Better Science, better justice
The Forensic Institute has adopted the motto ‘Better Science, Better Justice’. This is not accidental. It is born from our long campaign to see scientific standards developed and improved within the forensic science community (e.g. see our response to the Forensic Regulator).
Qualifications and experience
Our expertise is contained in our academic qualifications (every one of our scientists has a first class honours degree and at least one postgraduate degree; MSc or PhD), years of research experience in the lab, publishing, reading, and discussions with other scientists worldwide (Prof Jamieson is the co-Editor in Chief of the largest Encyclopedia of Forensic Science in the world). It is this fundamental scientific expertise that we bring to bear in hundreds of criminal cases. Our expertise comes from a solid research background in science, and experience from the assessment of those hundreds of criminal cases.
For example, The Forensic Institute probably has more knowledge and experience of LCN DNA data than any other group or individual outside of the providers of the LCN service. We have spent months examining and analysing such data. The Appeal Court recognise that Professor Jamieson,
“has given evidence in so many Low Template DNA cases since then on the strength of the observations in R v Hoey that he has acquired a degree of experience from these cases, his discussion with others and his reading of papers.”
These contribute to credibility and competence as an expert witness. Our expertise, having studied and maintained an up to date library of the published research in these fields to enable an assessment of the science in any proffered evidence, extends to the assessment of thousands of DNA profiles and the publication of scientific papers. Professor Jamieson has been undertaking forensic DNA profiling work since 2002 and has interpreted thousands of profiles in hundreds of cases, including many high profile and groundbreaking trials.
Our scientific expertise includes DNA, LCN and LTDNA, shaken baby syndrome, drugs on money, drugs and driving, blood pattern analysis, wound analysis, road crash investigation, fire investigation, toxicology, and most others. Our expert witness' casework extends across the entire criminal spectrum with particular expertise in the assessment and integrated approach to complex and high profile crimes including murder, sexual assault, and other crimes against the person. We have presented evidence in trials in all of the jurisdictions of the UK, Guernsey, New Zealand, Australia, and the USA.
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Quality of science is important
Recently in the USA, concern was so great about the state of forensic science that Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to assess the wide range of expertise touted as forensic science. This is probably the widest ranging and most authoritative study of the forensic sciences ever undertaken. Despite acknowledging advances in many areas, especially DNA technology, they say,
“ The simple reality is that the interpretation of forensic evidence is not always based on scientific studies to determine its validity. This is a serious problem. Although research has been done in some disciplines, there is a notable dearth of peer-reviewed, published studies establishing the scientific bases and validity of many forensic methods. ”
The Forensic Institute, recognising this fundamental problem many years ago, set out in our casework not to simply repeat the work that the prosecution has performed (as seems to have been and continues to be the common practice) but to test the processes and procedures to verify that there has been no, “imperfect testing and analysis”, and if necessary to, “determine its validity”.
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Omagh and LCN
It is this approach that led one of our scientists, Professor Allan Jamieson, to provide evidence as an expert witness in the Omagh Bomb trial of Sean Hoey raising concerns as to the reliability of the Low Copy Number (LCN) DNA technique. This expert evidence was directed to the validation of the LCN technique which had never been seriously challenged by the defence in the UK at that time, even though it had been in use only in British Courts for years. The judge in the Omagh trial was sufficiently concerned to raise our concerns in his judgment. He stated;
“I am not satisfied that the publishing of two journal articles describing a process invented by the authors can be regarded without more as having "validated" that process for the purpose of its being confidently used for evidential purposes.”
The subsequent Caddy Review agreed that the evidence presented to support the validation of the technique at that trial was insufficient to establish the validity (although the Review concluded that subsequent work was, and that the technique was 'fit for purpose'). However, in March 2010, the most prestigious science journal in the world, Nature, again publicised international scientific concern about the use of the technique and many others used in forensic science. The debate is far from concluded in the scientific community.
The NAS report states;
“The law’s greatest dilemma in its heavy reliance on forensic evidence, however, concerns the question of whether—and to what extent—there is science in any given forensic science discipline.
Two very important questions should underlie the law’s admission of and reliance upon
forensic evidence in criminal trials:
(1) the extent to which a particular forensic discipline is founded on a reliable scientific methodology that gives it the capacity to accurately analyze evidence and report findings and
(2) the extent to which practitioners in a particular forensic discipline rely on human interpretation that could be tainted by error, the threat of bias, or the absence of sound
operational procedures and robust performance standards. These questions are significant.”
Our view , and that of the NAS, is that neither the forensic scientific practitioners nor the Courts have been able to satisfactorily resolve the problems which, to a great extent, they themselves created. It is now essential to involve wider scientific expertise, if necessary in addition to specific forensic expertise, in challenges to expert witness evidence proffered in Court.
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Experience is not expertise
The central issue, for now and apparently the future, is the degree to which a forensic scientist can use ‘experience’ as support for ‘expert witness’ testimony. This can obscure the distinction between what is science and what a scientist may believe. These decisions come at a time when the wider legal and scientific communities are beginning to recognise that the scientific underpinning of much that is claimed to be science in the forensic context is, in fact, not.
We have published an article in Barrister Magazine on the topic of experience versus expertise and the difficulties presented to courts.
For many years defence lawyers have been calling expert witnesses to counter the expert witness proffered by the prosecution. A ‘fight fire with fire’ approach has resulted in what amounts to a re-run of the analysis. Given the identified problems with the science, a new and more fundamental approach to evidence evaluation by the defence is required. We believe that the main purpose of the defence expert is to conduct a thorough review of the processes, procedures, and conclusions of the prosecution experts, and only then to consider repeating the physical tests. That review can be performed by scientists, using their scientific expertise. This principle is clearly demonstrated in the reviews conducted by, for example the Forensic Regulator on LCN, which did not require the Review Group to have any practical experience of the LCN technique.
Better science will lead to better justice, but it requires the right expertise to take that challenge to Court. We believe that we have that expertise.
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