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After recent criticism in the US and the UK, forensic science is now coming under attack in Australia. Several recent reports have detailed concerns that innocent people have been jailed because of flawed forensic techniques.
Among the various cases presented, it is surprising that the most prominent recent miscarriage of justice in Victoria did not rate a mention: the wrongful conviction of Farah Jama, who was found guilty of rape in 2008 before the verdict was overturned in 2009.
Omission - Evidence - Case - Jama - DNA
This omission is not entirely unexpected. The forensic evidence in the case against Jama was DNA. Despite this fact, the recent media comments have re-emphasized the view that DNA is the gold standard when it comes to forensic techniques. Justice Chris Maxwell, president of the Victorian Court of Appeal, said: "…with the exception of DNA, no other area of forensic science has been shown to be able reliably to connect a particular sample with a particular crime scene or perpetrator."
How can the same technique simultaneously be the forensic gold standard and contribute to such a dramatic miscarriage of justice? Is forensic science so unreliable that none of it should be admissible in our courts? Of course not, otherwise the criminal justice system would be left relying on much less reliable evidence, such as witness statements and confessions.
Sense - Reliability - Technique - Abstract - Method
It makes no sense to assess the reliability of any forensic technique in the abstract. A forensic method is only "reliable" as far as it helps answer the particular questions asked in the context of a particular case. Asking the wrong questions will undoubtedly deliver the wrong answers, even if the best and most fully validated forensic method is applied.
Conversely, some forensic methods are perceived by some commentators to have less intrinsic value or even questionable reliability. But these methods might yield the answer to a crucially...
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