Thursday, 31 May 2018

Crime Labs And Their Forensic Integrity

West Midlands Police 

When flawed forensic evidence gets into court, the integrity of the criminal justice system becomes questionable. One place where forensic evidence can be exposed to bias and errors is the lab - the crimelab.

Crime labs are like any other scientific laboratories but differ only in purpose or use of results. A crime lab  processes crime scene evidence to determine who the offender is, the nature of the crime and prodces the proof of innocence or guilt of suspects in a criminal case.

Objectivity in evidence analysis and interpretation is another distinctive feature of crime labs. When evidence, say a blood swab from the crime scene is brought into a crimelab, the lab scientists or technologists may never have to know from whom and where the DNA evidence came from. It is not their business, and even if they knew, they cannot state that knowledge in the lab report which would be presented in court.

Forensic scientists who provide forensic expert analyses and interpretations of evidential materials should be free from sentiments and put bias at arm's length, no matter the personalities involved or interest in the case. That is what brilliant lawyers should watch out for. The credibility and integrity of forensic analytic process should be maintained at all times.

Another important feature of crime labs is strict compliance with quality standards and protocols. One of the quickest and easiest ways to discredit forensic evidence in courts is the answer to the following questions;

1. Were standard protocols followed in the processing and analysis of this digital evidence?

2. Was the standard packaging material used at the recovery of the evidential sample from the crime scene?

3. Is it possible that this DNA (blood) evidence couldn't have been contaminated from recovery at the crime scene through processing to final result?
If yes, is it not possible that this evidence tendered as proof of my client's linkage to the crime is faulty?

Therefore, even though crime labs are scientific at the core, the burden of 'high compliance' to every possible standard, method or protocol make them different from conventional scientific laboratories. However, it is not impossible for contamination to occur after taking the necessary precautions.

For instance, skin remains and blood clots recovered from under the fingers of a murdered victim (which could depict fierce struggle with possible perpetrator) whose corpse has been lying more than six hours after death, would have been exposed to varying atmospheric conditions such as wind, sunlight, dew etc depending on the immediate surroundings.

As incredible as it may seem, there is the possibility for wind to transfer someone's DNA such as saliva in gas droplets which could be trapped by the corpse's body. Of course, developed DNA profiles of the swabs by CSIs would show up in the lab results and possibly, a hit in a DNA database. You can imagine how shocked the innocent person would be who probably sneezed at the instant the wind blew which helped to transport his DNA to a scene of crime.

More so, it is possible for the DNA of lab employees to contaminate lab samples. In this case, forensic scientists giving expert witness advice have to do a great deal of explaining (in simple English) about this possibility and how it has not affected the overall outcome.

There is an allowance in such incidences for error rates and biases which must be taken into account from the recovery evidential material at the crime scene to the presentation of forensic evidence in the court room. This is why the subfield of forensic statistics exists.

It therefore becomes imperative for crimelabs to continuously pursue and maintain an impeccable degree of compliance with relevant judicial and industrial regulations. The ISO  sets the global standards for laboratory requirements. The SON NAFDAC and NISLT are government agencies with the statutory rights to accredit labs and lab practices in Nigeria while ANAB provides similar services in the US.

Crimelabs or forensic labs as they may also be called, hold a great stake in the efficiency and effectiveness of crime scene investigation and the judicial process as a whole. When flawed forensic evidence gets into court, the integrity of the criminal justice system becomes questionable.

A seemingly 'insignificant' mistake in the lab can destroy the life of an innocent suspect in court - for good. Nothing is hardly as painful and devastating than being sent to prison for a crime that you did not commit.