• Written by Claude Roux, Distinguished Professor of Forensic Science, University of Technology Sydney
Footprints aren't always as clear as this - but they nevertheless have their uses. Eddies Images/Shutterstock.com

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.

Claude Roux receives funding from the Australian Research Council including Linkage grants with the Australian Federal Police, the Victoria Police, the NSW Health Pathology and Rofin Australia Pty Ltd, and from the US National Institute of Justice. He is the President of the International Association of Forensic Sciences (2017-2020), current Vice-President of the Australian Academy of Forensic Sciences, the immediate Past-President of the Australian & New Zealand Forensic Science Society (ANZFSS) and a Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales. He also serves on the Scientific Advisory Board of the International Criminal Court.

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

How to effectively increase your sales

We are living in a digital age where we are more exposed to media such as television channels, internet mediums. All of us have Facebook, Instagram, etc. companies now are targeting different medium...

News Company - avatar News Company

8 benefits of early childhood learning

Early childhood education aims to build the foundation of learning. Parents usually enroll their children in preschools or daycare centers to carry out their job responsibilities. Some send their ch...

News Company - avatar News Company

Scott Morrison's 'resilience' speech overshadowed as McKenzie crisis deepens

Sport Australia wrote to McKenzie's office before the election expressing concern it was being compromised by political interference. Scott Morrison will use his first major 2020 speech to press his p...

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra - avatar Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

The US presidential primaries are arcane, complex and unrepresentative. So why do Americans still vote this way?

Like the other Democratic candidates for president, Elizabeth Warren has spent months canvassing Iowa to meet voters while spending little time in other states. CJ Gunther/EPAWhile political parties i...

David Smith, Senior Lecturer in American Politics and Foreign Policy, US Studies Centre, University of Sydney - avatar David Smith, Senior Lecturer in American Politics and Foreign Policy, US Studies Centre, University of Sydney

Marketing, not medicine: Gwyneth Paltrow’s The Goop Lab whitewashes traditional health therapies for profit

Netflix's new show fails to critically explore the alternative therapies it promotes. Adam Rose/NetflixIn Gwyneth Paltrow’s new Netflix series, The Goop Lab, Paltrow explores a variety of wellne...

Nadia Zainuddin, Senior Lecturer, University of Wollongong - avatar Nadia Zainuddin, Senior Lecturer, University of Wollongong

Not all Australian parents can access quality childcare and preschool – they can't just 'shop around'

Governments spend less than half the amount per child in early childhood education compared to what they spend per child in school. from shutterstock.comMany providers of early childhood education and...

Kate Noble, Education Policy Fellow, Mitchell Institute, Victoria University - avatar Kate Noble, Education Policy Fellow, Mitchell Institute, Victoria University

How to cope with extreme heat days without racking up the aircon bills

Even without air conditioning, there are still many things you can do to prepare for extreme heat and stay comfortable on hot days. fizkes/ShutterstockSummer in Australia is getting hotter. Extreme he...

Emma Power, Senior Research Fellow, Geography and Urban Studies, Western Sydney University - avatar Emma Power, Senior Research Fellow, Geography and Urban Studies, Western Sydney University

Seniors struggle with technology, and often their kids won't help

Many older people are wary of asking for help with technology. ShutterstockSeniors may not enjoy the stereotype of struggling with technology, but undeniably many older people do have difficulty maste...

Bernardo Figueiredo, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, RMIT University - avatar Bernardo Figueiredo, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, RMIT University

How contagious is the Wuhan coronavirus and can you spread it before symptoms start?

Cases of the Wuhan coronavirus have increased dramatically over the past week, prompting concerns about how contagious the virus is and how it spreads. According to the World Health Organisation, 16-...

C Raina MacIntyre, Professor of Global Biosecurity, NHMRC Principal Research Fellow, Head, Biosecurity Program, UNSW - avatar C Raina MacIntyre, Professor of Global Biosecurity, NHMRC Principal Research Fellow, Head, Biosecurity Program, UNSW

Sick and Tired of Your Dead End Job? Try Teaching!

Tired of the same old grind at the office? Want an opportunity to impact lives both in your community and around the world? Do you love to travel and have new experiences? Teaching English is the perfect job for you! All you need is a willingness to ...

News Company - avatar News Company

The Impact of an Aging Population in Australia

There’s an issue on the horizon that Australia needs to prepare for. The portion of elderly citizens that make up the country’s overall population is increasing, and we might not have the infrastructure in place to support this. Australians h...

News Company - avatar News Company