A trace evidence analyst, also referred to as a trace evidence examiner, is a forensic scientist who performs analyses on trace evidence that may occur as a result of physical contact between a suspect and victim during a violent crime. Trace evidence analysis includes the identification and comparison of these transferred materials using specific scientific instrumentation and methodologies.
Trace evidence materials may include:
- Primer residue
- Duct tape
- Arson debris
- Unknown substances
The physical contact between a suspect and a victim can result in the transfer of trace materials. The identification and comparison of these materials can often associate a suspect to a crime scene or with another individual.
Instrumentation commonly used by trace evidence analysts include: stereomicroscopes, polarized light microscopes, glass refractive index measurement devices, scanning electron microscopes, gas chromatography, mass spectrometers, and energy dispersive spectrometers.
Trace evidence analysts are responsible for performing chemical and physical analyses using state-of-the-art methodologies and instrumentation as to analyze physical trace evidence obtained from the scene of a crime. These forensic scientists prepare Certificates of Analysis on the results of their findings, and they may be called to testify in criminal court proceedings as expert witnesses on the analysis of evidence and the conclusions that result from the analysis.
Trace evidence analyst jobs are found in forensic laboratories/coroners offices within local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Trace Evidence Unit.
FBI Trace Evidence Unit (TEU)
The FBI’s Trace Evidence Unit (TEU), in addition to forensic scientists in trace evidence, consists of other physical scientists and geologists.
The TEU conducts analysis on a variety of trace evidence, including:
- Hair: Hair examinations include determining whether the hair is human or animal. In addition to determining the racial characteristics, body area, length and root type, trace evidence analysts may study hair using mitochondrial DNA testing.
- Fibers: Fiber analysis may include determining if a fiber is natural or manmade and whether it originated from a specific source.
- Fabric: Fabric examination includes testing to determine if a known piece of fabric is consistent in color, composition and/or construction and if it can be physically matched to a damaged or torn garment.
- Mineralogy: The FBI Trace Evidence Unit is one of the only laboratories in the nation that performs geologic services, which includes studying both naturally occurring and manmade geologic materials, such as soil, building materials, gemstones, and glass.
- Anthropology: Trace evidence often includes forensic anthropology, which includes analyzing human remains in a medico-legal contact.
Education for Trace Evidence Analysts
Due to the highly scientific nature of trace evidence analysis, it comes as no surprise that trace evidence analysts are required to have extensive study through a formal educational program. Specifically, these forensic scientists are often required to have, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree in chemistry or a closely related field, along with coursework and laboratory work in the areas of:
- General chemistry
- Organic chemistry
- Analytical chemistry
Many employers also require specific training in polarized light microscopy, comparison microscopy, scanning electron microscopy, and digital imaging.
Training for Trace Evidence Analysts
Although a bachelor’s or master’s degree from an accredited college or university provides a solid framework in the natural sciences, the highly technical nature of this forensic laboratory profession requires extensive training under the supervision of a senior trace evidence analyst. Comprehensive training programs allow individuals to achieve knowledge in basic theoretical principles and applications of the instrumentation and methodologies used to analyze trace evidence samples. Further, a trace evidence analyst training program allows individuals to gain valuable knowledge in criminal court procedures and rules of evidence.
Highly qualified trace evidence analysts must be able to analyze and solve technical problems; effectively communicate both orally and in writing; defend their scientific findings in a court of law; make sound conclusions; and maintain accurate records.
Professional Certification for Trace Evidence Analysts
The American Board of Criminalistics (ABC) offers professional certification for forensic scientists in a number of forensic disciplines, including trace analysis.
To qualify for certification and achieve the status of Diplomate, candidates must possess, at a minimum:
- A bachelor’s degree in a natural science or an approved field from an accredited institution
- Two years of full-time experience (including on-the-job training) in the field of criminalistics
To achieve status as a Fellow, candidates must have, at a minimum:
- The status of Diplomate
- Successfully complete an approved proficiency testing program in a designated specialty area for the Comprehensive Criminalistics Examination
Salary Expectations for Trace Evidence Analysts
Trace evidence analysts, according to recent job postings, earn an average salary of between $37,332 and $62,616. The lower range in this profession typically indicates the position as a forensic scientist trainee.