Forensic Nurses’ Role In Legal Proceedings

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In the year 2000, the Virginia Circuit Court sexual assault case Commonwealth V. Johnson set a precedent that helped to cement forensic nursing as admissible, expert evidence in legal proceedings, according to the article, “Virginia Judge’s Decision In Sexual Assault Case Places Forensic Nursing In The Forefront Of Law And Medicine.”

Forensic nurse giving testimony in a court room

During the case, the judge ruled that Suzanne Brown, a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE), was an undisputed expert. Judge Jane M. Roush then allowed Brown to testify despite objections raised by the defense attorney.

Commonwealth v. Johnson paved the way for a future of valuable courtroom contributions by forensic nurses. Students pursuing a Master’s Degree in Nursingwith a concentration in forensic nursing will be trained to examine victims, collect and organize evidence, and testify in court on the results of their examinations.

Why Forensic Nurses Are Necessary

Forensic nurses can work in a wide variety of settings and specialize in working with specific types of victims or nursing roles. The most well known forensic nurses are SANEs, but child abuse victims, individuals dealing with substance abuse, interpersonal violence (including murder) victims, and those who’ve lived through natural disasters also have a need for forensic nursing examiners and researchers.

According to the IAFN’s “Forensic Nursing: Scope An Standards Of Practice,” “Forensic nurses provide direct services to individuals, families, communities, and populations… In addition, forensic nurses provide consultative services to nursing, medical, social, and other healthcare and legal professionals and entities. Moreover, forensic nurses provide factual and expert testimony regarding both intentional and unintentional injury of the living or the deceased.”

Collecting medical evidence used to be the duty of any nurse who happened to be present with a victim in the ER or ICU. But the demand for medical forensics, the increasing reliance on forensic evidence in the court system, and new technologies now require nurses trained specifically in forensic disciplines.

Today, collecting and cataloging forensic evidence requires a very specific skillset and tools designed solely for forensic experts. Rape kits alone require scrupulous attention to detail. Nurses without SANE certification may not be equipped to perform the exams or have time to master the forensic skills needed in addition to their regular duties.

“There are a number of tools forensic nurses must master in order to help document a victim’s injuries for court cases,” writes J. Stern Springer in “The Case For Forensic Nursing.”

“This equipment [includes] complex devices such as an omnichrome – which can detect bruising beneath the skin’s surface – and a colposcope (a large microscope with a camera attached that enables examiners to take photographs of genital injuries in sexual assault cases). Operating this high-tech equipment and making sure all the documentation is done correctly is one of the challenges to [forensic nursing].”

Forensic Nurses Play A Crucial Role In The Courtroom

Specialized forensic knowledge and skills come into play when a forensic nurse is subpoenaed for a court case concerning a patient.

When forensic nurses testify in court, they may be testifying as a factual or expert witness. In “SANE Testimony,” the Office of Justice Program’s Office for Victim of Crime describes factual witnesses as those who simply describe what was done during examination and what was observed thereafter. Expert witnesses, on the other hand, are authorized to testify based on their educated opinion.

Forensic nurses can prepare to give their testimony by finding out what they will be asked, what information they need to bring with them, and whether they will be cross-examined.

Forensic examiners must remain unbiased at all times and not allow the role of patient advocate to encroach on their role as an impartial witness in court.

“Most commonly, the SANE is called by the prosecution. Attorneys utilize high-quality expert consultants in pursuit of justice for their clients,” according to expert and medical witness firm Consolidated Consultants in “The Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) As Defense Consultant.”

“[However,] when a forensic nurse examiner works for the defense counsel, the client is the defense attorney, not the defendant. The SANE should not have a stake in the outcome of any case.”

Being a forensic nurse bears with it a number of different responsibilities, some of which can seem at odds. Essentially, for nurses, patient advocacy is a priority, especially when the victim is first examined. However, as a forensic specialist, collecting evidence and following proper procedure to the letter of the law are essential duties.

Duquesne University Master of Science in Nursing Program

Students enrolled in Duquesne University’s Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program have an opportunity to specialize in forensic nursing. The collaborative program, coordinated with the university’s Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law, allows for a general nursing curriculum coupled with a focus on investigative techniques to assist in the legal process. The program includes classes that focus on criminal law, pharmacology, healthcare ethics and healthcare administration.