Interviewer: Madii Hussain (UK), Biologist
Studies at Birmingham City University
Chinyere Williams (USA), Forensic Toxicologist
Certified through the American Board of Forensic Toxicology (ABFT)
Expertise: analytical instrumentation, interpretation of post-mortems and human performance toxicological results.
Forensic toxicology hangs by
a small but crucial thread in the
whole world of forensics.
Within the array of scientific processes that aid in investigations, forensic toxicology is hugely important because without the work of toxicologists, we wouldn’t be able to identify the drugs, toxins and chemicals responsible for the cause of death.
Today, I bring to you an honest story, a fascinating story and a world like no other at your doorstep. I’ve been given the pleasure of sharing an up-close and personal experience into the world of forensics with forensic toxicologist, Chinyere Williams. Chinyere discusses her passion for forensic toxicology, how it has had an impact on her mental health and the pressures of public perception around forensic science.
1. What was your typical day like, as a forensic toxicologist?
“Typical days were fairly routine and methodical, but the cases were often quite unique. Generally, we would debrief and learn about cases that came into the laboratory over the weekend or previous night. From there, we would determine if any toxicological analysis was needed or if any special tests were required. Afterwards, we would each go to our assigned sections and work on unfinished or recently assigned casework. This could involve alcohol analysis from DUI cases, data analysis from previously prepared batches, or drafting final reports from recently closed cases.”
2. How did forensic toxicology impact your day-to-day life? How did it impact your emotions? And how did you deal with grief or desensitisation?
“I love forensic toxicology. I absolutely enjoy the work and the science involved. For me, it’s enriching to find answers to questions and provide some context to someone’s untimely or unexpected death. I love lab work and analysis. Like any job, the work may have less of an impact than the colleagues or management of these serious investigations.
Emotionally, I dealt with it very well. I believe there are certain personalities that do well in forensics. They tend to have a dark sense of humour and that fits well with the way I operate.
The biggest issue I faced in my previous lab was having to deal with depression from events in my personal life combined with a low mood due to workplace stress. This is a terrible combination for anyone who works in forensics because there is no escape from mental pressure and trauma. I became incredibly depressed due to poor management of staff and watching a very talented group of staff lose focus. It’s already intense reading about rape, murder, child deaths, and suicide – but when an entire department of colleagues are suffering mental health issues - It became overwhelming and required some medical interventions.” It can (and did) have a negative impact on my mental health.
I don’t think the work impacts the way I deal with grief. I think in some ways I’ve always been desensitised to some aspects of death. That could be why I really feel happy in this line of work. I had cases of my own deceased family members in the office for death investigations which never felt uncomfortable. In fact, I had a deeper level of connection with those cases because I felt like I could still help them in some way.
3. How important is forensics, in general, within a policing investigation?
“Forensics are a crucial component to police investigations. In my previous job, we worked independently from the police department so we could ignore outside pressures from other agencies. The application of scientific methods to evaluate evidence is absolutely necessary. I see it like this: in forensic toxicology, there is a presumptive result and a confirmed result. It would be unwise to make any judgement of culpability or events based on a presumptive result. Although the police have an ability to identify sources and make overall connections, there still needs to be confirmatory analysis. Maybe the officer thought someone was impaired with alcohol, but the person had actually taken a benzodiazepine that made them appear drunk. Therefore, the use of scientific techniques is essential for investigations as they can highlight the bias that can occur in investigations.”
4. Do you know of any cases where forensics has got it wrong; which resulted in the conviction of an innocent person?
“Fortunately, I am not personally aware of a case I was involved in that resulted in the wrongful conviction of a person. That being said, I’m not aware of the outcome of most of the cases in which I have testified.
My role is to testify to the evidence
and provide interpretations, the jurors
are the ones to decide the fate. I try to
stay as neutral as possible with the
results of a case.
I will say I am personally concerned about the number of convictions of innocent persons. As a result, my husband and I opted to not receive presents for our wedding, but we asked guests to donate to the Innocence Project. Forensic practitioners are not always neutral and can be influenced based on their personal experiences. I have no doubt there are cases where bias was introduced to the forensic results which led to a conviction.”
5. Can you tell us a bit more about what kind of toxins you found in bodies and the impacts of these?
“My career was largely based in San Francisco, so the drugs and medicines we saw were somewhat regional. Many residents would consume Eastern/Chinese medicines to treat ailments, so that was always interesting to find. The city also had a large number of methadone clinics to treat people with opioid addictions. As a result, we would find methadone mixed in with other drug cocktails. Of course, San Francisco has a huge party culture, so we would see quite a bit of ketamine, heroin, GHB, cocaine, ecstasy, and other amphetamine products. After working there for a few years, I came to the conclusion drug culture was much larger than I initially thought. I’ve seen a significant concentration of drugs in teachers, police officers, church members, bus drivers and sweet-looking grandparents. The impact on the consumers vary greatly. It’s not always lethal and I think it’s important to end the misconception that drug use and abuse occur in specific populations. Microdosing is incredibly popular as well, so there are a significant number of adults who are consistently on low-levels of psychoactive compounds with no obvious impacts on their abilities to safely function.”
6. Is there a particular case that severely impacted you?
“There are so many cases that have impacted me. I struggle to identify just one. As people get older in big cities, they tend to end up with an incredible amount of medications and become more isolated. I find it particularly troubling to see cases where an elderly person was found alone and surrounded by medications. I think it has made an impact on how I engage with elderly people. Now, I take the time to engage more with older folks on the off chance that they haven’t talked to anyone for an extended period of time. I’d like to think these thoughtful interactions make someone feel better than any of the medications they have at home.”
7. Is there anything else you would like to share, to the general public or future forensic scientists?
“The vast majority of people who work in the field of forensics are really thoughtful and considerate scientists. Lots of documentaries have been released about forensic work and I think it’s valid to question the work. We are not beyond questioning – that’s part of the scientific process. But just like the general public, there are forensic scientists with personal flaws who are actively involved in casework. Sometimes the concerns about ethics or departmental functions are well-documented but staff can be silenced due to political pressures or desires to stay out of the news. I’d like the public to know many of us are on the side of truth and want to provide reliable, unbiased, and high-quality results.”
A snippet of conversation that Chinyere has shared with us, reinforces the idea that forensic scientists are only human and mistakes are inevitable. Also, these are real people who face real scrutinization and mental health battles; just like us. I hope that by sharing Chinyere’s story, you are inspired to follow your passion and know that the work of forensic scientists is far from our perception based on programs like CSI.
If you would like to get in touch with Chinyere or Madii, then feel free to DM us on our twitter handles- @NoBiasForensics @MadiiJH