Forensic Gas Chromatography For Lawyers

Last week, I completed a short course in gas chromatography. Completing the course reminded me of what Stephen Covey used to say: “To know and not to do is really not to know.” He is so right. It’s one thing to know the law of blood and urine testing. It’s a very different thing to know the science of blood and urine testing. To know the science, you have to do the science, and lawyers typically do not have the opportunity to do the science. Now, however, lawyers get to do the science of gas chromatography in a short course presented by the American Chemical Society.

The course, Forensic Chromatography Theory and Practice, is held in Chicago at the Axion Analytical Laboratories & Training Institute. Axion is the training arm for the American Chemical Society. The president of Axion, Lee Polite, Ph.D., is a leading authority in chromatography and serves as the primary instructor for the course.

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The 40-hour course consists of both lectures and labs. The lectures feature analogies which make chemistry understandable to even the least scientific lawyers. During the lectures, participants learn the scientific principles underlying the operation of the gas chromatograph. They also learn the parts of the instrument and the multitude of variables which must be set correctly for the instrument to produce an accurate result.

The labs are hands-on. Class participants run tests with known and unknown substances and learn to interpret the printed chromatograms. Students manipulate testing conditions to understand how those conditions affect results. Class participants also calibrate the instrument, use the associated software to program a calibration curve, and even take apart the injectors and columns.

This course also has a lawyering component. Instructors Justin McShane and Josh Lee apply the science of gas chromatography to the litigation of DUI/OVI cases involving blood/urine tests. They explain how to spot and exploit the plethora of conditions which may compromise test results. They also demonstrate a direct examination of a gas chromatography expert, as well as a cross examination of an opposing expert.

This forensic chromatography course has now been presented 14 times, and approximately 250 lawyers have completed the course. Ten of those lawyers have been from Ohio.

Participating in this course was enlightening and encouraging. Before this course, I felt knowledgeable about the law related to blood testing and urine testing in Ohio, but I did not feel as confident about the science. After taking this course, I feel like I actually understand the science behind blood and urine testing. I also feel like I can immediately apply that new knowledge in the courtroom, and I’m very much looking forward to my next DUI/OVI case with a blood or urine test.