Forensic Medicine Research Paper

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Forensic professionals function at the intersection of science and the law. Governed by the values of both arenas, practitioners often find controversy when they conflict. This can be even more controversial when clinicians – who have primary duties to their patients – are involved in courtroom activities that result in harm to individual defendants. However, presenting objective evidence in an adversarial or inquisitorial legal format is not ideal for presenting scientific and clinical evidence. Indeed, the skills necessary for presenting effective testimony are more akin to rhetoric, or persuasive reasoning, than medical science.

Instead of choosing between medical and legal frameworks, professional ethics among forensic practitioners may have evolved to the point that specific definitions of professionalism can ground the discussion of what a professional ought to be. This more aspirational task focuses on the moral foundation for the profession as a whole – whether it serves a patient, a principle, or a scientific ideal. This integrative approach is more conceptually satisfying because it identifies ideals or standards rather than technical expertise as the determinant of professionalism. This entry analyzes common approaches to forensic ethics by recognizing them in the organizational statements of major forensic organizations and identifying the unified approach from there.


Forensic professionals function at the intersection of two fields, science and the law. Governed by the values of both arenas, practitioners often find controversy when they conflict, raising the ire of their professional communities and the general public. This can be even more controversial when clinicians – who have primary duties to their patients – are involved in courtroom activities that result in harm to individual defendants. However, presenting objective evidence in an adversarial or inquisitorial format is not ideal for the presentation of scientific and clinical evidence. Medical presentations are generally more collaborative and consensual. Indeed, the skills necessary for presenting effective testimony are more akin to rhetoric, or persuasive reasoning, than medical science.

These tensions are not new to forensic practice. Interpreting scientific data, making observations, setting cutoffs or thresholds, and determining significance are inherently value-laden activities. Moreover, knowledge gained from large populations is difficult to apply to individual cases. Uncertainties of measurement, interpretation, and reproducibility combine to generate even greater uncertainty in legal settings where one side attempts to tailor expert testimony to the needs of a client.

History And Development

Pressures on forensic experts have commonly been resolved by adhering strictly to the requirements of the law or of the profession, with some theorists placing allegiance to the “truth” above other considerations (Diamond 1959; Pollack 1974; Appelbaum 1997). Yet weaknesses accompany all of these unitary approaches. The requirements of the law may not be sufficient for presenting complex data to a lay jury or factfinder. Experts may be interrupted, cut off entirely, or limited in their testimony by the technical requirements of the case. “The whole truth and nothing but the truth” may become the victim of a system of imperfect procedural justice (Rawls 1971) – where the truth can only be approximated by procedures intended to be fair and transparent.

By the same token, professional standards of peer review and reproducibility may not be available in hearings where opposing experts present only two aspects of a finding, or two interpretations of a result. The consensus-building and evolution of scientific theory is not available in most adversarial systems – especially not in criminal adjudications where one side must prevail. The dichotomous findings of a court do not easily allow for scientific or probabilistic nuance. Some commentators consequently advocate an approach that recognizes the influence of competing value systems yet creates a new one outside the usual parameters of the science or profession. By setting forensic practice outside professional bounds, these writers create an exception for the work of courtroom experts – a form of exceptionalism that creates allowances for experts working in the legal setting. In this construct, experts can serve institutions according to the institution’s needs rather than the needs of the community or the public at large. The difficulty with this theory is that it can put professionals outside the reach of their professional values and elevate obligations to a court, agency, or employer over medical, technical, societal, or personal obligations.

Professional ethics among forensic practitioners may have evolved, however, to the point that a specific definition of professionalism can ground the discussion of what a professional should or ought to be (Wynia et al. 1999). This more aspirational tack focuses on the moral foundation for the profession as a whole – whether it serves a patient, a principle, or a scientific ideal.

It is this unifying approach that may be the most integrative of the options available. It allows consideration of underlying precepts and purposes rather than limiting professional ethics to the ethics of the setting. An integrative approach can be more conceptually satisfying and complete because it identifies ideals or standards rather than technical duties or expertise as the determinants of professionalism. In this entry, the analysis of these approaches begins by recognizing thematic and principled consistencies in the organizational statements of major forensic organizations and identifying the unified approach from there.

Ethical Dimensions

Organizational Guidelines

Protecting The Institution

The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) is a multidisciplinary organization that espouses the advancement of science and its application to the legal system (AAFS 2014). It has created a series of ethical guidelines for Forensic Medicine as a whole. Indeed, the organization includes numerous sections of forensic science from anthropology and odontology to behavioral sciences, pathology, and biology. Its goal is to create a unified ethics code for all professional groups, and serve as a public statement of its values and standards. For a professional organization this is an important and recognizable social function that gives it a measure of credibility and accountability in the society it serves.

The overarching dictates of AAFS can be categorized as

Refrain from harming the profession. Refrain from misrepresenting credentials.

Refrain from misrepresenting material or data.

Refrain from unapproved public statements on behalf of the organization.

Develop an ethics committee for each professional group.

With clear instructions on how to address ethical violations, the organization provides its member professions with a specific model of enforcement.

The primary ethical guidance highlights professional or personal conduct that is adverse or detrimental to the Academy itself and encompasses more particular rules within each profession’s code of conduct. Because AAFS encompasses 11 different forensic professions, the ethics code must be generalist in its approach and highlight professionalism, integrity, competency, education, research, collaboration, and improved practice.

Although specific misconduct – like taking advantage of a client (e.g., financially, emotionally) – is not specifically described as unethical as it is among forensic psychologists, for example, it can be interpreted as detrimental to the Academy as well as to the member profession. Within the American Psychological Association’s Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists this specific ethical behavior comes under the rubric of integrity and fairness and exemplifies a specific ethical breach. This approach cannot apply to AAFS, which represents professions with many different contexts for their professional behavior.

The emphasis on the integrity of the professional organization, however, is a historic one. In professional ethics, it is first seen in the efforts of medieval guilds to protect their markets and craftsmen (Candilis et al. 2007). The secrets of the profession were protected by oaths and lengthy apprenticeships that controlled the exercise of technical practice and limited expertise to the membership of the guild. It is an approach seen in the definition of professions by their technical competencies and has been influential for centuries.

AAFS practitioners are similarly advised to refrain from misrepresenting themselves in public – a clear extension of principles of integrity and professionalism. In advertising, resume writing, or discourse with clients, AAFS predictably considers it unethical to fabricate or embellish education or training. Potential clients and attorneys must be able to assess the professional’s qualifications accurately, encouraging open and transparent discussion of the practitioner’s ability to address the specific referral question. As with the other admonitions, this holds for members in each professional subgroup, and avoids a potentially devastating outcome for clients who incorrectly believe they are working with an expert specifically qualified for their case. In fact, forensic experts who misrepresent themselves may face civil or criminal fraud charges in addition to organizational sanctions.

In a similar vein, expert testimony and data must be honest and clear. This ethical guideline (a likely hybrid of the principles of integrity and competence) is particularly important in sciences that must present their data in a lay forum like the courts. Forensic scientists are required to conduct data-driven assessments. Indeed, the common Frye (1923) and Daubert (1993) legal standards for admissibility of expert opinion require standard scientific frameworks, from widespread acceptance to valid and reliable conclusions drawn from consistent data. This endorsement of professional integrity and competence is particularly relevant because the scientific community has long been plagued by exaggeration and statistical deception as researchers and public experts manipulate data to confirm hypotheses or publish outright fabrications. Such deception can undermine public health, weaken confidence in evidence-based science, or steer policy in unfortunate directions. Two prime examples include the studies by British researcher Andrew Wakefield that linked vaccines to autism and more recent studies that exaggerated the benefits of red wine for cardiovascular health. In court, fabricated data and testimony has led one U.S. state to question the findings in tens of thousands of criminal cases after a state chemist repeatedly falsified laboratory results as well as her resume. The effects on those falsely imprisoned and those improperly released are only a small measure of harm to the community and profession, and underscore the importance of general ethical principles.

Many forensic practitioners will themselves be confronted with an ethical dilemma of their own, or witness a suspected ethical violation by one of their peers. In a survey of 679 psychologists, researchers found 703 ethically troubling incidents that occurred to respondents within a year of the survey. These incidents primarily included issues of confidentiality, dual roles, and payment difficulties (Pope and Vetter 1992), issues recognizable in ethical guidelines outlined for all forensic practitioners. It follows that forensic ethical dilemmas and suspected ethical violation of professional standards require strong overarching principles of integrity and transparency with related plans for enforcement and remediation.

The admonition to refrain from issuing unapproved public statements on behalf of AAFS is an extension of the impulse to protect the professional organization. Formal organizational statements that represent a diverse membership are generally vetted by internal processes and take into account professional, communitarian, and political influences. Individual members, even officers, rarely speak for a professional organization without some form of clearance. It is a hallmark of professional ethics for organizational representatives to follow a familiar codebook that supports the interests of the membership as a whole. Minority views can get lost in this kind of scheme but can just as commonly gain adherents by internal processes that develop or modify position statements, policy papers, or resource documents. The danger remains that individual members may inadvertently misrepresent the democratically derived mission or values of their profession.

Members of a profession benefit from an open, transparent process for resolving ethical dilemmas and addressing potential violations. AAFS, by placing committee procedures in the code itself, underscores its public commitment to ethical practice and decreases chances that violations are ignored. One option that is unavailable, however, is the educational or remediation option. For the American Psychiatric Association, for example, this is an approach that keeps practitioners in the fold after minor violations, while teaching the elements of conduct the organization considers unacceptable. The specificity of AAFS procedures is instructive. Members can be liable for ethical violations should they violate any of the provisions of the Code of Ethics. Possible punishments include censure, suspension, or expulsion. Violations are investigated directly by the organization’s standing Ethics Committee and follow specific rules and procedures These procedures are thorough and sequential – a clear acknowledgment of the structure necessary to pursue, investigate, and adjudicate ethical violations.

Other organizations do not necessarily pursue ethical complaints. The American Academy of Psychiatry and Law (AAPL), for example, has explicitly decided not to investigate complaints of ethical violations by its members (AAPL 2005). The institutional costs and risks of litigation are too steep. Those who have been accused of an ethical violation are referred to their local branch of the American Psychiatric Association or a state medical board. However, the American Psychiatric Association has not incorporated AAPL’s specific forensic guidelines into their own ethical framework, making pursuit of ethical violations challenging. The American Psychological Association (APA), too, has a subset of ethical guidelines applicable to forensic psychologists. But the forensic guidelines do not represent an official statement of the American Psychological Association, so there is no guidance on what actions to take should a violation be suspected (APA 2013).

Globally, many European and international organizations take a similar top-down approach to disseminating information and recommendations on forensic ethics. These organizations take broad aim at overarching guidelines and create guidance that protects the organization, much like the AAFS. For example, the European Association of Forensic Sciences (EAFS) promotes integration of the individual forensic sciences and encourages interdisciplinary collaboration between different forensic disciplines. Indeed the organization is founded on the belief that science can be used to serve humanity in achieving greatness (EAFS 2015).

The EAFS’s constitution specifically describes the means for admission and dismissal from the organization. The organizational constitution is a combination of broad theoretical goals and guidelines clearly intended for self-preservation. For example, the organization states its interest in organizational integrity and distribution of forensic knowledge through research, workshops, and evidence-based interventions – although there are no guidelines on how to accomplish these goals. However, the EAFS does have clear guidelines regarding the membership obligations of general and board members, as well as a description of actions that result in the loss of membership. The statutes of the International Academy of Legal Medicine (IALM), too, another leading international forensic organization, are similarly structured (IALM 2015). However, each broader international organization, while striving for universality in ethical goals and proposing aspirational organizational aims, encourages the formation of smaller national and activity-based organizations with similar values. These smaller organizations can target specific ethical concerns that arise from local laws and customs. This process seems to work similarly to its American counterpart, specifically in how IALM describes broad goals of promoting collaboration and information exchange among international specialists but leaving room for practitioners to decide how to do so. Consequently, international organizations strive to achieve theoretical ethical goals or principles and then use their bylaws or founding constitutions to protect the organization. They complete the top-down approach by applying local mores to the protection of the forensic consumer, client, or evaluee.

The Person-Centered Approach

While AAFS’ ethical guidelines are clearly protective of the scientific community, the U.S. National Organization of Forensic Social Work (NOFSW) takes a more person-centered approach to its forensic mission. The NOFSW’s ethics code emphasizes aspirational principles of service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, the importance of relationships, integrity, and competence. This approach considers the worth of each individual person and how social work can aspire to improve the field and the clients its serves (NOFSW 2012).

The person-centered orientation, recognizable to clinical specialties worldwide, identifies primary responsibilities to clients and colleagues. These responsibilities include putting the client’s needs and well-being at the forefront of forensic work, a standard easily comparable to the one used by clinical professions. This includes assessing client needs and how best to meet them within the forensic setting (e.g., courtroom, correctional setting, forensic hospital), assessing cultural competency and cultural influences, obtaining consent when possible, avoiding conflicts of interest, protecting the client financially, and respecting client privacy and confidentiality. The emphasis is on treatment and how forensic social workers can best use a humanistic approach to care for their clients in forensic settings.

A violation of the client’s well-being is consequently assigned greater weight than the integrity of the professional organization. In addition, respect for colleagues is a primary tool for protecting the integrity of the profession – more of an inside-out approach than at AAFS. By encouraging collaboration, respect, and consultation among colleagues, the person-centered approach protects the relationships among members, thereby protecting NOFSW as a whole. The emphasis on moral relationships is an important development in professional ethics and is used increasingly to strengthen the commitment to principles and profession (Wynia et al. 1999).

NOFSW’s person-centered approach yields a unique section of ethics policy. NOSFW underscores the forensic social worker’s responsibility to broader society. In an attempt to use their knowledge in the broadest way possible, social workers are asked to take part in social and political action that reflect the principles and ethics of their field. Indeed, they are asked to give back to their communities and take part in social welfare and public emergencies where their skills as counselors are especially useful. Members are even encouraged to use their education and training to challenge laws that disadvantage their clients in forensic settings. Recent NOFSW positions include taking a stand against the perpetuation of structural oppression, disempowerment, and violence against minorities, and using the legal system to protect and advocate for vulnerable populations.

Moreover, forensic social workers are encouraged to comply with responsibilities in multiple directions: to their field, to themselves as professionals, and to the regulations of their practice settings. From the perspective of a person centered approach, this is accomplished by taking personal responsibility for education, supervision, and training. It is recognized in maintaining competence and avoiding misrepresentation. While this is comparable to AAFS, NOSFW’s focus on individual responsibility stands in contrast to AAFS’ admonitions that focus on the harm that could befall the organization. This approach to professional ethics has numerous benefits, including placing the best interest and well-being of the client in the forefront and protecting relationships within the organization. However, it lacks the procedural safeguards that allow sanctions against those acting against the best interests of the profession. This may well be categorized as an idiographic approach, where the ethical code supports individual building blocks as a means to upholding the profession’s ethics as a whole.

Integration Of Person-Centered And Institutional Approaches

The American Psychological Association (APA) and American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law (AAPL) have created ethics codes which integrate the protection of the client with the functioning of the law. Both ethics codes cover responsibility to clients, the field, and society, while also making suggestions for how best to protect their respective social institutions (AAFS 2014; APA 2013). The sections below are exemplary of the intersection of the two approaches.


Psychiatrists and psychologists both have ethics codes which emphasize practitioner–patient confidentiality. U.S. medical treatment records are clearly protected by law – viz., the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act – and confidentiality in the therapeutic setting is necessary to protect patient disclosures and establish trust. Yet this may be more difficult to apply in the forensic setting, where court-ordered evaluations, judicial directives, and legal statutes require adherence. Yet both APA and AAPL provide guidance on how to do so.

AAPL directs psychiatrists to be conscious of their client’s right to privacy and maintain confidentiality to the extent possible. AAPL recognizes that forensic psychiatrists are unable to maintain the level of confidentiality awarded in traditional doctor–patient relationships, but stresses the need to inform clients of this distinction, as well as evaluating their understanding of it. After all, incriminating statements can be devastating in forensic reports. AAPL goes a step further than APA by suggesting that forensic psychiatrists work with organizations which may not have delineated rules for the disclosure of confidential or privileged information, a form of societal obligation.

Similarly, forensic psychologists are encouraged by APA to maintain confidentiality as permitted by law. APA tends to be more specific in its guidance by encouraging forensic psychologists to be aware of the differences between a subpoena and court order and to consider obtaining legal advice before releasing information. Although the APA differs from AAPL by focusing more closely on the legal requirements for access to forensic reports and the process for acquiring consent for contact with collateral informants, it too identifies the importance of cardinal principles.


After disclosing the purpose and recipients of the evaluation and identifying the limits of confidentiality, the forensic practitioner is directed by both APA and AAPL to obtain informed consent. Informed consent is a manifestation of the classic ethical principle of respect for persons, which is nonetheless practiced somewhat differently in forensic work than it is in clinical treatment. Court-ordered evaluations for competency to stand trial or involuntary commitment, for example, do not require informed consent – indicating the power of the law to modify common professional obligations. Yet APA and AAPL provide ethical guidance on how to address the issue. AAPL’s ethical guidelines remind the forensic psychiatrist that informed consent is a core value of the ethical practice of medicine and psychiatry and demonstrates a fundamental respect for their client. However, they also emphasize that consent and assent are not necessary when conducting a court-ordered evaluation. AAPL encourages its psychiatrists to do their best to obtain informed consent, and to inform the evaluee that a refusal will be noted in any subsequent report. In addition, AAPL prohibits performing any forensic evaluation for the government without a court order for individuals who have not consulted with legal counsel or who have been denied access. Forensic psychiatrists are also encouraged to note in their report if an individual seems to lack the capacity to consent.

Like AAPL, the APA encourages practitioners to disclose the purpose, nature, and anticipated use of the examination; who will have access to the information; the limits of confidentiality and privilege; and the voluntary or involuntary nature of participation, including potential consequences of participation or nonparticipation. The APA encourages forensic psychologists to assess their client’s knowledge of psychology and legal matters in order to determine how to clearly and simply communicate the purpose of the evaluation. Forensic psychologists are also encouraged to disclose to their retaining party any information, such as training or outcomes of the evaluation, which may affect the decision to retain her. Like forensic psychiatrists, forensic psychologists are urged not to work with individuals who are not represented by counsel, and to encourage them to consult an attorney. Psychologists working with individuals who appear to lack the capacity to provide consent are advised to take reasonable steps to protect these clients. These include suspending the proposed services or notifying the retaining party. All these protections underscore respect for persons while recognizing the influence of the legal system.

Honesty, Objectivity, And Qualifications

Like AAFS and NOFSW, APA and AAPL underscore principles of integrity and transparency by admonishing practitioners to claim expertise only in areas in which they have the training and qualifications to understand and defend their work. Forensic practitioners are encouraged to rely on the quality of their data to remain honest and objective – a version of the professional allegiance to the truth. APA and AAPL both have similar overarching goals; however, the details they emphasize in obtaining honesty and objectivity differ. AAPL pays particular attention to the bias that arises when a professional is retained by one party in a lawsuit, encouraging the continued application of principles of honesty and striving for objectivity. The use of the term “striving” acknowledges the imperfect nature of objective truth, the nature of human subjectivity, and the importance of measures to counteract bias. Indeed separating the forensic role from the clinical is one of AAPL’s tools for distinguishing the work with patients from the work with forensic evaluees.

Forensic psychologists similarly strive to uphold principles of fidelity and responsibility by upholding professional standards of conduct and clarifying their professional roles to those they work with. Like AAPL, this includes refraining from the dual role of forensic practitioner and clinical psychologist with the same client whenever possible. In upholding integrity, forensic psychologists must also practice within the scope of their competence, seek training to maintain competence, advertise their level of competence honestly, and accrue knowledge of the legal system and clients’ legal rights to serve them better. In recognizing the importance of the cultural formulation, the APA encourages forensic psychologists to uphold integrity by considering the impact of discrimination, differences in personal experiences, and individual and group differences on how clients view contact with the legal system.

The Ethical Forensic Practitioner

These themes of integrity, respect, and transparency are borne out in classic surveys of forensic practitioners: many experts without these values were viewed as “hired guns” (e.g., Weinstock 1988). This is a common complaint in professions that rely on interpretations of human behavior, observations of others, and statistics but one that is less easily demonstrated in ways acceptable to ethics or other professional oversight groups. Instead, ethics commentators have moved from principles and ideals toward a model of reproducible, reliable, and observable behaviors they call the habits and skills of the ethical practitioner (Roberts and Dyer 2004).

By identifying a group of behaviors that signal adherence to a professional code, recent commentators optimize the monitoring and evaluation of forensic practice. Behaviors such as self-reflection that identifies biases and blind spots of practice or consultation and education that avoids ethical pitfalls consequently operationalize ethics codes that may initially appear vague, conceptual, and multidirectional.

Sensitivity to the defendant’s cultural narrative and practices such as working for both sides of the courtroom (defense and prosecution), turning down a portion of cases, and analyzing the weaknesses of one’s case in an honest, transparent manner combine to provide a repertoire of behaviors that identify the practitioner who adheres to the highest ethical standards.

Asking appropriate ethical questions is part of this array of ethical habits and skills. In overcoming the general misconception of forensic experts as hired guns, another classic survey (Pope and Vetter 1992) found that a major ethical concern of testifying experts was the question “who is my client?” Certainly forensic experts owe some responsibility both to the evaluee and to society, regardless of who pays the fee. Yet a duty to the honest, transparent analysis of data may be a powerful moderating influence on the often dichotomous reasoning that affects forensic experts. Being caught between the paying client and the profession’s ethics can be a difficult predicament. Presenting an unbiased analysis – insofar as that is possible after self-reflection – is an accepted tool for addressing these often conflicting obligations.

Identifying habits and skills of the ethical practitioner is particularly important because the ethical responsibilities outlined by the forensic professions are often at odds with ethics learned during clinical training. Medicine, Dentistry, Psychiatry, Psychology, and Social Work are all “helping professions,” and trainees consistently elevate obligations to patients above other duties. By contrast, forensic practitioners are called on to consult to a social forum – a court, magisterial hearing, or other body. Experts are temporary consultants and therefore experience at least two competing ethical obligations, one to the forum itself and another to their profession. Laws are in place to protect the common good, and professional guidelines serve to set the parameters of ethical practice, yet dramatic inequalities persist. African-American men in the U.S.A., for example, are incarcerated at six times the rate of Caucasians and receive harsher punishments than their Caucasian counterparts (NAACP 2009). Worldwide, executions increased in recent years, with Amnesty International reporting that there are often no legal safeguards for individuals who are developmentally disabled. Forensic experts are consequently asked to participate in judicial systems that have not yet acknowledged or addressed fundamental problems with fairness and access. What are the obligations for applying ethical codes that may not address these issues? Ethical habits and skills are a reliable starting point.

Defining Professionalism

Beyond the duty to both the evaluee and society, the ethical forensic practitioner must be guided by general moral principles. This is largely due to the need for an ethical theory that simplifies and integrates the pursuit of justice and professional principles. While morality is variable and idiographic, there are overarching moral principles that govern society. These include the ones identified by the professional organizations: especially honesty (i.e., avoiding misrepresentation, relying on objective data) and respect for persons, which includes informing the evaluee of limits of confidentiality.

In addition to the general morals of society, forensic practitioners will invariably apply their own personal values. Practitioners may adhere to virtues of a certain kind (perhaps advocacy over objectivity; exhaustiveness over parsimony). Their background and life experience may emphasize the individual over society. Their politics may influence the kinds of cases they accept. These influences will color how they represent data and themselves as forensic experts. A virtuous professional has previously been described as one with fortitude, temperance, a concern for justice, and a desire to cultivate wisdom. But even those practitioners that hold true to classic virtues make mistakes and exercise judgment that is influenced by their subjective background and personal experiences. Therefore there remains a need for the integration of personal, professional, and societal beliefs that extend beyond existing professional codes.

Unifying or integrating the complex and often contradictory principles of professions and law, of organizational and private behavior, is consequently a critical step in creating more accessible and interpretable guidance. It is a final common pathway for ethical thinking and does a public service for those seeking expert assistance. This unifying effort was undertaken by commentators at the American Medical Association in 1999, when Matthew Wynia and his colleagues articulated a definition of professionalism that anchored professional conduct in the purposes of the field (Wynia et al. 1999). Reminiscent of classic work by sociologist Eliot Freidson (2001), Canadian physicians Cruess and Cruess (1997), and linked by history to Plato (Levin 2014), their articulation of professionalism was not simply a declaration of special skills or expertise, nor was it simply a call for self-regulation by like-minded authorities.

Professionalism was justified by articulating the underlying social purpose of the professional endeavor. In this groundbreaking work, Wynia and his colleagues defined professionalism as a “structurally stabilizing, morally protective force in society”; professionalism, they said, is “an activity that involves both the distribution of a commodity and the fair allocation of a social good, but that is uniquely defined according to moral relationships.” The emphasis on moral protection and moral relationships, like that articulated by NOFSW, grounds ethical behavior in all the interactions of forensic work. It moves beyond the simple dyadic frameworks of most forensic obligations: professional and courtroom, individual and society. Practitioners consequently can take the time to review the expectations of clients, profession, courtroom, and community. They can ask fundamental questions such as whether their expert analysis follows standards that are structurally stabilizing and morally protective. Indeed this is consistent with the American Medical Association’s view of courtroom testimony as the formal practice of Medicine.


For physicians and scientists undertaking a unified or integrative approach to professional ethics, forensic professionalism may mean paying closer attention to the vulnerable values and persons involved in forensic encounters. It may mean recognizing the frailty of truth, objectivity, reproducibility, and statistical analysis. It certainly means recognizing the weaknesses of an imperfect judicial system and that advocacy for one’s opinion ensures that critical elements of testimony are not ignored. Relying on a conceptualization of professionalism that highlights the goals and purposes of a fundamentally social interaction consequently focuses the professional’s many obligations and offers a powerful unifying model for ethical forensic practice.

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