Author ORCID Identifier
Date of Graduation
Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
Forensic and Investigative Science
An ongoing advancement in forensic trace evidence has driven the development of new and objective methods for comparing various materials. While many standard guides have been published for use in trace laboratories, different areas require a more comprehensive understanding of error rates and an urgent need for harmonizing methods of examination and interpretation. Two critical areas are the forensic examination of physical fits and the comparison of spectral data, which depend highly on the examiner’s judgment.
The long-term goal of this study is to advance and modernize the comparative process of physical fit examinations and spectral interpretation. This goal is fulfilled through several avenues: 1) improvement of quantitative-based methods for various trace materials, 2) scrutiny of the methods through interlaboratory exercises, and 3) addressing fundamental aspects of the discipline using large experimental datasets, computational algorithms, and statistical analysis.
A substantial new body of knowledge has been established by analyzing population sets of nearly 4,000 items representative of casework evidence. First, this research identifies material-specific relevant features for duct tapes and automotive polymers. Then, this study develops reporting templates to facilitate thorough and systematic documentation of an analyst’s decision-making process and minimize risks of bias. It also establishes criteria for utilizing a quantitative edge similarity score (ESS) for tapes and automotive polymers that yield relatively high accuracy (85% to 100%) and, notably, no false positives. Finally, the practicality and performance of the ESS method for duct tape physical fits are evaluated by forensic practitioners through two interlaboratory exercises. Across these studies, accuracy using the ESS method ranges between 95-99%, and again no false positives are reported. The practitioners’ feedback demonstrates the method’s potential to assist in training and improve peer verifications.
This research also develops and trains computational algorithms to support analysts making decisions on sample comparisons. The automated algorithms in this research show the potential to provide objective and probabilistic support for determining a physical fit and demonstrate comparative accuracy to the analyst. Furthermore, additional models are developed to extract feature edge information from the systematic comparison templates of tapes and textiles to provide insight into the relative importance of each comparison feature. A decision tree model is developed to assist physical fit examinations of duct tapes and textiles and demonstrates comparative performance to the trained analysts. The computational tools also evaluate the suitability of partial sample comparisons that simulate situations where portions of the item are lost or damaged.
Finally, an objective approach to interpreting complex spectral data is presented. A comparison metric consisting of spectral angle contrast ratios (SCAR) is used as a model to assess more than 94 different-source and 20 same-source electrical tape backings. The SCAR metric results in a discrimination power of 96% and demonstrates the capacity to capture information on the variability between different-source samples and the variability within same-source samples. Application of the random-forest model allows for the automatic detection of primary differences between samples. The developed threshold could assist analysts with making decisions on the spectral comparison of chemically similar samples.
This research provides the forensic science community with novel approaches to comparing materials commonly seen in forensic laboratories. The outcomes of this study are anticipated to offer forensic practitioners new and accessible tools for incorporation into current workflows to facilitate systematic and objective analysis and interpretation of forensic materials and support analysts’ opinions.
Prusinowski, Meghan Nicole, "Enhancing the forensic comparison process of common trace materials through the development of practical and systematic methods" (2023). Graduate Theses, Dissertations, and Problem Reports. 11644.