children.
By 2000, the ACFEI offered “Board certifications” in eleven fields and had awarded 17,000 “diplomates” to its 13,000 members (some had “diplomates” in more than one field). By that point, the ACFEI was raking in $2 million a year and O’Block was being paid a $200,000 salary.
The ACFEI Today
One of the main criticisms of the ACFEI over the years is that the group seems to spend far more time and energy collecting fees from its members than it does verifying the expertise of the people it certifies. In fact, many members over the years have simply been grandfathered into certification or some other form of accreditation. They needed only to send a check and a résumé.
Members who have not been grandfathered need to score 75% on an ethics test that includes questions like “Is it ever okay to misrepresent yourself?” Members who did not want to take the test could skip it by earning self-reported “points” for publishing articles, attending seminars, or earning a bachelor’s degree. Since the ACFEI did not verify the member’s “points,” members were credentialed on the basis of an “honor system.”
Critics call the ACFEI a “certification mill.” The ACFEI certified a prison inmate in forensic medicine and certified a journalism grad student who had no experience in forensics as a “forensic consultant.” The organization’s low point came when it certified Dr. Katz, who turned out to be a cat. O’Block blamed the cat’s owner for filing a fraudulent application, but the point of the application was to prove that ACFEI does not verify the credentials of the members it certifies.
The Future of ACFEI
Many professional organizations play an important role in helping forensic experts stay abreast of current developments in their field. Organizations that hold experts to serious ethical standards and that certify experts after a rigorous investigation of the expert’s credentials can perform an important service to a legal system that often relies on expert evidence.
When professional organizations purport to legitimize junk science, however, they have the opposite impact on the legal system. That’s one reason why the current administration made a regrettable mistake by ending the National Commission on Forensic Science, which was making a strong effort to separate legitimate science that jurors, judges, and prosecutors can trust from the junk science that has so often been used to convict the innocent.
The ACFEI survived a 2014 shakeup after an investigation by Frontline and ProPublico questioned ACFEI’s credibility. The future of ACFEI after O’Block’s death is unclear. The organization announced that it was suspending its operations, but that announcement was later removed from its website. As of this writing, however, the website is down.