Info

a Includes mostly trace DNA samples.

a Includes mostly trace DNA samples.

The changing nature of the case submission profile in forensic molecular biology laboratories has been accompanied by a changing evidence type away from traditional templates such as blood and semen to more discrete evidence types such as trace DNA and discarded items (including drinking containers and cigarette butts). This is again illustrated in data from the NSW State Forensic DNA Laboratory from between 2001 and 2005 (Table 1.2).

As well as having a profound effect on the number and types of cases submitted for DNA analysis, forensic DNA databases have also catalysed a re-think of the role that forensic evidence can play in the investigative process. Traditionally forensic DNA evidence has been thought of as information for the use of the court. This focus sees the scientist retrospectively attempting to obtain results for a given case to assist in the resolution of a single crime. The primary focus, therefore, is towards crime-solving rather than crime reduction or prevention. For some years now, policing strategy has evolved from a traditional focus on capturing or incarcerating offenders towards a more holistic understanding of crimes and criminals and a prevention-based approach to law enforcement. Forensic science has not contributed greatly to changes in policing and crime management strategies, although lately there has been a move to embrace scientific advances under the concept of intelligence-led policing (Smith, 1997; Thompson and Gunn, 1998; Gunn, 2003; Tilley, 2003). Forensic molecular biology clearly has a role to play in the generation of law enforcement intelligence products (Walsh et al., 2002), particularly when one considers the potential of combining rapid, portable DNA typing with the use of DNA databases or phenotypic inferences about an offender. As such it has the potential to play a more proactive role in broader-scale crime investigation.

Achieving this requires shifting the philosophical mind-set of forensic practitioners, understanding where, when and how forensic science data can be useful in an intelligence context, and designing systems capable of relaying findings in 'real-time'. A number of approaches have begun to emerge that embrace this operational strategy. Some remain ill-informed and are based around centralized database creation. Other more successful examples create meaningful forensic intelligence and combine it with investigative and crime analysis tools (Ribaux and Margot, 1999, 2003).

In summary there has been a trend towards greater use of DNA, across a more diverse range of cases and in a more intelligence-based context or framework. It is important to note, however, that these developments (and the DNA databases that have predominantly catalysed them) remain at a preliminary stage. Standards and approaches still vary enormously between jurisdictions and in future there may be continued moves towards greater harmonization. Undoubtedly there will be progress towards greater cross-jurisdictional exchange of DNA information, possibly facilitated at the level of organizations such as Interpol. Managing this era of wider national and international use of forensic DNA profile information will be challenging as, through these developments, the science we apply moves increasingly into the public and political realm.

1.4 Developments influencing the justice system -socio-legal impacts

Practical and philosophical aspects of the legal system have been impacted by developments in the field of forensic molecular biology. Practical issues emanate from the construction of laws that regulate the collection of DNA material from persons associated with the justice system, and the subsequent use of any DNA-related evidence in our courts. These are flanked by important philosophical considerations in areas such as social justice, ethics and privacy.

From the time of its first introduction the courts have had mixed experiences with the presentation of forensic DNA evidence. Scientists, lawyers, judges and jurors have battled to come to terms with this new forensic application of a complex scientific technique. Initially complicating matters further was the public fanfare that accompanied early DNA successes, creating an aura of scientific certainty around the technology. Whilst forensic molecular biology is a powerful means of identification, this sort of misrepresentation in the public arena can create unrealistic perceptions of its capability. At a relatively early stage, the admissibility of DNA evidence in criminal trials was successfully challenged in the United States (People v Castro, 1989, 545 NYS 2d 985) and elsewhere (R v Tran, 1990, 50 A Crim R 233; R v Lucas, 1992, 2 VR 109; R v Pengelly, 1992, 1 NZLR 545). Many of the issues upon which early challenges were mounted were the subject of conflict in the scientific community at the time (Lander, 1989; Chakraborty and Kidd, 1991; Lewontin and Hartl, 1991). The scrutiny of the legal system in these instances must be seen to have been strongly positive as it brought about further refinement and validation of the forensic DNA methodology and the implementation of structures to regulate quality assurance. In recent times challenges to DNA admissibility are rarely successful, as, in general terms, the science has reached the important point of being accepted practice. This is not to say that legal scrutiny has abated entirely, rather, if anything, legal challenges have evolved in their complexity along with the evolution of the technology itself. Instead of focusing on general issues, it is now specialized components of the analytical or interpretative process that have become the subject of questioning.

Widening the use of forensic DNA evidence and implementing forensic DNA databases have required the formulation of specific statutes. The enactment of the DNA-based laws has generated considerable commentary in the legal literature regarding the process of enactment and the final constitution of the laws themselves. In most cases the legal discussion is critical, suggesting that the passage of legislation was hurried and justified under the populist appeal of 'law and order' politics. Others fear that compulsory acquisition of genetic material by the state represents an encroachment into previously sacred territory of criminal law and a diminution of basic rights such as the right to silence and the right against self-incrimination. Many commentators express concern over the mass storage of human genetic information and the associated potential risk of future misuse.

Overall, the practical developments at the intersection of forensic molecular biology and the legal system have progressed from general issues (such as whether DNA testing has a place in the CJS at all) to specific refinements (such as how DNA evidence was obtained and tested). Again it is important to note that this period of interplay between the science of DNA testing and the regulation of legal sector is a relatively recent phenomenon and is bound to evolve considerably, even in the short term. The balance that is sought relates to attempting to achieve maximal effectiveness from the use of DNA, whilst minimizing the incursion into a person's basic civil and legal rights. In different cases, different countries and at different times striking this balance can be influenced by external pressures. Recently, for example, heightened anxiety around terrorism has seen governments override individual rights in favor of more expansive investigative powers. The use of forensic molecular biology is linked to many of these broad socio-legal issues.

1.5 Summary

The field of forensic molecular biology has entered a period of development where more genetically diverse applications are emerging and are able to be delivered by a more responsive and technically advanced platform. There is also an emphasis for forensic DNA outcomes to be delivered as intelligence products as well as evidence for the court. This allows it to take on a more purposeful role in the investigative phase of the process alongside other items of forensic or non-forensic intelligence. Understandably, these enhancements in capability are continuing to drive a great demand to access and utilize this technology. So far this demand has, in many cases, outstripped the ability of forensic laboratories to cope, and case backlogs are commonplace in many jurisdictions.

These trends signal the beginning of an exciting era for forensic molecular biology. As forensic professionals, however, we must remember that adding these dimensions to our capability also adds to our overall onus of responsibility. Such changes require a continual broadening of our outlook and expertise. Also, due to the emotional and social stakes that exist in the criminal justice system, many developments in our field are somewhat double-edged: able to be viewed either positively as strengthening our ability to fight against crime or terrorism or negatively as examples of an increasing loss of civil liberties and greater surveillance by the state on her citizens. Whilst forensic scientists remain impartial players in this environment, it is important that we do not extricate ourselves from this debate that essentially defines how and to what end our scientific endeavour is applied. Of paramount importance is that, across all techniques within our field, we continue to ensure the quality of our scientific outcomes. By doing this our work will remain an objective and reliable component of the criminal justice system.

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