Return of Forensic Scientist!

By Anna Sandiford 18/12/2012

I read with shame that my last post was mid August.  That means it’s been four months since I last wrote a post and therefore four months where I have felt a pang of guilt on a nearly daily basis about not having written something, particularly when there was something on which I had a view.  I could bore you with the reasons but I won’t because they are the same as usual: work – too much unpaid and not enough paid.

It has been an eventful year from my perspective.  There have been some major criminal trials in which science played a significant part, those of George Gwaze and Ewan Macdonald featured high on the media hit list. We were also involved in many interesting cases that didn’t hit the major headlines, including Shanal Kumar – that was an interesting case because it dealt with aspects of polymer science and engineering that are not commonly encountered. 

I also belatedly agree wholeheartedly with Jonathan Temm’s comments about television in court rooms: in brief, in my opinion, it should be an all-or-nothing approach; either screen the whole trial or nothing at all. Allowing the media to choose which sections to air without indicating if the pieces they show are in correct chronological order or if there are any restrictions on filming (both of these issues were in the Bain retrial of 2009) is not helpful to the public. Generating emotion around trials is not helpful to the legal/justice process. I may blog about this further if there is any interest in my comments.

Onto a subject where I can give comment: here are some highlights of the 25 (mostly unpaid) presentations I gave this year.  This is briefer than my first draft because the University of Auckland computer on which I drafted this post crashed and didn’t save two-thirds of it and I just don’t have time to re-do it.  Anyway:

Presentation to 600 Girls Into Science students over two days.  Best question: if you knew then what you know now [i.e. that I would decide at the age of 30 that I didn’t want a job in academia and I didn’t want to work in geology despite 8 years at uni], would you still have done a PhD?  This took me by total surprise, having just answered questions about whether I see dead bodies every day or the grisly case in which I’ve ever been involved.  Also, I had never thought about it before.  The answer was eventually yes, because it taught me a way of thinking and analysing data that is invaluable for my current day job.  Plus when it comes to giving evidence it helps to have a PhD because of how things often play out in the arena that is the court room.

Most surprising audience: Howick Probus Club.  I was apprehensive about giving a presentation to them because at another retired men’s club at which I have spoken, half of the audience fell asleep (it was 10.30am) and the President congratulated me because only half of them fell asleep; some poor speaker on a previous occasion had had an audience member die during their talk.  Howick Probus however had an extremely interesting audience (reitired district court judge, retired Rhodesian police officer and a sprinkling of retired lawyers and NZ police officers) and we had a great post-talk discussion about impartiality of experts.  And no-one died.

Audience members I struggle to understand: the parents who didn’t tell me they had brought a 9 year old child to my night-time presentation and allowed him to sit through an hour of talk about blood, gore amd murder aimed at an adult audience.   If he had nightmares then they only have themselves to blame.

Most mixed response audience: LENScience students aged about 16 attending the Liggins Institute to see what it’s like to be a scientist.  Most of them were great and managed to look at me on at least one occasion.  The ones who made me question why I bother are the ones who looked out of the window or spun around on their chairs when I was talking and then when I asked if they had any questions looked at me like I asked them to put their pants on their heads.  It’s like blood from a stone.  Apathy from hormones or just thinking a school trip is a doss?  I can’t wait til they’re parents….

Place I’m least likely to be asked back to speak next year: the place where they were teaching forensic science to intermediate students but when I asked “what does the word ‘forensic’ mean?” not one student knew; they didn’t even hazard a guess.  With hindsight I realise embarrassed teachers may have contributed to the stony silence that followed my question; needless to say the following 40 minutes were touch-and-go.

Supreme Winner – most persistent audience member: the elderly lady who, five minutes into my presentation, projectile-vomited down her dress and across the floor.  Rather than going home she sat in the front row for the following 45 minutes with a bucket, just in case.

This computer is not happy, so I leave it there with a promise to try to blog more often (once I’ve finished writing that 75,000-word book that I’m doing…).

0 Responses to “Return of Forensic Scientist!”

  • And that’s the biggest danger with televised trials… The audience at home only sees a brief (and unrepresentative) snapshot of what really goes on at a trial.

    That snapshot influences public opinion, which in turn sometimes affects the direction of future legislation — and all based on a ten-second segment on the evening news.