Is Forensic Science All It's Cracked Up to Be?

Forensic science has revolutionized the criminal justice process, but is it foolproof?
Christopher McFadden

In an interesting article published in The Conversation, the author argues that forensic science might not be as foolproof as many believe it to be.

The author, Prof. Claude Roux, Professor of Forensic Science, University of Technology Sydney further argues that it is only as good as the questions it is trying to answer. 


Not all that glitters is gold

The problems of trusting unquestionably in forensic science have been highlighted after some recent criticism of it in the U.S. and U.K. It has also come under attack in Australia after some recent high-profile cases where innocent individuals have been proven to be wrongly convicted.

Is Forensic Science All It's Cracked Up to Be?
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One prominent case, as highlighted by the article, was that of Farah Jama. This victim of injustice in Victoria, Australia, had been convicted of rape in 2008, only to have the charge overturned in 2009.

"The forensic evidence in the case against Jama was DNA. Despite this fact, the recent media comments have re-emphasized the view that DNA is the gold standard when it comes to forensic techniques," according to that article mentioned above, from The Conversation. 

Justice Chris Maxwell, president of the Victorian Court of Appeal, said of the case:

"[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."

But, as everyone seems to think, DNA-analysis is often touted as the gold standard of forensic evidence. How could its use have led to such a gross failure of justice?

That, Prof. Roux highlights, puts us in something of a conundrum. 

If something like DNA-analysis is not 100% reliable, should it even be seriously considered in a court of law? However, without it, cases would need to be determined on historically unreliable forms of evidence like witness statements and confessions. 

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Science is only a tool; it can be mishandled

The underlying problem here, so the author argues, is that science is only really a tool. It cannot think for itself and can only answer questions that are asked of it. 

"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," The Conversation reports.

The author goes on to give the example of an incomplete, poor quality shoe mark. While it may not be useful to find a specific shoe, it can be used to discount others or uncover the direction in which the perpetrator walked.

The principles and practices of forensic science can only get an investigator so far. It relies on its ability to find and ask the right questions. 

Prof. Claude Roux declares that "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."

Forensics is not "cut and dry."

Another problem is the popularisation of forensic science in the media. It is not, in reality, as "cut and dry" as it is often portrayed on TV or film.

Crime scene evidence has to often undergo several steps prior to arriving at the lab. It can be contaminated, for example.

Many other uncertainties are also unavoidable as many crime scenes are, by their very nature, chaotic events. 

"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," notes Prof. Roux in the same article. It also goes on to explore recent examples in which some high-profile U.S. and U.K. reports have criticized the use of forensic science. These reports have prompted international actions for serious reform. 

So what's the solution?

The author argues that the reputation of forensic science in the public and legal worlds are a major part of the problem. What is needed is a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of forensic science for all concerned.

"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."

You can read the full article here