Forensic Science In Need Of Rescue

Within science we get used to trying to avoid sterile arguments -ones that can’t be sorted out by the hard work of evidence – and engaging in them in mad passion and obsession -sometimes a proof pops out.  We  work with concepts like space-time and then find much they appear to sort out and other stuff that remain or become anomalies.  Space-time is under intense review, partly based on low-temperature graphene behaviour.

The world away from the thinking, peer review, imagination and miracle experiments of science (look up actor-network theory for some wordy description maybe) has very different standards of proof.  We have phrase like ‘reasonable suspicion’ and ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ – but also schools convincing kids that evolution is wrong, politics in which truth was long ago a casualty and so on.  Miscarriages of justice are probably much more common than we know and certainly more common than we commonly think.  I was taught Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 53BC having failed in 54BC.  In fact he couldn’t get his lads on the boats – they probably though Shijuro was waiting for them over here, though it may have been a earlier brush with me and Hog covered on woad out on a continental drinking spree, or rumours of an Ambush Predator!

Sometimes stuff like fingerprints and now DNA analysis come along and we seem to have real evidence to provide in court.  CSI more or less does away with any need to do much other than swab crime scenes.  Sadly, we quickly render the science to abuse.

As a scientist I expect to be able to give the evidence as I see it – that is in a fair and objective manner.  I don’t do forensics, but know something of the techniques used in laboratories.  What I’m reading about the practices appals me. I generally want to see people who do wrong brought to book – mostly to stop people committing crime and be able to live without having to be too careful about being ripped off, mugged and so on.

I seriously doubt our systems are now fair or ever really were.  This doesn’t stop me believing we need a system.  Generally, I can’t see much alternative to trusting our cops (safety inspectorates and so on) to be fair, use discretion and be all-round nice guys with determination and courage.  The general idea is to have countervailing institutions to check up on each other and a form of public scrutiny to keep things honest – I wouldn’t even trust myself with ‘ultimate authority’.  Being able to vote helps, but not as much as it could.  A new fourth estate would too – our current lot are feeble.  I’d have newsreading and other autocue functions reserved for disabled people and have a rota in place to prevent personality cults like Paxman and the fit-looking non-brainless bimbos we get.

It’s all so vapid now that forensic experts turn out to be bent loonies (as in Nico Bento) or ‘gagged’ if they behave as reasonable scientists – which isn’t supposed to happen under  ‘disclosure’.  Lawyers are everywhere, but seem to make no difference and fail to do their duty, never really facing prosecution of disbarment.  The defensive hostility of some cops (and the cop system generally) to clear breaches of discipline is bad, but I suspect a much more serious problem across the CJS.

It’s so bad even DNA evidence giving has been seriously affected and the prosecution is getting away with serious perversions of the course of justice.  Given how difficult it is to get information out of organisations without spin and secrecy censorship, we should be really worried about the corruption of forensic science services.

There’s a fairly informative article on New Scientist at http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20727733.500-fallible-dna-evidence-can-mean-prison-or-freedom.html – I won’t review it here – suffice to say the forensic science community can clearly be shown to be skewed towards the prosecution and that evidence that is inconclusive is being presented as conclusive in court.  We are sending people down when we can’t prove they are responsible.  This is not new in itself – we have always done this to people who were ‘unfortunately Irish at the wrong time’and so on, or sacrificed the odd admiral (much to the amusement of the French who then gave us Dreyfus) or squaddie for the sake of balance – a bit like the BBC airing a nutter or two for ‘objectivity’ orone of those ‘experts’ it finds to say what we all already know.

We do a blood analysis on a shoe and present this as evidence the shoe’s wearer did a shoeing, but not the spatter analysis that would show he didn’t.  The commissioning process is in the hands of a prosecution,not independent investigators and lawyers everywhere let people down (including judges who are often clueless).  A cop under budget pressure (when are they not police friends of mine ask) makes decisions on evidence collection and plumbs for the cheapest (maybe wrong even to catch the serious rapist,let alone fair).  Surveys across big samples of ‘forensic experts’ show substantial basis towards prosecution.  This is all bad news, and not just for the innocent – the guilty are benefiting too.  Juries are thought to be demonstrating a ‘CSI effect’ – believing forensic evidence much more powerful than it is.

Innocent people banged up, rapists not detected to strike again – we didn’t sign up to be part of stuff like this.  We still don’t know  what killed David Kelly (conspiracies aside this is pathetic).

Full text of one disturbing paper can be found at http://lpr.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/8/3/257 and the abstract of another at http://www.astm.org/DIGITAL_LIBRARY/JOURNALS/FORENSIC/PAGES/JFS2004475.htm – I got the latter in full through university access but it doesn’t say much more than the abstract.  Both papers have decent methods, utterly lacking in the ‘Sarah’s Law’ report for the Home Office.

Passion in science might well keep you up three nights on the trot, leaving you knackered and hardly able to think straight – but you still wouldn’t bend your results to fit.  If you do you should face the sack and court proceedings.  I an deeply ashamed of lies I’ve had to tell to get and deal with research money, but would never have done this kind of thing.  We are not analysing or being given chance to analyse miscarriages in full.  No conviction is safe in such circumstances, and though we can’t get perfection we can clearly do a lot better.  What passion for justice is there when we clearly don’t?

Anyone involved in the CJS knows many cases are swamped with doubt, competing stories, liars and all kinds of stereotyping, legalities that make for massive bureaucracy and delays and presumptions about who is telling the truth, the verity of ‘professional’ reports and a great deal of of paid-for bias.  Most of us have little access to the legal system because we  can’t afford the lawyers or even the time.    Even those who can afford the lawyers still can’t rely on the investigation process or have their own ‘professionals’ in at the times that may count most.

There is something that can be done and this is almost constitutional – have the justice system responsible to the public and not beholden to rich and political interests.  That this latter is now influencing forensic scientists into biased work shows how desperate the rest is likely to be.  One of my fears is we will end up with yet more lawyers,perhaps like this one – http://www.themcshanefirm.com/attorneys/mcshane – and even challenges based on evidence procedure on the basis of what should have been done at the scene and was not.  Real crooks or people rich enough to get real lawyers will stand an even greater chance of getting off,and the soon to be slashed legal aid budget will have even less in it to defend those contributing to it who might be caught up innocently.

There are many lines of enquiry here.  The one that particularly perturbs me is that we have people lying in court about matters that can be scientifically checked – what does this say about the overall likely quality of “evidence”?

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