Crime labs have been considered to be a vital organ of the justice system as they are the strongest link between technology and criminal justice. The courts have been known to rely heavily on the expert opinion and results of the examinations during criminal trials. It is therefore very important and necessary that these crime labs work to the fullest of their potential and that there is no hindrance or control on the way they function as to ensure that justice and equality prevail. It is worthwhile to be noted that, in most of the countries, crime labs and counter-terrorism units have been functioning together to curb the menace of crimes using the latest technology. Newer upgrades in investigation technology have a great potential to predict how crimes will be instigated in future and also in conceiving protective methods for the same.
Relationship between the crime labs and government agencies
The forensic laboratories provide the analytical results which forms the basis on which the prosecution build their cases. Forensic labs and the criminal justice system share a symbiotic relationship, which starts right away from the collection of evidence from the crime scene and ends in court at trial. The relationship between the lab and the police has a great importance because the efficiency of the latter defines the veracity of the former to ensure accuracy in the subsequent examination of the exhibits. The investigation has to be proper and adequate, right from the grass root levels. The authorized investigators should be equipped with all the necessary knowledge as to how to handle the most minute piece of evidence. An organized and objective hierarchy of processing evidence is necessary to ensure that the analysis of every evidence remains unbiased. The proximity in which the crime labs and the police work develops a collegial relationship, which subconsciously might influence the results of analysis. The police may have a considerable effect on the practices of laboratory examiner. There are few psychological sways too, which are inevitable in a crime resolving mechanism leading to prejudices exhibited by the experts in various forms.
Partisan bias occurs when the person is biased and wants a side to win because of the influence of peers who share the same bias. In our case, it means the crime lab experts’ tendency to favour the prosecution. However, it is always said that emotions should not slide over the sphere of law. The emotional aspects tend to develop unstated assumptions which might be damaging for the person making the judgement. A very famous case is of Fred Zain, an organic chemistry scholar who was also an expert witness in West Virginia State Crime Laboratory. Zain was not a qualified investigator who could do all the analysis himself, it is believed that around 182 identified cases might have been affected by his work. Also, it is believed that he gave perjured testimony for prosecution which led to conviction of many innocent people. This acted as a precedent as to why the sanctity of the evidence analysis should be protected between a criminal justice system and the forensic department.
Another type of bias that can compromise a fair trial arises when a person’s perception of his work and role tends to influence his decisions. That is the reason that many scientists at the state laboratory tend to see their role not as that of just a scientist but as a member of crime fighting squad whose ultimate aim is to make sure that the accused is found guilty.
In his book called ‘Tainting Evidence’, John Kelly reveals about the compromised forensic work in cases like the Oklahoma City bombing, World Trade Centre explosion etc. The book also talks about inaccurate testimony, testimony beyond the competence of examiners, improperly prepared laboratory reports, inadequate record management and retention, and failure to resolve serious and credible allegations of incompetence. The said bias has not only trapped the police in its garb but has influenced the evidence experts too. Prosecutors have also been found to influence and force the experts to give a testimony in their favour. In the case of Troedel v. Wainwright, it was found that the FBI firearm expert, John Riley admitted in his deposition that the opinion stated earlier incriminating David Troedel, was devoid of scientific certainty and he was coerced to be in the favour of the prosecution. This is not a one-off incident. Between 1989-1999 at the US Department of Justice and Homeland Security, malpractices conducted by the investigating and forensic personnel led to 329 wrongful convictions. Having a defined system of accountability and delegation of responsibility could have avoided the catastrophic results.
Hindrances in the forensic mechanism
In all the major cases, courts have heavily relied on the expert evidence and its veracity in front of various juries. Keeping the same in mind, the judicial authorities have pulled up the investigating agencies for being too “casual” with their conduct and accumulating and depositing exhibits and any improvement has been hardly exhibited. According to experts, there is a clear lack of coordination between forensic science laboratories (FSLs) and police. They say sometimes the evidence does not even reach the FSL on time, or doesn’t get tested on time. So, the proof of a crime is destroyed which subsequently leads to failure of justice.
On the other hand, a source from the National Anti-Doping Agency (Headquarters in Delhi) acclaimed that the exhibits after their collection take a lot of time to reach the laboratory. On an average, a regular report takes 6 months to be drafted and reported. The personnel also asserts that more the time a report takes, the more it is prone to undergo obliterations and discrepancies. He further added that crime labs should be a lot more considerate about the impact a particular evidence has in a case, and careful and wary towards all attempts to manipulate or prejudice results.
Senior lawyer, Rajiv Mohan stated that in various cases, the evidence or the exhibit becomes realistically useless by the time it reaches the stage of examination. This specific anomaly can be contributed to poor preservation practices of the evidence or just merely mishandling of the same. As these reports indicate forensics suffers from both an inadequacy of facilities and a lack of capability in the police forces in gathering evidence. Both of these problems need to be addressed urgently, because these inadequacies mean that innocent people maybe convicted.
Possible alternative and solutions
Crime labs, DNA labs, and medical examiners shouldn’t serve under the same bureaucracy as district attorneys and police agencies. Currently, the Central Forensic Science Laboratory(CFSL) New Delhi and Delhi Police works under overall administrative control of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). Even if these experts work for the same governing body, they should report to an independent state agency if not the courts themselves. Also, there should be a wall of separation between analysis and interpretation with provisions for peer review of each report. Not only does this provide a double check, but the defense experts can be more assured of the reliability of the expert opinion presented by prosecution.
Apart from independency of such crime labs, another possible solution can be privatisation since it would foster quality performance and render them complete autonomy with respect to their operations, accountability and transparency.
In India, there are only seven Central Forensic Science Laboratories (New Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Chandigarh, Bhopal and Pune) and state Forensic Science Laboratories of the respective states with some regional FSLs too. There are a total of 90 handwriting experts, 900 fingerprint experts, 9 lie-detector experts, 25 DNA experts, 300 Medico-legal experts, 8 Failure Analysis experts and 3,000 forensic scientists in other specialties. Considering all the statistical figures, independency of this discipline is of immense necessity at the current stage. There is indeed a huge gap between the forensic facilities available and the demand for such services to handle cases promptly and efficiently. Presence of private labs can provide quality service quickly with unbiased dependable opinions. Considering the role of crime labs and the justice rendering systems, it would an understatement if we claim that a serious reformative mechanism should be in order by now.
Written by Sarthak Gupta( JGLS’14)
Edited by Poulomi Bhadra and Prakriti Kapoor