The quest for truth in criminal investigations resembles scientific inquiry in many ways. Both fields involve gathering information, forming hypotheses and conducting tests to verify those hypotheses. This methodical approach is not only crucial to real-world justice systems but also integral to the narrative of fictional detectives like Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes, for instance, used his chemical knowledge to detect poisons, a method that mirrors enduring forensic techniques. Similarly, Dr John Evelyn Thorndyke, another fictional creation, leveraged his medical expertise as a pathologist to uncover hidden aspects of crimes using pioneering techniques such as X-ray imaging.

Despite the widespread fascination with forensic science, spurred by the popularity of true crime in media, its practical application reveals significant flaws. The reliability of forensic science in accurately identifying suspects and exonerating the innocent is increasingly questioned. Holmes might argue that science is the solution to crime-solving mysteries, yet real-world complexities suggest a more nuanced reality.

Current forensic science faces the dual challenge of refining scientific methods and enhancing their understanding among legal professionals, including judges and jurors.

Current forensic science faces the dual challenge of refining scientific methods and enhancing their understanding among legal professionals, including judges and jurors

Despite some scepticism, advancements in forensic methods have significantly improved the fairness and accuracy of the criminal justice system. The introduction of DNA evidence in the 1990s, for instance, has overturned numerous wrongful convictions and has become essential in solving high-profile cases, such as that of the Golden State Killer. However, this technique faces challenges, particularly with small DNA samples.

Research is also ongoing to improve eyewitness testimony. Innovative approaches being tested include conducting photo line-ups where the administrator is unaware of the suspect’s identity, thereby reducing bias.

Another method involves showing photos in pairs, asking witnesses which resembles the suspect more rather than showing multiple headshots simultaneously, to lessen witness bias. These strategies aim to enhance the accuracy of identifying suspects, crucial for achieving justice.

These efforts underscore a fundamental issue: the need to reconcile the court’s demand for certainty with the intrinsic uncertainties of scientific evidence. This highlights the ongoing challenge of integrating rigorous scientific analysis into a judicial system that often expects definitive conclusions, despite the complexities of the science involved.

Mohamed Daoud is a public engagement expert.

Sound Bites

•        Accurate ‘time of death’ estimates are a mainstay of murder mysteries and forensic programmes, but such calculations in the real world are often complex and imprecise. In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers have discovered a group of common microbes that work together specifically to decompose flesh. These microorganisms serve as a biological clock and allow scientists to investigate the post-mortem breakdown of tissue with unprecedented precision.

•        If forensic experts have access to a suspect’s gun, they can compare the microscopic markings from discarded shell casings with those found at a crime scene. Finding and reporting a mismatch can help free the innocent, just as a match can incriminate the guilty. But new research reveals mismatches are more likely than matches to be reported as ‘inconclusive’ in cartridge-case comparisons.

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•        Fingerprints were first systematically used in Argentina in 1892 by police officer Juan Vucetich. This was the first recorded use of fingerprints to solve a crime.

•        The age and type of insects found on a dead body can help forensic scientists estimate the time of death. This field of study is known as forensic entomology.

•        Forensic science isn’t just about physical evidence. Digital forensics involves the recovery and investigation of material found in digital devices, often playing a crucial role in solving crimes involving digital communications and transactions.

•        Forensic odontologists can identify victims from their dental records or bite-mark analysis. This method was crucial in convicting serial killer Ted Bundy.

•        AI is being used to automate and enhance the analysis of large volumes of evidence, such as fingerprints and DNA sequences, speeding up investigations while reducing human error?

•        ‘CSI effect’: this phenomenon describes how popular crime shows like CSI have influenced public expectations and understanding of forensic science, sometimes creating unrealistic expectations about the speed and decisiveness of forensic evidence in real courtrooms.

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