Honesty in forensic science, Gary Bowering

By Anna Sandiford 02/08/2011

When the science changes in such as way as to lower the validity of the original conclusion, should the forensic scientist be proactive in declaring this to impacted parties (as opposed to leaving it to defence lawyers to discover and act upon as they see fit)?

Well, Gary Bowering, my take on it is that the forensic scientist absolutely has a duty to advise the court when something affects their interpretation so as to alter their overall conclusions. In fact, there is a standard phrase that we put in all our reports that runs something along the lines of “My opinion has been prepared on the basis of information provided to me. If such information should change or additional information becomes available it may be necessary for me to revise my findings and conclusions.”

At the end of the day, lawyers are there to deal with the law; forensic scientists are there to deal with the science and it shouldn’t be left to defence lawyers (or prosecutors, come to that) to dig around to see if, on the off-chance, they can find anything amiss with the other side’s expert’s work.  One of the basic rules of examining witnesses is never to ask a question to which you don’t know the answer.

Many times I hear lawyers say how they hated science at school and how having to deal with forensic scientists makes them go cold at the thought – it has to be the duty of the expert to deal with the science and its meaning.  Of course, the reason that independent forensic scientists like me advocate for review of all science being presented in court is so that we can pick up problems like changes in findings that haven’t been notified to the court – not all scientists are transparent about what they do and there are also accidental errors and omissions – we are human after all.

Following on from that are the various requirements of professional organisations such as The Academy of Experts (their Model Form of Experts Report, for example), the Forensic Science Society of the UK (Vision and Values) and Australia/New Zealand (Code of Ethics) to name but a few.

In England and Wales, Part 33.2 (3) of the Criminal Procedure Rules indicates that the expert’s “…duty includes an obligation to inform all parties and the court if the expert’s opinion changes from that contained in a report served as evidence or given in a statement.” The work of the Forensic Science Regulator on Codes of Practice and Conduct and the European Network of Forensic Science Institutes involves a hefty degree of focus on the expert’s obligation to the court and advising of how scientific findings may have changed during the course of a case.

Any expert who doesn’t follow these guidelines shouldn’t be in the job.  Keeping evidence from the court is definitely not the way to go.


0 Responses to “Honesty in forensic science, Gary Bowering”

  • Dose this mean that a working forensic scientist will gradually accumulate a portfolio of old cases that need to be reviewed periodically to ensure that the conclusions are still valid in light of the current scientific understanding?

    Would you be looking at the details of a case 10 years from now and deciding that the results may be suspect after all?

  • Science advances and things change – you just have to look at the cases that are being resolved through cold case hits with DNA and low template DNA. People are exonerated and also convicted on the basis of new techniques.
    Yes, I believe forensic scientists should always bear in mind that things might change with time so that we need might to review past cases. This is why many police forces have Cold Case teams. Admittedly this is to see if they can solve unsolved cases but it also works for ones where there may have been some dissatisfaction about the outcome of a given case.
    It is, I believe, the responsibility of the forensic scientist to retain an open mind about the evolution of science. Forensic science is no different from other areas of science – things change, science is not static and it is a mistake to think that forensic science is static – at the end of the day, forensic science is just science in the court.
    Forensic scientists have to be some way behind research scientists in application of techniques because methods presented in court must be proven; it is not a testing ground.
    Changes in forensic science won’t apply in all cases; in fact, it is likely to only be a small percentage.
    Who knows what scientific technique might come along and revolutionise the way cases have been and will be investigated?

  • Thanks Anna – an enlightening response. Interesting that lawyers often say they hate science. While doing my BSc many years ago I had spare time (well, I thought I did!) and took Law 101. I rather enjoyed it. I doubt I would have liked much of the later and more-specific courses though.