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Ask Laura

An opportunity to put your questions to the course educator.
Photo of Laura Reaney
© University of Strathclyde

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. I hope that wherever you are, you are safe, healthy and managing well with the pandemic. 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.

It is also fantastic to see you all helping each other and sharing your thoughts and information, for example Anthony Rich’s comments on coroners and Lyndon Smith about investigation structure for major crime at the MET police.

I wish that there was the time to answer all of your questions but I’ve focused on those that were most popular or relevant to this week’s content.

Firstly though I wanted to clarify something that has come up in many of your questions including from Swati Sengupta and this is about the role of Forensic Science and the role of the Police. It is the Police who “investigate”, who gather information, collate evidence and try to “build a case”. To do this they may use trained forensic experts, either forensic scientists in a lab or Scene of Crime officers at the scene. These experts are usually working under the direction of the Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) but they operate independently and impartially from the Police. The role of Forensic Science and the Police are separate and not the same, the forensic scientist does not make any comment on the alleged offence and does not offer any thoughts on the guilt/innocence of any suspect. The Forensic Scientist may interpret the forensic findings only and then communicate this to the Police/SIO.

Crime Scenes and Crime Scene Managers

Carol Shufflebotham asked about Crime Scene Managers. 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 because of the significance of this role, they receive specialist training and so are more experienced and qualified to make difficult logistic and strategical decisions than other SOCOs. To answer Sue Himycz’s question, it is this training that allows the CSM and SOCOs to decide if an item may have evidential value at a scene.

It is the first responding officers and Police themselves who determine whether a location should be treated as crime scene. When the CSM is called in, they use their training to do an initial assessment of a scene, plan the forensic strategy and agree this with the Senior Investigating Officer. They brief scene personnel and allocate appropriate numbers to individual aspects of scene examination (which will differ depending on the detailed requirements of the case). They are also responsible for managing the welfare of all scene personnel, carrying out health and safety risk assessments and implementing control measures as well as releasing the scene.

To answer Arlene Albertyn’s question, procedures for scene examination and recovery of evidence are similar between countries as they all share ‘best practice’ and strive to meet the requirements of International Accreditation. However, each will have their own documentation and operational requirements and so some variation is expected.

Sharon Bishop asked about first responders, which may include Police officers, fire personnel or paramedics. All are trained to minimise any effect on the crime scene without compromising the importance of their own role but does vary depending on country and jurisdiction. In many countries, training includes only very basic coverage of forensic science, whereas better scientific training and awareness for police officers would be extremely valuable. In the UK a prime example of this is fire scenes; apart from damage done by the water which is unavoidable, historically it was common practice for firefighters to remove furniture etc from a property as they extinguish the fire, however this could significantly compromise any forensic evidence. Today, a more collaborative approach using awareness training between the fire brigade and forensic providers has led to a greater understanding from both sides to allow both parties to perform their duties to the best of their abilities with minimal impact; they do not routinely throw out the furniture! However, we must remember that their first duty is always to protect the public and preserve life. Whilst they do not formally document the scene they will have to write a statement/report and this has been greatly improved by the increasing use of technology, such as dashcams and bodycams.

Speaking of technology, Gavin True asked a very interested question on this topic. Traditionally, photography and paper note taking has been used to document crime scenes and more recently video recording. However, there is an emerging trend in the use of Apps designed for crime scene documentation, including CRIME SCENE ASSIST. This is a very new concept as extreme care is needed to ensure that the technology is robust and adheres to strict guidance, including continuity – whereby any and all amendments and edits must be recorded to protect against tampering.

Following on from this, Sidney Reynold’s asked what the biggest development has been of the past decade and without a doubt I’d say the expansion of digital forensics. This is not at all my area of expertise, but as all crimes now have an element of technology involved – at the very least the presence of a mobile phone, there has been incredible work undertaken in this discipline. In terms of future trends Sidney….. check back in DNA week!

International Forensics

Kamakshi R, Giovanna Barros and Bronwyn Scott all asked questions relating to qualifications and use of forensics around the world.

In terms of qualifications, the answer generally is that it doesn’t matter where you received your qualification but each country will have its own educational requirements. In the UK a Bachelors degree in any traditional 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 now have undergraduate degrees specifically in Forensic Science which have become more popular in the past 10-15 years (yes Michelle Heyns, this is due to the “CSI effect”)

It can be beneficial to do a pure science degree at undergraduate level and then specialise in forensic science at postgraduate level so that you have a broader knowledge and understanding which will be beneficial in the job market.

After studying people can go into roles as DNA analysts, fingerprint examiner, CSI/SOCOs, Forensic biologists, forensic toxicologist, forensic anthropologists or any number of other specialities such as Soil Analyis, mentioned by Laura Allen, diatoms and Palynology.

It is true to say that every forensic organisation will have their own procedures and specialisations and so scientists will always receive “on the job” training when they start working at a forensic laboratory regardless of prior qualification and experience. This also means that it doesn’t matter which country you work in, but you will need to be trained in their procedures and follow their legal system. For example, I have worked on cases in America and South Africa but I had to meet their legal requirements before I could be considered an expert and give evidence in their courts.

Impartiality, Integrity and resource management

Jacqueline Hubbard, JP and Anthony Rich all asked interesting and potentially complex questions and I have categorised these together here.

A fundamental concept of forensic science is that the scientist’s duty is to the court, regardless of whether they are technically paid by the prosecution or the defence. It is the job of the forensic scientist to evaluate any evidence in accordance with both the prosecution and defence’s hypotheses and using sound scientific principles which must be widely recognised to make their opinion on the evidence. A forensic scientist will not be allowed to give expert witness testimony if they do not meet the admissibility standards outlined in their country i.e. what is or is not allowed as evidence in court, in the America this is the Frye Test and Daubert Standard, in the UK this is governed in part by the Civil and Criminal Procedural Rules. A forensic scientist is working in insolation on evidence in only their own area of expertise, they should NEVER comment or draw any inference as to the guilt or innocent of an individual, this is a matter for the court. The scientist should always be impartial, unbiased and objective. There are many standards, quality assurance and measures in place to overcome any bias but there are still contentious schools of thought in relation to unconscious bias, which is harder to recognise and control. In the UK we use a method known as Case Assessment and Interpretation and this framework serves us well to minimise and potential bias or influence.

The resource situation in the UK is complex, substantial cuts to police budgets have led to more techniques being done “in house by the police” and very little profit in the market to enable a stable economy of forensic science by external providers. However, it is true to say that Police and Forensic Providers are still fully committed to maintaining the highest levels of quality and integrity

With limited budgets, police may not be able to request a full range of forensic tests on every exhibit in their investigations but scientists will advise on which items and evidence types to prioritise. For example, in a case of a “stranger rape” a staged approach might be used, where intimate swabs are examined first and only if no suspect’s DNA can be identified then they will move on to the next stage – the underwear. Alternatively, if it is an assault between two flatmates, the scientist may advise that it is not appropriate to look for hair/fibre trace evidence because the evidential value is low given that they live together and there is an expectation that they would have transferred hairs/fibres innocently. This is however a very difficult issue; it is true to say that, understandably, budgets for serious crime are much higher than volume crime and therefore more resources, including specialists, can be employed but only where it is deemed of potential evidential value.

In May 2019, the UK House of Lords’ Science and Technology Select Committee published its much-awaited inquiry report into Forensic Science Strategy which you can read here. It outlines some concerns in research, funding and leadership in forensic science in England and Wales. In addition, the forensic science community are pushing for statutory powers to be given 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.

I thought I’d finish by addressing a more personal question from Maranda Owens, who asked if there was a case I thought I failed because I could not get the evidence. I guess the first thing to say is that the role of the scientist is absolutely not to “solve” the case, however working in this industry you do serve the public interest and the criminal justice system. There is one particular case that springs to mind – the murder of Valerie Graves in 2013. I won’t go into much detail as you can read about the case online but when I left England in January 2019 the case was still unsolved, we had a DNA profile of an unknown male but no match, despite conducting mass screenings. Amazingly in late 2019 a suspect was identified and has subsequently confessed and been sentenced to life in prison.

Sorry I couldn’t address everyone’s questions this time but many thanks for engaging with the content and I hope you find these answers of interest. There’ll be another opportunity to ask any questions in Week 3, in the meantime, enjoy!!

© University of Strathclyde
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