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Ask Penny

Please post your questions for this week in the comments section below. Penny will select the most liked/interesting questions and publish her response to these on this step by Wednesday of Week 2.

Please ‘like’ questions posted by other learners if you are also interested in having these answered.

First of all, I’d like to extend a very warm welcome to you all, and thank you for joining the Introduction to Forensic Science course. It’s great to see so many people from all across the world taking the course and getting involved with the discussions. Thank you for all of your great questions this week, and for all of the positive comments about how much you are enjoying the course. I wish that we had time to answer all of your questions but I’ve focused on those that were most popular and most closely related to my own area of knowledge, which is forensic biology, and in particular forensic genetics.

A lot of questions this week related to Crime Scene Managers; who they are, what qualifications and experience they have, how their role develops over the course of an investigation, and how they interact with other members of the investigation team. For example, Noah L, Sukhdev Singh, Tracy Field, Anne Weatherly, Éva Rompos, David Thomas, Lee Scott, Selogamaano Daniel Phefo, Zoe Green and Isabel Snow all submitted great questions about the CSM. The short answer to these questions is “it depends” – the specific details of a CSM’s position, roles and responsibilities will differ depending on jurisdiction, and to some extent the context of the case in question. This is particularly well illustrated using the example of the UK, which covers three jurisdictions (and legal systems); England & Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, CSMs will usually be police officers, whereas in England & Wales, they will tend to be trained civilians. However, in general, a CSM’s role is a very important one, and they are responsible for the initial assessment of a scene, planning the forensic strategy and agreeing this with the Senior Investigating Officer (SIO), briefing scene personnel and allocating appropriate numbers to individual aspects of scene examination (which will differ depending on the detailed requirements of the case), advising the SIO on the investigative potential of different evidence types and the value of using specialists (which will also depend on the detailed requirements of the case), and coordinating the individual experts within the overall scene. They are also responsible for managing the welfare of all scene personnel, carrying out health and safety risk assessments and implementing control measures.

After the initial processing of the scene, the CSM is responsible for the ongoing coordination and implementation of the forensic strategy, advising the investigation team on the potential investigative value of different evidence types, planning and managing the forensic aspects of post mortem examinations, communicating findings from the scene and the forensic team to the investigation team, as well as maintaining ongoing communication between forensic laboratories, individual experts and the investigation team. If you are interested in finding out some more, then this article gives some further information about the role, as well as the skills and qualifications needed to become a CSM, and the career path that a CSM might follow.

Related to this, Lee Scott asked who would have the final say if there was disagreement between the CSM and the SIO. Generally, the SIO is in charge and they would make the final decision, but they would certainly take advice from the CSM on board. David Thomas also asked what rank the CSM and SIO would be, and again it depends on the type of case and the available resources, but in general when CSMs are police officers they would be about the rank of Detective Sergeant, occasionally a Detective Inspector, and the SIO would usually be a Detective Inspector but sometimes a lower rank for less serious cases. There was also a question from Sarah Pettigrew-Collins relating to the forensic awareness of police officers, and the answers from Jenipher Akinyi and Éva Rompos show that this is very variable in different jurisdictions. In many countries, police officer training includes only very basic coverage of forensic science, whereas better scientific training and awareness for police officers and other members of the criminal justice system, such as lawyers and judges, would be extremely valuable. You may be interested to see this news article from the Royal Society about the publication of two courtroom science primers on forensic DNA analysis and forensic gait analysis that were developed through a collaboration between the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the judiciary, with significant input from scientists at the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science at the University of Dundee.

Jan F and Sonja Little asked about whether forensic experts/specialists are employed by the police, other organisations, or if they are freelance. Again, the answer depends on the jurisdiction and the type of expert. The provision of forensic services is different all over the world, and in some countries such as the United States and South Africa, most crime scene investigators and forensic scientists are serving police officers. In the UK, scientists are not police officers, but the way forensic science is provided varies across the country. In Scotland, provision is by the Scottish Police Authority Forensic Services, which is a government owned organisation with four laboratories in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen. The situation in England and Wales used to be similar, with the government owned Forensic Science Service providing services to police forces. In 2012, the UK government closed the FSS as a result of huge financial losses, and forensic services are now either provided by private companies or have been moved in-house in police forces. In addition to this, there are also defence experts, who review scientific evidence for legal teams acting in defence of accused persons. These may be freelance scientists, they may work for companies who specialise in providing defence experts, or they may be academics who work at universities—for example, at the University of Strathclyde Centre for Forensic Science we provide expert review of scientific evidence for defence teams.

This brings us on to another set of questions, which related to financial constraints around the provision of forensic services. Felicity Soden, Janet Brinsmead, and Armelle De Mey all asked questions related to this. As I mentioned above, in the UK the provision of forensic services has changed a great deal over the last decade, and along with substantial cuts to police budgets, this fragmentation of the market has led to concerns that scientific standards may be compromised.

With limited budgets police may not be able to request a full range of forensic tests in their investigations, meaning they might miss vital evidence. In addition, moving testing to in-house police laboratories puts added pressure on scientists to come up with results to secure convictions for the police. Experts in the field have increasingly been warning that the situation is likely to lead to miscarriages of justice, and that a new governmental strategy for forensic science is needed. Although some of the private labs have been behind some high-profile successes in the last few years, there have also been problems. For example, the company LGC Forensics (now Eurofins Forensic Services) were behind the re-examination of forensic evidence in the Stephen Lawrence case, which led to the conviction of two of his killers, but they were also behind the arrest of an innocent man for rape. Adam Scott was arrested and held in custody for five months because a DNA profile that matched his profile was identified in a swab sample from a rape victim. It later transpired that Adam Scott’s genetic material had become mixed up with material connected with the rape case as a result of human error at LGC.

In March 2016, the UK Home Office published its much-awaited Forensic Science Strategy and announced that it planned to establish a new Forensic Science Service to move back to a national approach to forensic science provision in the UK. The forensic science community are pushing for this approach to include giving statutory powers to the Forensic Science Regulator, who is responsible for ensuring that high standards are maintained across the market, to make sure providers are delivering quality and consistency of service. It remains to be seen how the provision of forensic service in the UK will change over the next few years. It has always been difficult to get jobs in the forensic field, as vacancies are relatively rare, particularly since the closure of the FSS; it is hoped that this may change if the government invests money in a new national forensic science service.

There were also several questions this week related to becoming a forensic scientist and what qualifications are needed, as well as what specialisations there are. Makayla W, Urszula Staniszewska, Roger Pitfield, Ruby Astari and Sandra Harper all contributed to a discussion relating to this. In terms of the qualifications needed to work in forensic science, a Bachelors degree in a science subject is often sufficient for getting a job in forensic science, although a lot of the scientists working in forensic labs around the world have Masters level qualifications. Some scientists will do a forensic-related degree at undergraduate level whereas some will do a pure science degree at undergraduate level and then specialise in forensic science at postgraduate level. There are a variety of postgraduate qualifications in forensic science across the UK, and the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences accredits a number of UK and international courses. One of the MSc Forensic Science courses in the UK is offered by the Centre for Forensic Science at the University of Strathclyde, and if anyone would like any further information about this, you can find this at the course website. Some scientists will also undertake more specialised degrees such as forensic anthropology, or forensic toxicology, although every forensic organisation will have their own procedures and specialisations and so scientists will always be trained when they start working at a forensic laboratory.

In terms of specialisations, within forensic laboratories, most scientists will work within a reasonably specialised section, e.g. chemistry, drugs, DNA, biology, and they will focus on evidence types related to these specialisations. Most forensic providers will also have scientists who specialise in blood pattern analysis (to examine the patterns of blood found at the scene of a violent crime to determine what type of action and force may have been involved), firearms, impression evidence (e.g. fingerprints and footwear marks), and many will have specialist sexual offences teams. There are also other less common specialisations, such as forensic odontology and forensic entomology—these specialisations are usually not required frequently enough to justify having scientists who specialise in these fields within forensic service providers, so these specialisations will often be provided by researchers and lecturers based in universities who assist with investigations from time to time. Angelique Carmichael also asked about the crossover between forensic anthropology and forensic genetics, and there is some overlap in the field of anthropological genetics, as well as population genetics and evolutionary biology—you may be interested in these articles and the information and references within them:

Bethany Pankhurst and Sheryl both asked interesting questions about television programmes like CSI and how they have affected the field of forensic science. Whilst it is useful to raise the profile of the work that forensic scientists do, and for the general public to become more scientifically aware, it has also been shown that there have been some less positive impacts of these types of programmes. For example, it is thought that the proliferation of shows of this type has led to juries having unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved by forensic scientists, and also that they may come to give too much weight to forensic evidence. This has been termed the ‘CSI Effect’ and you can find out more on this Wikipedia page.

Finally, Roger Pitfield asked a great question about what cases I have found particularly interesting where forensic science has played a significant part. That is such a difficult question to answer, but I’ve come up with two cases that I think demonstrate how powerful forensic science can be and how the determination of forensic scientists can lead to convictions in cases that may have otherwise been given up on. The first is the murder of Stephen Lawrence in a racist attack in Eltham in London in 1993, which occurred 25 years ago this week see timeline here. After failed public and private prosecutions and a change in the law in England and Wales to allow suspects to be tried more than once for the same crime (the ‘double jeopardy’ legal principle), the persistence of forensic scientists working at LGC Forensics led to the discovery of blood, fibre and hair evidence that was crucial in the conviction of two of the original five suspects in the murder. You can find out more about the case and the forensic evidence involved in this BBC article. The second case if the World’s End Murders, which by coincidence was the first case to be tried in Scotland after a similar change to the double jeopardy law there. In this case, collaboration between a number of different forensic laboratories meant that in 2014 Angus Sinclair was finally convicted of raping and murdering 17-year-olds Helen Scott and Christine Eadie in Edinburgh in 1977. In particular, the work of forensic scientists Lester Knibb working in what is now the Scottish Police Authority Forensic Services, Geraldine Davidson at Cellmark in England, and Professor Lorna Dawson at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen was vital in securing this conviction.

- Penny

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This article is from the free online course:

Introduction to Forensic Science

University of Strathclyde