Forensic science needs answers
Updated: Nov 8, 2018
There is no doubt that forensic science has had a tumultuous time; just the last 12 months have highlighted high profile cases such as the manipulation of data at Randox laboratories, issues around disclosure, and exonerations from miscarriages of justice. All of these issues are very serious, but we also have a much broader problem. It is a problem that doesn’t get headlines, but it is a systemic underlying problem that is arguably the biggest challenge facing forensic science.
Research published at the end of last year looked at all the cases upheld by the Court of Appeal in the UK between 2010 and 2016. Some 22 per cent that involved “criminal evidence” were overturned due to misleading evidence in the original trials. Accurate interpretation of evidence -- identifying what the evidence means -- is a critical component of forensic science that can assist a court. The problem is that we do not always have the data to enable transparent and robust interpretations of the forensic science evidence. This is not a new problem -- it has been recognised by the UK’s Forensic Science Regulator in all of her last three annual reports as one of the most pressing issues in the field.
But what are the implications? Forensic science generally enjoys a positive portrayal in fiction. A team of sharp dedicated scientists follows the evidence, identifies the suspect, and closes the case. However, there is a huge number of questions that we do not currently have the answers to. The capacity to detect trace evidence has increased dramatically, but we cannot stop there. What does that trace evidence mean when we find it? What does it mean when we find gunshot residue on a suitcase, or DNA on a weapon that a suspect claims never to have touched?
What often surprises people is that we do not currently have all the answers to these questions, and this is something that the development of existing and new technologies cannot address alone. We need a body of research that can ask these questions and produce a foundation of data that can improve our understanding of how and when a trace transfers.
To get those answers is going to require significant changes to our existing systems. Forensic science is not currently within the remit of any of the main UK research councils, and what funding is available is focussed on the development of new technologies. But until we address the funding landscape, the research that is needed to help us understand a wide range of critical questions -- including if, when and how DNA, or particles of gunshot residue can be indirectly transferred -- will not happen.
We need forensic science to have the necessary empirical foundations to provide those answers to offer robust evidence where inherent scientific uncertainty is identified and explained. This will enable juries to come to decisions based on a clear representation and understanding of what the forensic science evidence means.
This piece was originally published in modified form in The Times The Brief 15th March 2018