SciBlogs

The CSI effect – it’s still going…but changing shape? Anna Sandiford Dec 17

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Here is a link to an article on Stuff.co.nz today that deals with the CSI effect: TV shows having an influence on juries. As you will see, I added my two pennarth to it.

In my experience over the last 12 months, as a phenomenon the CSI effect raises less questions at presentations and lectures I give than it used to. In NZ at least. Most questions these days seems to revolve around the theme of “I know it’s not like it is on TV so what are the limitations of expert evidence?” I find this to be a pretty informed question and suggests that the initial rush of belief in TV programmes has now been met with some people who are thinking to question it. These are the sorts of people we want on juries.

Expert evidence: can we learn from others? Anna Sandiford Dec 17

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One of the hardest things to do in life seems to be to learn from the mistakes of others.  For example, when learning to drive (“mirror, signal, manoeuvre” has been devised for good reason, not, as young male relatives seems to think, just so older people can tell younger people what to do and then say “told you so”).

Allowing people to give evidence in court as experts is another example where we can learn from others.  England and Wales recognised a long time ago that expert witness evidence and experts themselves were far from perfect: think back to the days of the West Midlands Police Flying Squad and the Birmingham Six and the development of the Forensic Science Service so as to separate forensic scientists from the Police.  There have still been problem cases since then such as R v Dallagher (earprint evidence) and problem experts.

The Ministry of Justice in England and Wales has recently published its response to the Law Commission’s report “Expert evidence in criminal proceedings in England and Wales”.  Of the 22 recommendations made by the people who know what it is like to do the job on the ground (i.e. those who provided comments to the Law Commission), the Ministry has accepted five – for a government department that is probably not a bad acceptance rate, but what have they accepted?

Recommendation 8. “We recommend that primary legislation should provide that expert evidence is admissible in criminal proceedings only if:

(1) the court is likely to require the help of an expert witness; and
(2) it is proved on the balance of probabilities that the individual claiming expertise is qualified to give such evidence.”
Recommendation 9. “We also recommend that this legislation should provide that expert evidence is inadmissible if there is a significant risk that the expert has not complied with, or will not comply with, his or her duty to provide objective and unbiased evidence, unless the court is nevertheless satisfied that it is in the interests of justice to admit the evidence.”

Pretty basic stuff you’d think but only now is this being formalised in legislation in the UK.  Does NZ need something as explicit as this?  I think so, but the perception in NZ seems to be that there is case law to cover such concerns and that expert evidence is generally of a sufficient standard; we are apparently a pretty good self-regulating bunch. 

Personally I think that as a minimum the NZ High Court Code of Conduct for Expert Witnesses should be compulsory in the criminal court as it is in the civil arena – I see so many reports that don’t meet the standards but it’s not compulsory so is hit-and-miss if there is a challenge in court.

But what would I know?  I’m just an expert witness with 15 years’ experience in the criminal court systems of three jurisdictions and a smattering of knowledge about international standards.

What is a standard alcoholic drink? Anna Sandiford Nov 06

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What IS a standard alcoholic drink?  It’s a nightmare, that’s what it is.  As a forensic alcohol toxicologist, the concept of a standard drink is somewhat arbitrary and inconsistent because the people drinking them differ in physical stature and biological processing ability so the alcohol in a standard drink contributes a different amount to people of different genders, heights and weights.

A standard measure of spirit in New Zealand contains 70 ml (because they usually serve them as a double measure).  Jim Beam contains 40% alcohol by volume.  70 ml of Jim beam contains 22.12 g of alcohol.  If a standard drink contains 10 g alcohol then 70 ml Jim Beam contains just over two standard drinks.  That’s the easy bit.

It gets difficult when considering what that alcohol would contribute to a 58 kg, 168 cm woman’s blood alcohol concentration or a 95 kg, 183 cm man.  The answer for the woman is approximately 69 mg alcohol/100 ml blood.  For the man it is approximately 34 mg alcohol/100 ml blood (maximum figures, assuming no metabolism).

How then to convert a standard drink into suggested drinking levels for the public as a whole?  Fraught with difficulty.  I understand the need to give people a measure they can understand, but smaller, lighter people need to be more wary of ‘standard drink’ suggestions.  As do people who don’t drink often, people whose liver function is impaired, people who metabolise alcohol at a lower than average rate (which you can’t tell by looking at someone) – the list goes on.

Once again, be aware and if in doubt, don’t drink and drive…

 

 

Don’t forget: breath alcohol levels continue to rise after you stop drinking! Anna Sandiford Nov 06

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I have just been watching Campbell Live where the presenters had a two-hour lunch with alcoholic drinks and then tested themselves with a breath alcohol screening device to see how they felt to drive compared with what alcohol they had actually consumed.  This is all as a result of the government’s (good, in my opinion) idea to lower the drink drive level from 80 mg alcohol/100 ml blood to 50 (which is from 400 microlitres of alcohol per litre of breath down to 250).  My main agreement with this is based on the level of impairment people experience at 80 compared with the generally lesser impairment they feel at 50.

There are three points that also need to be taken into account here (they may have been covered before but let’s go over them again):

1.  Drinking alcohol after eating slows down alcohol absorption.  This means that the resulting blood (and therefore breath) alcohol concentration will be lower than if the person had consumed the same alcohol on an empty stomach.  It is all well and good to say that a person had a meal when they were drinking – but if they drank any alcohol at all prior to eating (and assuming they hadn’t eaten in the few hours beforehand) then that alcohol consumed on an empty stomach will absorb quicker than the alcohol consumed after the meal is started.  Net result: the person will feel the effects of those pre-dinner drinks quicker than if they had waited until after they had started eating before they started drinking alcohol.  Aperitifs are not necessarily a good thing…

2.  As with many of these media demonstrations of alcohol consumption and breath testing, the Campbell Live demonstration showed people drinking and then testing themselves within minutes.  This is reasonably representative of what people do – they finish their drink and then may drive straight away.  The important thing to remember here is that it takes (on average) between 30 minutes and an hour (sometimes longer) for all alcohol consumed to be absorbed into the bloodstream.  What that means in real life is that a person’s blood and breath alcohol levels continue to rise in the time after they stopped drinking – which may be the time they are driving.  If they are soon stopped by the Police or involved in a road traffic incident then they may find their breath alcohol level is higher when they are stopped that it was when they were at the pub.

3.  A person often feels more drunk as their blood alcohol level is rising than they do when they are sobering up – you can have a blood alcohol concentration of 80 on the way to 120 and feel more drunk on the way up to 120 than when you are coming back down to 80 after having achieved 120.  This is referred to as the Mellanby Effect.

 

Overall, I think the reduction is good news for a country with a social alcohol drinking issue – but remember the above.  And, if in doubt, don’t drink and drive!

 

Children and mud: mutually exclusive?! Anna Sandiford Nov 05

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At risk of sounding like an old person, I still have to ask at what point did children become allergic to outdoor entertainment involving mud, rain and a stick?  I ask this seemingly inane question as the result of a school trip to the local beach on which I was a parent supervisor recently.

We walked less than 10 minutes from the school playground, through a small coastal reserve and down a track to the beach which is largely sand, shells and some mud.  The whole walk took 15 minutes, tops.  On that short trip I heard a variety of complaints from the children.  This is a selection, along with my thoughts compared with my actual responses:

Child: “Why isn’t there a hand rail?”

My thought: Are you serious?? It’s a mild slope through some plants.  How hard can it be?

My response: “Because there is no need for one.”

 

Child: “It smells.”

My thought:  Good God – do you never go out??

My response: ” That is the smell of fresh air and the sea, some of the most natural smells on earth.  Isn’t is lovely?”

 

Child: “I can’t walk down here, my shoes will get dirty.”

My thought: Ah.  Another child whose parent/s tell them not to get their clothes or shoes dirty or to touch anything outside because it’s ‘dirty’.

My response: “That’s why you’re wearing gum boots – you can wash them when you get home.”

 

Child: “I’m so tired.  Why is it so far away?”

My thought: Yes, you clearly never get any exercise.  You are a prime example of why children in New Zealand are obese as adults.  Why do your parents never take you outside?

My response: “We can see the school gate from here – it’s not really very far, is it?”

 

Child: “I never knew there was a beach near here.”
My thought: For @#$%’s sake!  We are at a coastal location; there’s not a house round here that can’t see the coast.  Even if this kid lives further inland, you can see the sea FROM THE SCHOOL PLAYGROUND!!!”

My response: “How about you ask your parents to take you here again at the weekend?”

 

Child: “What’s all this dirt on the beach?  I hate it.  I want to go back to class.”

My thought: That, dear boy, is sand, shells and mud that form a significant part of the rock cycle.  You know, the cycle that produces rocks from which roads and houses and schools are built.  The beach is a significant environmental zone that I KNOW you studied last year – clearly only in theory.  What is wrong with these children??

My response: “That is sand, mud and shells.  It’s what you get on beaches.  Have never been to a beach before?  No?!” [speechless - this child is 8 and has been here since he was 3]

 

My child was one of the only ones who happily skipped up and down the coastal path, pointed at plants and flowers, wanted to get in the stream, climbed a tree, picked up shells and, her favourite trick, turned over rocks on the beach and at appropriate times yelled “CRABS!!” at the top of her voice.  Always amusing for the adults, that one.

Overall though I left the school trip feeling decidedly jaded that although the school curriculum teaches children about environmental matters, many of them have no real understanding or experience of actually being outside where the environmental stuff is all happening.  It’s very sad.  But on the up-side, I don’t feel like such a bad parent because my children aren’t scared of dirt and they love to stand in the rain in their school uniforms, catching raindrops on their tongues.

And I let them.

 

 

 

 

 

How not to apply for a job/research position/other future career role Anna Sandiford Oct 18

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We receive a regular flow of email requests from science students around the world enquiring about how they can become forensic scientists.  That’s all good – if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

What irritates me immensely is the clearly haphazard and unthinking approach that is so immensely common throughout those from people who are clearly mass-emailing lots of companies using the scatter-gun method.  It seems to be a basic approach by anyone under the age of 25 to send off random emails without any need for use of phrases such as ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ or even something along the lines of ‘I appreciate that you must be busy running a company’.  Many of them clearly haven’t checked that our company is relevant to the enquiry they are making – many times it isn’t.  It’s like they think I am just sitting here waiting to respond to poorly written, unstructured, random emails that have spelling mistakes, no punctuation and no capitalisation.

Here is a news flash: employers judge potential employees by many means, including the written word and the ability to try to communicate well and considerately with a range of people.  I, for one, would not employ any of the people who have written any of the following to me:

1.  how do i apply for a master’s thesis project?  My suggestion: look for a company that is advertising them.  Failing that, write a proper letter or at least an email structured like a proper letter.  Make the effort to address to an actual person.  Use some capital letters and say please and thank you.

2.  will I get a job in forensic science if i do a double major in science?  My suggestion: maybe.  Depends on the subjects, your grades and whether you want to do the job at the end of your training.  Say please and thank you.

3.  can i send you some questions for my inquiry topic at school?  i need the answers by tuesday.  My suggestion: don’t email me the Friday before.  Say please and thank you.

4.  And the final one, which is a variation on a theme:  i need a hair/DNA/urine/other random body fluid sample collecting – can you come and do it?  My suggestion:  find a collector closer to you because it’s a long way from Iowa/Manchester/other place in the northern hemisphere to New Zealand – get a map out.  Say please and thank you.

I am always happy to interact with people who are polite and take the time to find out my name and where in the world we are based and put together a well thought out communication but I think I have reached the end of my patience with people who don’t think before they send.

A Criminal Cases Review Commission for NZ? Anna Sandiford Oct 17

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On the back of the Lundy case, there has been some discussion in the last week about whether or not New Zealand should consider having an independent organisation to assess potential miscarriages of justice, similar to the English Criminal Cases Review Commission. It’s not the first time the suggestion has been mooted: several other high-profile cases have been named that could have benefited.

It is important to remember that the current system we have in NZ means that the best chance to test the factual basis of the Crown case and therefore the police investigation is prior to the first trial. Once that first trial has been completed, the options for review of a case start to narrow considerably. The hurdle to get an appeal is very high; for example, a point of law might need to be in contention but in many cases it is not the law that is the problem, it is what was accepted by the court as the sound factual basis of the case.

The ‘new evidence’ hurdle is very difficult to overcome. In many cases, there is no ‘new evidence’ as such, just evidence presented at the first trial that was not, for whatever reason, fully tested – this does not usually meet the new evidence test because it was known at the time of the first trial, regardless of whether or not it formed a substantial plank of the Crown case or whether or not the defence chose to test it.

Any organisation that is established to consider review of any criminal cases needs to take into account that the initial errors in a case may not be the result of an incorrect legal interpretation or new evidence coming to light in the time after the initial trial. It may be that the original investigation and/or science was not done well enough and the ‘factual’ basis of the case was not properly tested in court.

Let’s also not forget that the current process requires financial and time commitment of individuals representing the person who believes a miscarriage of justice has occurred. There is often no funding for the most difficult stages of the assessment: the independent assessment of the police investigation and the Crown case; I know from experience that this will suck hundreds of hours just trying to obtain and then make sense of thousands of pages of documents from different sources. It also requires a mass of knowledge and expertise that is not usually known to anyone outside the criminal legal system – I’ve been doing this work for 15 years and I’m still learning.

Any organisation to assess these types of cases therefore needs to have a broader view than just an assessment of the legal process a case followed; the non-legal matters are often the key but the financial and personal toll these cases take on individuals investigating them cannot be understated.

Filming a real murder accused’s conviction Anna Sandiford Jul 02

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A brief post this one about a British Channel 4 production that recorded a 6 week murder trial and its outcome:

“The dramatic moment in which a man is convicted of arranging the murder of his wife and then disposing of her body will be broadcast on television next week.

A documentary crew working for Channel 4 followed the six-week retrial of Nat Fraser at the High Court in Edinburgh in 2012. Using six remotely controlled miniature cameras positioned around the courtroom, film-makers were able to achieve extraordinary close-ups of the defendant, judge, advocates and witnesses as the evidence in one of Scotland’s most notorious and baffling cases was played out.”

What does NZ think about this? Is this a step too far? Who gets final say on what is shown to the viewing public? Does this really provide the education that the public needs? Is it ever possible to convey how slow court proceedings appear compared with TV, which is one comment I commonly hear from people who have served on juries? Would such filing access have assisted in high-profile, controversial cases to make them less controversial?

Robin Bain finger marks Anna Sandiford Jun 27

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Many people may have seen 3rd Degree on Wednesday night about the marks on Robin Bain’s thumb and forefinger as recorded in two crime scene photographs. Earlier this year I spent a morning with Police and ESR staff and some of the defence team during the testing of the murder weapon by Robbie Tiffen and Richard Munt; my thumb is shown in three of the images that appeared in the NZHerald yesterday.

As this matter is still in progress there is not too much that I am able to say about it. However, I note from the Herald Online this evening the following photographs.  The one on the left is Robin Bain’s hand at the scene; the one on the right is apparently his digit print taken during the autopsy:

Many people will use the above two images to draw conclusions.   I would advise caution in this regard:

1.  The orientation of the print taken at autopsy (at right) is not the same orientation as the hand at the scene (at left).

2.  There is an absence of information in the Herald article regarding the print so the assumption will generally be made that the print from autopsy is presented the correct way round but this has not been confirmed: N.B.  when prints are taken, they are a mirror image of how they appear on the digit’s actual surface.

3.  Prints collected at autopsy are not always as good in terms of detail as they would have been when the subject was alive.

 

Are all drownings accidental? Are too many fires arson? Anna Sandiford Mar 18

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What if not all drownings are accidental?  An ABC article asks this question and raises some interesting points about how investigators deal with bodies found on land and those found in water.

“Bodies found in water are treated very differently from bodies found on land, for example there is not a county in this country [USA] that would take a body in a field and drag it a couple hundred feet before they put it in a body bag and transport it out. It would never happen,” said investigator Andrea Zafares.   “What we have been teaching around the world is to treat a body with the exact same standards that you would treat a body on land; that requires training,” she said. What we can take from that is that bodies recovered from water will routinely be dragged before being bagged.

This is an interesting thought, particularly as New Zealand is surrounded by water and has many waterways.  There are well-documented ways to distinguish drownings from bodies being dumped in water (such as analysis of internal organs for the presence of diatoms) – although this doesn’t necessarily tell you if the person was deliberately drowned, only if the cause of death could have been drowning. Good scene examination and thorough recording from the scene to the time the body arrives at the mortuary will help investigators and experts identify the information of interest.  To my knowledge, New Zealand does not yet have a well-established and regularly used specialist team of experts who can advise on the best way to recover human remains from unusual settings (such as sand graves or water bodies); this job tends to be done by police officers whereas input from specialists should increase recovery of potential evidence.

What I also found interesting in the ABC article is the first line of the penultimate paragraph: “When there is a deadly fire, trained arson detectives are called in.” What’s interesting about that is that they have chosen to reference an are of investigation that has become very controversial in the past decade or so. Of all areas of forensic investigation, fires is one that has undergone very close scrutiny because many preconceived ideas about whether or not fires are arson have been successfully challenged; the case of Cameron Todd Willingham springs to mind, a case in which Mr Willingham was executed for arson (his children died in the fire) but since that time, the findings of the original fire investigators have been robustly challenged and called into question. The National Fire Protection Association reported that between 1999 and 2011 there was a national drop in the USA from approximately 15% to 8% of fires being identified as arson – this apparent drop seems attributed to better understanding of fire dynamics and that fires previously identified as arson are now being determined to be non-intentional. The figures for Massachussetts are more impressive: from 1984 to 2001, the number of structure fires ruled arson fell more than 70 percent, while total structure fires remained largely stable. In 1984, roughly 10,600 structures caught fire and investigators ruled 2,133 arson; in 2001, there were about 10,200 structure fires, of which 618 were ruled arson.

Water or fire – it pays to investigate as well as possible and to be aware that science develops and crime scene practices change. Nothing stays the same.

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