On the surface, it might seem as if the needs of forensics labs are similar to those of other laboratories. For instance, just like other labs, they need to track and test samples, report results, and document quality assurance activities.
When you look closer, however, it quickly becomes clear that forensics has specialized needs best served by a LIMS custom-tailored to their industry. Specifically, forensic labs have four key requirements in addition to the functions of a standard LIMS.
1. Case-Centric Workflow
Traditional LIMS systems are highly focused on specific samples. What’s more, the labs that work with these samples know which tests will be required before they even receive them, and the results direct the rest of the workflow.
In forensics, by contrast, everything revolves around a specific investigation or “case.” The case produces packages of evidence referred to as “exhibits” in the LIMS. The details of the crime, and the types of evidence gathered, determine the specific units of the lab where packages need to be routed, such as DNA, Firearms, Drugs, Latent Prints, at so on. Appropriate tests can’t be assigned to exhibits until they arrive.
2. Chain-of-Custody Authentication
Whenever an exhibit moves between people or storage locations in forensic investigations, a documented two-way authentication process must take place. The current custodian who is releasing the evidence and the person who is receiving it must both enter their username and password into the system. If the exchange involves a person and a storage location, then only the person needs to perform this authentication. If this process breaks down at any point, an entire criminal case can be compromised.
3. Third-Party Scrutiny of Results
Most laboratory testing produces definitive results that are released to the client after some type of quality check. Common examples include the percentage of purity, weight, density, blood alcohol content, presence of a bacterium or virus, and so on.
But in forensics applications, another critical step is added. The lab’s results are examined by an expert in the relevant specialization (firearms, DNA, latent prints, etc.), and their professional analysis of the data is added to the case information as Examiner Notes. For example, a DNA expert who analyzes a lab’s DNA typing data would be likely to describe its meaning in this way: “based on X, Y and Z, this sample is 99.99999% likely to be from suspect John Doe.” This analysis is disseminated beyond the lab to the “client” (in this case the investigative process itself).
4. Courtroom Presentations
Ultimately the results of forensic labs’ tests and related quality assurance activities, including the analysts’ qualifications, may need to be presented in a court law as testimony in a criminal case. To address this need, the laboratory must have a means to efficiently compile the requisite information for later ready-recall and usage. These data are essential, both to support conclusions drawn or to provide information to the opposing counsel.
Meeting the Unique Needs of Forensics Labs
While forensics laboratories clearly benefit from many of the functionalities provided by a traditional LIMS, they are best served by a system that goes beyond the basics to address the unique needs noted above. Ideally, these capabilities will have been designed and built by a LIMS provider whose personnel have significant experience working in the forensic industry.
Stay tuned here at the LabVantage blog for more posts and updates addressing the needs of forensics labs, plus details of when a new off-the-shelf forensics offering will be available.