Modern Australian

Forensic science isn't 'reliable' or 'unreliable' – it depends on the questions you're trying to answer

  • Written by Claude Roux, Distinguished Professor of Forensic Science, University of Technology Sydney
Forensic science isn't 'reliable' or 'unreliable' – it depends on the questions you're trying to answer

After recent criticism in the US and the UK, forensic science is now coming under attack in Australia. Several recent reports have detailed concerns that innocent people have been jailed because of flawed forensic techniques.

Among the various cases presented, it is surprising that the most prominent recent miscarriage of justice in Victoria did not rate a mention: the wrongful conviction of Farah Jama, who was found guilty of rape in 2008 before the verdict was overturned in 2009.

This omission is not entirely unexpected. The forensic evidence in the case against Jama was DNA. Despite this fact, the recent media comments have re-emphasised the view that DNA is the gold standard when it comes to forensic techniques. Justice Chris Maxwell, president of the Victorian Court of Appeal, said:

…with the exception of DNA, no other area of forensic science has been shown to be able reliably to connect a particular sample with a particular crime scene or perpetrator.

How can the same technique simultaneously be the forensic gold standard and contribute to such a dramatic miscarriage of justice? Is forensic science so unreliable that none of it should be admissible in our courts? Of course not, otherwise the criminal justice system would be left relying on much less reliable evidence, such as witness statements and confessions.

Read more: Get real, forensic scientists: the CSI effect is waning

Evidence in context

It makes no sense to assess the reliability of any forensic technique in the abstract. A forensic method is only “reliable” as far as it helps answer the particular questions asked in the context of a particular case. Asking the wrong questions will undoubtedly deliver the wrong answers, even if the best and most fully validated forensic method is applied.

Conversely, some forensic methods are perceived by some commentators to have less intrinsic value or even questionable reliability. But these methods might yield the answer to a crucially relevant question.

A typical example would be an incomplete shoe mark of poor quality left at a crime scene. It might not be possible to assign this mark to a specific shoe, but it might be enough to exclude a particular shoe or to identify the direction in which the perpetrator walked.

Forensic science is much more than merely applying methods or conducting tests – success also depends on the ability to identify and answer a relevant question.

A forensic science system is not like a clinical laboratory, processing samples and producing results for prescribed tests. Rather, good forensic science requires collaboration between investigators, scientists and other stakeholders. The focus should be resolving judicial questions using a scientific approach.

What matters most is the detection, recognition and understanding of the traces left by individuals during an alleged crime. This a much more complex issue than simply deciding whether or not a particular forensic method is deemed “reliable”.

Complex process

Forensic science is much less cut-and-dried than television dramas might suggest. When a DNA swab or a shoe mark lands on a forensic scientist’s lab bench, it has already gone through many steps, each with their own uncertainties.

These uncertainties are unavoidable, because forensic traces typically represent the aftermath of a chaotic event. The only option is to manage these uncertainties through a better understanding of how these traces are generated, persist, degrade, interact with each other, and how the information they hold can be interpreted.

The debate about the reliability of forensic science is not new. It illustrates a more fundamental issue: the lack of understanding of forensic science among the general public (who are potential jurors), and even among highly reputable law practitioners and non-forensic scientists.

Legacy of reform

The high-profile 2009 US National Academy of Sciences report and the 2016 Obama Administration report, both of which criticised some uses of forensic evidence, prompted an international reaction and several reviews of forensic practices.

They justified more empirical research to support some forensic conclusions. These improvements have been occurring in Australia for some years under the leadership of the National Institute of Forensic Science and through several academic research programs. And the recent UK House of Lords enquiry into the state of forensic science in England and Wales identified the Australian forensic science model as a leading example.

However, these reports excluded crime scene management from the scientific domain. They provided limited guidance about the challenging topic of interpretation of forensic evidence. This is disturbing because these are the two areas that require most attention if we are serious about improving forensic science outcomes.

Read more: 'This is going to affect how we determine time since death': how studying body donors in the bush is changing forensic science

As the recent media coverage has shown, evidence interpretation remains a sore point between the legal and scientific communities. Where is the boundary of the responsibility of science versus the law? The fact that the legal community poorly understands forensic evidence is undoubtedly a shared responsibility. Shifting the blame onto forensic science will only exacerbate the problem.

If we think this is all too hard with traditional physical evidence, how does the criminal justice system expect to cope with our rapidly evolving digital society? Digital evidence is typically harder to assess than physical evidence in terms of volume, variety, rapidity, and privacy issues.

Better education, research and collaboration will form a large part of the answer. They will induce a better understanding of forensic science and its fundamental principles, so it can serve justice with confidence.

Authors: Claude Roux, Distinguished Professor of Forensic Science, University of Technology Sydney

Read more http://theconversation.com/forensic-science-isnt-reliable-or-unreliable-it-depends-on-the-questions-youre-trying-to-answer-123020

NEWS

what makes Jacinda Ardern an authentic leader

The qualities that have made Jacinda Ardern New Zealand’s most popular prime minister in a century were on display this week as she took an earthquake in her stride during...

The poorest Australians are twice as likely to die before age 75 as the richest, and the gap is widening

ShutterstockPeople living in socially disadvantaged areas and outside major cities are much more likely to die prematurely, our new research shows. The study, published in the journal Australian Population Studies...

The government says artists should be able to access JobKeeper payments. It's not that simple

Many workers in the film industry are excluded from JobKeeper.The Nightinggale/Transmission FilmsThis week, Australia’s finance minister Mathias Cormann told ABC radio he didn’t “accept [the] proposition” workers in the arts...

Why the coronavirus shouldn't stand in the way of the next wage increase

ShutterstockIn the early 1970s, when rising inflation and unemployment tore through the economy, someone coined the aphorism “one man’s wage increase is another man’s job” (unfortunately, most of the talk...

how media mythbusting can actually make false beliefs stronger

ShutterstockAs the COVID-19 pandemic has swept the world, politicians, medical experts and epidemiologists have taught us about flattening curves, contact tracing, R0 and growth factors. At the same time, we...

Why Trump's Make America Great Again hat makes a dangerous souvenir for foreign politicians

ShutterstockIt looked just like any posed political picture. The politician, in this case the National Party’s newly elected leader, Todd Muller, standing by a bookcase. So far so normal. It...

now he has an election to win and a country to save

AAP/EPA/Tracie van AukenAt age 77, in his twilight years, the third time was the charm for Joe Biden. He prevailed over a field of 24 Democrats from across the political...

If you took to growing veggies in the coronavirus pandemic, then keep it up when lockdown ends

Lynda Disher/ShutterstockThe COVID-19 pandemic produced a run on the things people need to produce their own food at home, including vegetable seedlings, seeds and chooks.This turn to self-provisioning was prompted...

public transport is key to avoid repeating old and unsustainable mistakes

ShuuterstockThe coronavirus pandemic has affected our cities in profound ways. People adapted by teleworking, shopping locally and making only necessary trips. One of the many challenges of recovery will...

P is for Pandemic: kids' books about coronavirus

NSW HealthWith remarkable speed, numerous children’s books have been published in response to the COVID-19 global health crisis, teaching children about coronavirus and encouraging them to protect themselves and others...

Australian economy must come 'out of ICU': Scott Morrison

Scott Morrison says it is vital to get the Australian economy “out of ICU” and “off the medication” of government support “before it becomes too accustomed to it”.In speech on...

Eden-Monaro byelection to be on July 4

Speaker Tony Smith has announced July 4 for the byelection in the Labor NSW seat of Eden-Monaro, which will be the first electoral test between Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese.For...

Popular articles from Modern Australian

If you buy virtual currency, use a safe and secure exchangeUrban Development: Trends Shaping The Future of CitiesThree cities worth visiting in PolandUpgrade your career in beauty therapy with these short beauty courses6 Ways To Treat Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)Top Tips for the Best Camping TripHealthy Cooking at Home - Tips & TricksMental Health and Covid-19: How Effective are Health- Supplements?Know the Best Times to Eat Protein BarsEnhancing Self Sense of HumorPlanning a wedding overseas? Keep your spending in check with these simple tipsNutri-Grain is launching 'Gold Honey Crunch', a limited-edition flavourTammy Hembrow Launches Mini Saski In Time For Mother's DayBad Cooking Habits You Must BreakTeaching Kids to Brush Their Teeth and Floss Correctly