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Big Wullie

Forensic Science In Crisis

Forensic science in crisis as doubt cast on key CSI techniques

Judith Duffy
Sunday 26 April 2015

SCOTTISH scientists are working with judges to improve confidence in forensic evidence being brought before the courts amid a growing crisis over techniques beloved of TV crime shows such as CSI.

Experts say forensic science is facing an impending emergency, with concerns raised over the reliability of commonly used evidence - such as fingerprints, bite marks and blood splatter analysis - and a series of recent high-profile miscarriage of justice cases.

Last week a shocking report emerged in the US which found the testimony of scientists from an elite FBI forensic unit which carried out microscopic hair analysis - matching defendants and a hair found at a crime scene - was scientifically indefensible in 95 per cent cases which have been re-examined.

The review found FBI examiners provided flawed evidence which pointed to the guilt of the defendants in 257 out of 268 trials between 1972 and 1999. In 32 of these cases, the defendants were sentenced to death - 14 have already been executed or have died in prison.

And it is feared this is the tip of the iceberg: more than 2,500 cases involving the unit are under review, and the FBI experts provided training on how to present evidence in court across the country raising the prospect of tens of thousands of other cases being affected.

Professor Niamh Nic Daeid (CORR), of the University of Dundee's Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, told the Sunday Herald a recent summit had been held in London to bring together international researchers, academics and members of the judiciary for the first time to discuss how to make sure courts have confidence in forensic evidence.

Nic Daeid, who organised the event with colleague and leading forensic anthropologist Professor Sue Black, said the issues surrounding the reliability of forensics were global.

"At the meeting we had very senior judicial engagement, including the judiciary from Scotland, which was the first time we had really got to that point," she said.

"We are pushing to develop almost a common approach and to provide background scientific information, so the judiciary will have confidence in the science that is coming before them in the courtroom.

"Science and the law are not comfortable bedfellows - we usually speak with each other in an adversarial manner in the courtroom, so what we need to do is speak to each other in a much more collegiate and conversational manner to try to address what our common problems and common concerns are, which is what we have now begun to do."

A three-part BBC Radio 4 series on forensics, which began last week, highlighted recent high-profile cases involving failures in forensics include Barry George, who spent seven years in jail for the murder of TV presenter Jill Dando before his conviction - based largely on a speck of gunshot residue found in his pocket - was overturned.

Other recent scandals include the case of Scottish police officer Shirley McKie, who was paid compensation after being wrongly accused of visiting the scene of a murder on the basis of a thumbprint.

Last month Italian judges cleared American Amanda Knox of the murder of UK student Meredith Kercher after doubts were raised over DNA evidence.

In 2009, a report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in America uncovered serious problems over flawed science - such as fingerprints, bite mark and blood spatter analysis - being presented in courtrooms by unreliable experts, yet being viewed as foolproof evidence in court.

Another type of forensic evidence which came under attack as unreliable in the NAS report was hair analysis. This technique, based on matching particular characteristics in a strand of hair, first became popular in the 1950s, but it has now been replaced by more sophisticated DNA analysis.

Speaking on Radio 4's "Forensics in Crisis" programme, which is broadcast on Tuesday at 11am, Nic Daeid said the NAS report exposed "significant scientific deficiencies" in the methods to both examine and interpret evidence.

She said: "In many areas the NAS was looking at a number of different types of what we would call really quite conventional evidence types that is used almost on a daily basis - looking at examination of things like fibres and hair and so on....there was a general concern around the validity, around the professionalism of how forensic analysis was being carried out."

She added: "Forensic science and forensic evidence is not a national issue, it is an international issue. The techniques we use in the United Kingdom are the same techniques broadly speaking as are used in the United States or in Europe or in Australia or elsewhere around the world. So for many of the evidence types, it is completely relevant right the way across the world."

There are also concerns with funding of forensic services in England and Wales. The Forensic Science Service, which carried out testing and research south of the border, was closed by the UK Government in 2012, resulting in the world's first commercial private market for forensic services.

But Nic Daeid said Scotland was in a stronger position as it has the Scottish Police Authority Forensic Services laboratory, which is funded by the Scottish Government, as well as a community of academic experts who work together.

She added: "In Scotland it is a much more collegiate community, because we are a small country and we know each other and we know each other's skills and expertise.

"As a consequence of that I think there is a much more well-defined and certainly less fragmented approach to forensic science here."
Big Wullie

They do not seem to comprehend that the SPSA is not independent and it was because of this Shirley McKie was prosecuted.

But Nic Daeid said Scotland was in a stronger position as it has the Scottish Police Authority Forensic Services laboratory, which is funded by the Scottish Government, as well as a community of academic experts who work together.

They work from the same buildings as the police.

I also believe judges need proper training on directions to juries about the reliability and quality of expert evidence.

The directions or lack of them have led to many wrongful convictions.

We see experts in Scotland asked on a daily basis about matters outwith their expertise, Professor Sue Black is a classic example of this in Hainey V HMA.

She added: "In Scotland it is a much more collegiate community, because we are a small country and we know each other and we know each other's skills and expertise.

In situations like these small communities experts like we witnessed in the McKie case blindly supported their superiors and experts that dared disagree were sacked.
Big Wullie

"But Nic Daeid said Scotland was in a stronger position as it has the Scottish Police Authority Forensic Services laboratory, which is funded by the Scottish Government, as well as a community of academic experts who work together."

What everyone fails to see here is the lack of Independence in Scottish Experts.
In the McKie case we saw experts blindly support their superiors while others who dared disagree were sacked.

Judges should also be properly trained to direct juries as to what is and is not within the expertise of the expeerts giving evidence.

We see on a regular basis experts being asked questions outwith their expertise, Professor Sue Black (Mentioned in article above) is a classic example of this in Hainey V HMA where the judge called her a quack but had to later retract this comment when it was properly analised.

The SPSA work within the same buildings as the police and indeed in the McKie case the fingerprint experts were just across the corridor from the SIO involved with the case who passed notes to each other.

Anyone who attended the Fingerprint Enquiry as I did would be left feeling that fingerprint evidence could never be relied upon ever again yet we still see convictions relying entirely on fingerprint evidence. (Cameron V HMA)

In my humble opinion Scotland lags behind the rest of the worlds when it comes to expert evidence with Crown being able to call any expert they want with the defence being curbed. (Gage V HMA)

In Gage expert evidence showed the way the crown obtained Identification evidence was leading and suggestive yet Professor Valentine's evidence was not allowed despite his credentials and the fact he works well with the CPS in London giving advice on a regular basis.

I have no doubt had the crown wanted to call such evidence the courts would have allowed it.
Big Wullie

Gage V HMA

When fully understood the court said this:

It is not for Professor Valentine now to offer a view on whether a particular witness was reliable. That was for the jury.

What Professor Valentines report actually shows is the way the identifications of the jacket and car were leading and suggestive this has nothing to do with the witnesses evidence.


Well what better way to get someone to identify a burnt jacket after they described something entirely different.

Well that would be to show them the burnt jacket then.

The same applies to the showing of a burnt car.

Tim Valentine has identified flaws in the way the police obtained the identification's of objects used as productions against Wullie Gage which is an entirely separate matter from the Identification of Wullie Gage.

[36] Counsel for the appellant argued that without expert assistance, a jury could not measure the extent to which a witness's reliability was compromised; but in our view Professor Valentine's evidence would not supply that deficiency. In all of the cases in which expert evidence has been admitted in our courts, the evidence was specific to the facts of the case, and usually specific to a particular witness. Professor Valentine has conducted no case-specific tests or research. He can only alert the court to some of the factors that might in general affect the reliability of identification evidence. Much of his report has no bearing on the facts of this case. For example, there has been no suggestion that any witness's evidence was distorted by feedback or by any significant delay before identification procedures were carried out.

Feedback came from showing the witnesses single items they wanted them to Identify.

I heard Lord Gill argue with Crown's A/D that the report was very case specific so the reference above is disturbing.

There was a significant delay in the Identification of Wullie Gage as it was nearly two years after the murder before his trial started and he was Dock Identified.

Professor Valentine did carry out case specific analysis of Gage's case before submitting his report, I mean he was not looking at any other material apart from what he was supplied from the defence team of Gage.

For Example he was not looking at material from Barry George's case while submitting his report in Gage.

I have a copy of the report which is very case specific. Forum Index -> Test Forum 1
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Sincere thanks to all those who have supported Shirley and challenged miscarriages of justice on this forum.