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The paradigm shift for UK forensic science

Discussion meeting

Starts:

February
022015

09:00

Ends:

February
032015

17:00

Location

The Royal Society, London, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG

Overview

Scientific discussion meeting organised by Professor Sue Black OBE FRSE and Professor Niamh Nic Daeid

Event details

A paradigm shift is imminent in forensic science as the discipline approaches a pivotal juncture in the modern courtroom.  The event will capitalise on an emerging landscape to develop, design and promote a robust, effective and efficient capability that will best serve justice.  This event draws upon extensive international experience in change management, forensic science research and judicial influence.

The meeting programme is available to download. Recorded audio of the presentations can be found below, and the related papers can be found online at Philosophical Transactions B.

Enquiries: Contact the events team

Event organisers

Select an organiser for more information

Schedule of talks

Research in forensic science, beyond the state of the art

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Chair: Andrew Miller MP

Andrew Miller MP, House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, UK

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Opening remarks

Professor Sue Black OBE FRSE, University of Dundee, UK
Professor Niamh NicDaeid, University of Dundee, UK
Professor Pete Downes OBE FMedSci FRS, University of Dundee, UK

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Developments in fingerprint identification

Professor Christophe Champod, University of Lausanne, Switzerland

Abstract

This presentation will discuss the major developments in the area fingerprint identification that followed the publication of the NAS report in 2009 entitled: Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. The report portrayed an image of a field of expertise used for decades without the necessary scientific underpinning. The achievements and needs in some selected areas of fingerprinting will be covered. It includes:

  • The measurement of the accuracy, reliability, repeatability and reproducibility of the conclusions offered by experts. We will explore if and how the profession can take advantage of measured error rates and the impact on reporting practices.

  • The development of statistical models in the area of friction ridge skin comparison and evaluation. A challenge will be to reconcile a traditional practice dominated by deterministic conclusions with the probabilistic logic of any statistical model. That includes the management of potential conflicting outputs between an expert and a statistical model.

  • The ways of articulating and expressing conclusions in the area of fingerprint examination. There is a call for greater candor, but it should be fostered in a way that ensures effective communication of the strengths and limitations of the evidence. The testimony will have to go beyond blunt statements such as “fingerprints are unique” or “it is based on my training and experience”.

  • The case file documentation of the fingerprint examination process. There is a need to strike the right balance between the extent of document, the available resources and the risks of cognitive bias.

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The end of the (forensic science) world as we know it? - The example of trace evidence

Professor Claude Roux, University of Technology, Australia

Abstract

The dominant conception of forensic science as a patchwork of disciplines primarily assisting the criminal justice system (i.e.forensics) is in crisis or at least shows a series of anomalies and serious limitations. The symptoms have been largely discussed by various commentators and in a number of reports in recent years. Without a doubt, the 2009 report of the US National Academies of Science epitomises the criticisms. Further, the almost generalised adoption of stricter business models in forensic science casework compounded with ever-increasing normative and compliance processes place additional pressures on a discipline that already appears in difficulty. One may ask the question whether these issues are not simply the result of an unfit paradigm. If this is the case, the current problems faced by forensic science may indicate future significant changes for this discipline.

To facilitate the broader discussion, this presentation will focus on trace evidence, an area that is seminal to forensic science, both for epistemological and historical reasons. However, there is little doubt that this area is currently under siege worldwide. Current and future challenges faced by trace evidence will be discussed, along with some possible answers. The current situation ultimately presents some significant opportunities to re-invent not only trace evidence but also forensic science. Ultimately, a distinctive, more robust and more reliable science may re-emerge through rethinking the forensics paradigm, revisiting fundamental forensic science principles and adapting them to the 21st Century.

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Crime scene science - what will the future look like?

Mr Keith Inman, California State University East Bay, USA

Abstract

Much, if not all, of the current research in forensic science is limited to the analysis and interpretation of items believed to be “evidence,” and therefore relevant to a violent event. But the reverse work is rarely undertaken: research dedicated to understanding how and what kind of physical evidence is produced during a violent act (bloodstain patterns excepted). Yet research into the production of such evidence would surely assist in the examination of the aftermath of violent events (the crime scene); predicting what evidence should be found would assist immeasurably in a scenes-of-crime examination by provoking hypothesis formation and subsequent searching for expected evidence at the earliest possible time in a criminal investigation. This would allow forensic science to expand its role from being merely reactive to predictive, injecting science into an earlier stage of the criminal investigation than is currently practiced.

The heart of such research might revolve around a “crime scene theater,” where specific acts, both of violent and everyday actions, might be simulated and repeated to provide a “sphere of expectations,” both quantitative and qualitative, for the production of relevant physical evidence. Thus crime scene science in the future might best be served not only by the invention of new techniques to find and record evidence, but by investigation into the production, dispersion, persistence, and degradation of physical evidence resulting from violent events.

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Research in forensic science, beyond the state of the art

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Bridging the gap: from biometrics to forensics

Professor Anil Jain, Michigan State University, USA

Abstract

Biometric Recognition, or simply biometrics, refers to "Automated recognition of individuals based on their behavioral and biological characteristics." The success of fingerprints in forensics and law enforcement applications, coupled with growing concerns related to national security, financial fraud and cyber attacks, has generated a huge interest in utilizing fingerprints, as well as other biological traits, for automated person recognition. It is, therefore, not surprising to see biometrics permeating various segments of our society. Applications include smartphone security, mobile payment, border crossing, national civil registry, and access to restricted facilities. Despite these successful deployments, there are several existing challenges and new opportunities for person recognition using biometrics. In particular, when biometric data is acquired in an unconstrained environment or if the subject is uncooperative, the quality of the ensuing biometric data may not be amenable for recognition. As an example, recognizing subjects from face images captured in surveillance video frames is substantially more difficult than recognizing controlled mug shot images. Therefore, additional cues such as scars, marks and tattoos may have to be used in conjunction with partial low-resolution face images to recognize a person. In some situations, a face image of the suspect may not even be available. Rather, a composite image rendered by a forensic artist based on verbal descriptions provided by witnesses, may have to be used for recognition purposes. Indeed, some of the more recent biometric applications have a forensic “twist” to them.  This talk will discuss how biometrics evolved from forensics and how its focus has shifted back to its origin in order to solve some of the challenging problems in forensic science.

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The future of forensic DNA analysis

Dr John Butler, NIST, USA

Abstract

The author’s thoughts and opinions on where the field of forensic DNA testing is headed for the next decade are provided in the context of where the field has come over the past 30 years. Like the Olympic motto of “faster, higher, stronger”, forensic DNA protocols can be expected to become more rapid, sensitive, and provide stronger investigative potential. New short tandem repeat (STR) loci have expanded the core set of genetic markers used for human identification in Europe and the United States. Rapid DNA testing is on the verge of enabling new applications. Next-generation sequencing has the potential to provide greater depth of coverage for information on STR alleles. Familial DNA searching has expanded capabilities of DNA databases in parts of the world where it is allowed. Challenges and opportunities that will impact the future of forensic DNA are explored including the need for education and training to improve interpretation of complex DNA profiles.

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Advances in analytical forensic chemistry

Dr Kenneth G Furton, Florida International University, USA

Abstract

Advances in the analytical forensic sciences have resulted in increasingly lower detection limits, more rapid analysis and greater portability of detection devices. These increased capabilities allow for the improved location of trace evidence but also the detection of the odours associated with forensic traces even if the evidence has been removed. This talk will discuss the challenges in reliably detecting transient odour chemicals and the probative value of detecting the odour chemicals of forensic materials including drugs, explosives, live human scent and the scent of death. The ability to detect the odour chemicals of forensic materials is of great importance to forensic science and as such detection is often crucial to locating a crime scene and pinpointing the source of the odour. While instruments have improved significantly in the past two decades, in most cases the detection capabilities of canines are still superior to electronic sensors for detecting forensic odours. The talk will cover recent advances in improving odour detection by and the standardization efforts that are underway to improve the reliability of odour evidence. Several case studies will be shown where odour evidence has been useful to solve crimes and this novel scientific evidence has been declared reliable in a variety of courts of law including the US Supreme Court. The increased development of best practice guidelines for dogs and sensors should continue to improve their reliability, increase adoption of these methods and expand the use of odour as forensic evidence.

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Imaging and virtual autopsy

Dr Stephan Bolliger, Institute of Forensic Medicine, University of Zurich, Switzerland

Abstract

In forensic medicine, a thorough and clear documentation of findings is essential if the case is to be presented at court.

In order to create a three-dimensional documentation of findings which can be reassessed if necessary by other experts, the research project “Virtopsy®” was launched in the late 1990s. This project combined autopsy results with forensic imaging in the form of computed tomography, magnetic resonance tomography and surface scanning. The success of this project eventually succeeded in convincing the courts in Switzerland to accept these novel methods as evidence. As opposition toward autopsies has grown over the last decades, Virtopsy® also strives to elaborate additional methods which can answer the main forensic questions without autopsy. These methods comprise of post-mortem angiography for illustration of the vascular bed and image-guided tissue and fluid sampling for histological, toxicological and microbiological examinations.

To our opinion, forensic imaging is an objective method which offers the possibility for a reassessment of the findings by other experts, even after burial or cremation of the corpse, thus leading to a greater security at court. Augmented by tissue and fluid sampling as a minimally invasive technique, forensic imaging offers a viable alternative to autopsy in certain cases.

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Chair: Ms Sue Ballou

Ms Sue Ballou, NIST, USA

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Forensic interpretation and development

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Intergrating research into operational practice

Professor Alastair Ross, AM, NIFS, Australia

Abstract

Research and development can be classified into three categories: technology adoption, technology extension and knowledge and technology creation.  In general, technology adoption is embedded in operational forensic science laboratory practice but the latter two categories require partnerships with industry and/or academia both to conduct the research and implement the outcomes.

In a 2012 survey, Australian and New Zealand forensic science laboratories identified a number of ‘roadblocks’ to undertaking research and operationalising research outcomes.  These included insufficient time and funding, a lack of in-house research experience and the absence of a tangible research culture.  

Allied to this is that increasingly, forensic science research is conducted in a ‘commercial in confidence’ environment and the outcomes are not readily, or cost effectively available to be integrated into operational forensic science laboratories.

These issues will be discussed.

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The interface between science and technology; How technology will cause a paradigm shift in the role of forensic institutes in the criminal justice system

Professor Arian van Asten, Netherlands Forensic Institute and University of Amsterdam, Netherlands

Abstract

Technology can be regarded as a vital catalyst in the transition of scientific findings and insights into innovation. Added value of science is materialized through technology enabling society to fully benefit from new discoveries. From this broad and generic perspective it is very interesting to take an in-depth look at the interface between technology and forensic science. Contemporary forensic institutes operate state-of-the-art laboratories were evidence is studied with modern instruments. Without this often high-tech and expensive equipment the forensic expert would not be able to generate the forensic findings that so often are of vital importance to solve a crime. At the Netherlands Forensic Institute a forensic innovation effort is currently undertaken to create new forensic methods that can be broadly applied in the criminal justice system. In bringing forensic science “from the lab to the scene” the added value can be greatly increased especially if field methods do not just generate indicative information but rather robust findings that can directly be used as evidence. The regular use of forensic methodology outside a controlled laboratory environment and by untrained forensic experts requires substantial technological efforts aimed at automated forensic interpretation and minimizing potential operator errors. Wireless communication could form the basis of creating a forensic platform for quality assurance and central analysis of the data gathered by numerous field devices. This technological revolution in forensic science could lead to a paradigm shift in which the role of the forensic expert will change from evidence examiner to developer of evidence analyzers and platforms. In the criminal justice chain this ultimately could lead to a shared interdisciplinary forensic platform. The potential of this new approach in forensic science will be illustrated through three NFI innovation projects; LocalDNA (DNA profiling platform), NFIdent (chemical identification platform for drugs of abuse) and HANSKEN (digital data platform).

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The logical foundations of forensic science - future challenges

Dr Ian Evett, Principal Forensice Services Ltd, UK

Abstract

The generation of observations is a technical process and the advances that have been made in forensic science techniques over the last fifty years have been staggering.  But science is about reasoning – about making sense from observations.  For the forensic scientist this is the challenge of interpreting a pattern of observations within the context of a legal trial.  Here, too, there have been major advances over recent years and there is a broad consensus among serious thinkers, both scientific and legal, that the logical framework is furnished by Bayesian inference.  There are two challenges for future development: the first is that of gaining acceptance in the courts of law for logical scientific reasoning; the second is that of creating a comprehensive framework for the epistemology of forensic science, carrying powerful implications for the nature of forensic expertise.

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Using cognitive neuroscience in forensic science: understanding and utilising the human element

Dr Itiel Dror, UCL, UK

Abstract

The human element plays a critical role in forensic science. It is not limited only to issues relating to forensic decision making, such as bias, but relates to most aspects of forensic work (some even take place before a crime is ever committed or long after the verification of the forensic conclusion). In this talk I explicate many aspects of forensic work that involve the human element and therefore show the relevance (and potential contribution) of cognitive neuroscience to forensic science. The ten aspects are: Proactive forensic science, selection during recruitment, training, crime scene investigation, forensic decision making, verification and conflict resolution, reporting, the role of the forensic examiner, presentation in court, and judicial decisions. As the forensic community is taking on the challenges introduced by the realisation that the human element is critical for forensic work, new opportunities emerge which allow for considerable improvement and enhancement of the forensic science endeavour.

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Chair: Dr Ullar Lanno

Üllar Lanno, European Network of Forensic Science Institutes, Estonia

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Scientific research and the law

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Chair: Dr Daniel Martell

Dr Daniel Martell, American Academy of Forensic Science, USA

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Science and war crimes

Professor Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, International Criminal Court, UK

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New psychoactive substances - catalysing a shift in forensic science practise?

Dr Justice Tettey, UNODC, Austria

Abstract

The analysis of substances of abuse remains one of the most matured areas in forensic science with a strong scientific basis, namely analytical chemistry. The current evolving drug markets, characterised by the global emergence of new psychoactive substances and the need for forensic scientists to identify an unprecedented and ever increasing number of new psychoactive substances, presents a unique challenge to this discipline. This presentation looks at the current situation with new psychoactive substances at the global level and the challenges posed to the otherwise technically robust forensic science discipline of analysis of substances of abuse. It addresses the preparedness of forensic science to deal with the current situation and identifies the need for a shift in forensic science practice, especially one which embraces research and looks beyond normal casework in order to provide the much needed data for developing effective policy responses to the new psychoactive substance problem.

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The legal framework for sounder forensic science evidence

The Rt Hon Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, Lord Chief Justice for England and Wales, UK

Abstract

Scientifically rigorous but accessible forensic science matters in ensuring that the innocent are not convicted of crimes they did not commit and that the perpetrators of serious crimes are brought to justice.  As Forensic evidence has become commonplace, even expected in criminal trials, the public’s faith in forensic science has become an important part of the reality of the way in which our system works.

The credibility of the criminal justice system depends on the quality of the science underpinning the forensic evidence. Both the legal and science communities need to focus on how validated robust forensic data is best communicated to the court and how accessible and pertinent science can be presented to juries so they are able to focus on the evidence in front of them. 

Progress since 2009 has been seen in the form of new criminal procedure rules, practice directions and precedents designed to improve the way in which forensic evidence is approached in the courtroom.  There is, however, still more which can be done and this speech will explore the case for the introduction of “technical primers” in areas where there is consensus amongst the scientific community, assisting juries with the basics so they are free to deal with the evidence.

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Forensic science, criminal justice and Doctor Faustus

Professor Paul Roberts, University of Nottingham, UK

Abstract

Expert evidence has been presented in common law criminal trials for many centuries. In modern times, innovation in forensic science has greatly facilitated criminal prosecutions, and expanded the law’s reliance on expert testimony. The law’s relationship with scientific proof is complex and multifaceted, but in the final analysis must answer to the dictates of justice. This is first and foremost a matter of political morality: justice requires due process, transparency, legitimate authority and respect for fundamental human rights, not merely accurate fact-finding.

For all its undoubted epistemic power, there are also some very well-documented risks and problems associated with relying on scientific evidence as a basis for verdicts in criminal trials. Forensic science has been implicated in many high profile miscarriages of justice over the last several decades. There is, by now, a surfeit of diagnosis – we know, more or less, what tends to go wrong when mistakes are made – but limited useful prescription for reform. Courts in England and Wales are currently grappling with these fundamental challenges, not always entirely successfully. In the meantime, continuing to rely on scientific evidence known to be questionable or flawed, if not downright unreliable, begins to resemble a Faustian pact for our criminal justice system.

This talk identifies the structural dynamics of our present existential predicament and canvasses practical options for institutional salvation.

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The paradigm shift for UK forensic science The Royal Society, London 6-9 Carlton House Terrace London SW1Y 5AG UK