By David Wilson, a professor of criminology at UCE Birmingham, and presented the BBC1 forensic science series Leave No Trace (THE GUARDIAN, 14/09/06):
It’s hard to escape forensic science. Hardly a day goes by without news of some offender being caught by yet another new DNA profiling technique that allows a “cold case” to be solved from years ago. Offenders like John Lloyd, the rapist and shoe fetishist who preyed on women between 1983 and 1986, and who was convicted this month on DNA evidence. Even so, on the day Lloyd was sent down, a juror in the case of Barry George – who was given a life sentence in 2001 for the murder of Jill Dando – broke her silence to say she had felt “tricked” into convicting George. She would find support in her ambivalence from a number of forensic scientists who now claim that the forensic evidence his conviction rested on – which related to gunpowder residue – should be dismissed as “unreliable”.
Nor is there much escaping forensic science in books or on TV, where Crime Scene Investigation has allowed white-coated scientists to take a centre stage previously occupied by police officers, psychologists, profilers or ageing spinsters with too much time on their hands. Even universities have got in on the act, and the course de jour is anything with the word “forensic” in its title.
“Forensic science” seems to imply glamour, certainty, self-discipline, objectivity, truth and justice all rolled into one, and in doing so effortlessly accommodates much-heralded successes, as well as the more rarely mentioned failures. But this can’t be right.
Very few of us have bothered to question what forensic science is, or looked at how and when scientific principles come to be applied within the criminal justice and legal systems, to try to understand what it can, or cannot, do. The key word here is “science”, which after years of seemingly unstoppable academic and popular ascendancy has lost much of its cache, either (according to its defenders) because it is too “hard” for the new schools curriculum, or (for its critics) because the “principles” it operates under are seen to be less rigorous than scientists had led us to believe, and are just as likely to be the result of conjecture, prejudice and error as anything else.
I sense a desperation by some forensic scientists who seem to want to maintain a “zero error” pretence about their discipline, which simply cannot be sustained in the face of mounting evidence.
Take Brandon Mayfield, for example. The Portland lawyer was arrested and held for two weeks in Madrid in 2004 after a terrorist attack on the train system. The FBI insisted it had found his fingerprints – that staple of forensic science – on several crucial pieces of evidence, only for the Spanish authorities to disagree and release him without charge. We could also cite the Scottish case of Shirley McKie, who was wrongly placed at the scene of a murder by her “fingerprints”, which were eventually shown to belong to someone else.
Or the case of Jimmy Ray Bromgara, convicted of raping an eight-year-old girl in 1987 in Montana, after the state’s chief forensic scientist wrongly claimed that pubic hair found on the victim’s sheets matched Bromgara’s, and would match fewer than one in 10,000 people in a given population. All nonsense. Bromgara has been released and exonerated. Several US states have become so concerned about “junk forensic science” that they have set up special commissions to investigate crime lab problems that might lead to miscarriages of justice.
Does this mean forensic science and the criminal justice system are incompatible? The answer is no, but there have to be changes if forensic science is to retain credibility. Chief among these changes should be to pay forensic scientists more, and to better promote the work that they do.
I say this having spent several months working with forensic scientists. They were vastly undervalued for the skills and academic backgrounds they had. Could this lack of value have anything to do with the fact that the vast majority of those I worked with were female, and that forensic science was seen as “women’s work”? Nor were their working conditions pleasant – most seemed to spend inordinate amounts of time in scrubs, breathing recycled air in clinically pristine laboratories.
Perhaps the biggest change has to come from the scientists themselves, and from those – like the police – who make use of their work. My plea is that they claim less for what forensic science can do, and be more open about what it can and cannot deliver to bring offenders to justice. Did Barry George kill Jill Dando? I don’t know, but I do know he shouldn’t have been convicted on the basis of the forensic science offered at his trial.