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This is the future of forensic science

With the advance of technology and our understanding of DNA evidence, forensic science is making all kinds of things possible for crime scene investigators. But is human error holding us back?

Since the first time fingerprint evidence was used to solve a gruesome double-murder more than a century ago, the DNA revolution has been the single greatest advance in forensic science.

The technologies that underpin forensic techniques have become increasingly sophisticated in recent years, allowing investigators to do things they couldn’t have even imagined mere decades ago.

But for every case cracked by a key piece of DNA evidence, there are countless others where it’s virtually impossible to quantify the impact of forensic science on the outcome of the investigation and trial.

By the early 2000s, agencies funding highly expensive forensic services started asking the question, “We know the science is good, but are we using it in the best way possible to get to the truth?”

Professor Roberta Julian from the University of Tasmania is one of Australia’s leading scholars in police studies, and has earned an international reputation for her critical analysis of the ‘human’ side of forensic science.

Because, after all, that’s where the errors and inefficiencies tend to creep in.

“Very little research had been done to look at whether forensic science is actually effective, beyond the technology,” says Professor Julian, Director of the Tasmanian Institute of Law Enforcement Studies (TILES).

“The question was more about the training, the social processes in the laboratories, the communication between people – we wanted to know if all of that was producing effective outcomes.”

Tracing the human errors

Shortly after a decision by the US National Institute of Justice in 2005 to initiate this “entirely new line of research”, Professor Julian was asked to head up Australia’s first nationally funded social science research project on the role of forensic science in the criminal justice system.

Launched in 2008 and funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), the five-year project brought together – for the first time in Australia – a multi-disciplinary team of social scientists, legal and economic researchers, state and federal police agencies, forensic science practitioners, and intelligence experts from Australian and international universities.

The aim – set out by the Australian Federal Police, the Victoria Police, and the National Institute of Forensic Science – was to analyse the key social processes that were either supporting or hindering the effectiveness of forensic science in our criminal justice system.

And they traced everything – from crime scene to courtroom.

“There were questions around: ‘Are crime scene examiners properly trained?’ and ‘What are the decision-making processes that affect which traces they decide to collect at a crime scene?’” says Professor Julian.

“We had questions around the timeliness of the whole forensic process, such as: ‘What are the most effective processes for determining which analyses to do first, second, and third?’ For example, if you do a DNA analysis on a fingerprint first, then you’re going to lose the information to do a fingerprint analysis.”

Another major focus for the team, which included University of Tasmania researchers Professor Rob White from Criminology and Dr Hugh Sibly from Economics, was around how well police officers and detectives understood the science that underpins complex forensic techniques – particularly in the rapidly advancing area of genetics.

About the researchers 

Professor Rob White

Rob White is a Professor of criminology, with a particular interest in green criminology. He has pioneered the field internationally and has written seven books on the topic. He is Director of the Criminology Research Unit, Academic Director of the Centre for Applied Youth Research (CAYR), and a member of the Tasmanian Sentencing Advisory Council. His research is focused on social and ecological justice, criminology and youth studies. He collaborates internationally on transnational law enforcement. He is also interested in innovative justice, particularly restorative justice, rehabilitation and desistance from crime.

Dr Hugh Sibly

Dr Hugh Sibly is a senior lecturer in Economics at the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics. He teaches in the areas of industrial organisation, game theory and microeconomics. His research interests are in experimental/behaviour economics, urban water markets and industrial organisation. 

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