Challenges and Significance of Forensic Science in the Justice System

To What Extent Can Innovative Methods of Teaching Subjects In Higher Education Be Utilised In Training And Continued Professional Development For Forensic Practitioners?


Developments in forensic science have led to its emergence as an essential aspect of the justice and legal system, right from the crime scene to the courtroom, throughout the world. Forensic science can broadly be defined as the application of scientific and/or technical practice to recognize, collect, analyse and interpret evidence for regulatory or civil and criminal law issues (Saferstein, 2007). Following instances of defendants found to have been wrongfully convicted partly on the basis of evidence collected and analysed through forensic science, and thereby exonerated, questions have increasingly been raised regarding the validity and reliability of forensic evidence in its various key forms as well as of expert testimonies based on them (LaPorte, 2017). However, this is not to suggest that forensic science has become ineffective or has lost its significance as a key tool in the delivery of justice.

Forensic science has historically been used mainly in two stages of the legal (criminal justice) process: investigation and prosecution. Investigation is the phase of the criminal justice process that aims to identify a crime’s likely perpetrator, while the prosecution phase seeks to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, a defendant’s guilt (Julian & Kelty, 2015). Despite the importance of forensic evidence in the criminal justice process, especially to prosecutors, various forms of forensic science, particularly DNA analysis, has gained in popularity for their use by defendants in challenging past convictions (Bell et al., 2018). In order to ensure the effectiveness of forensic science, it is vital to train and develop forensic practitioners/experts who are able to undertake the investigation and prosecutorial phases of the criminal justice process through forensic science and other investigative tools to the required legal and scientific standards. This will ensure that they use established explanatory and scientific approaches and base their expert testimonies on ‘reliable principles and methods’ whose application to the facts of the case is reliable and can be regarded as scientifically valid (Bell et al., 2018; Koehler, 2018). The aim of this essay, therefore, is to explore the degree to which the innovative methods of teaching subjects in higher learning can be utilized in the training and continuous professional development for forensic practitioners.


Training and Development of Forensic Practitioners’ Effectiveness

Forensic evidence, collected through forensic procedures and techniques, has significantly improved the ability of modern law enforcement to solve crimes (Meuwy, Ramos & Haraksim, 2017). According to McEwen & Regoeczi (2015), a comprehensive and thorough examination of the crime scene and forensic evidence analysis contributes to the solving of most crimes today. Besides the investigation and prosecutorial phases of the criminal justice, the work of forensic scientists is also crucial in the investigation of global crimes, extensive natural and man-made disasters and civil litigations. Just like the current advanced teaching methods in higher education lay emphasis on certain key skills such as teamwork, investigation and analysis, the success of forensic science and forensic evidence analysis is highly dependent on a system of team work and highly developed investigative tools and skills, including cellphone tracking, GPS positioning, video image analysis, and data mining, and proper processing of a crime scene through the recognition, collection and preservation of all pertinent physical evidence (Gaensslen, Harris & Lee, 2008).

Just as in higher education, recognizing evidence is a critical step in the process, since the failure to recognize, collect or properly preserve and/or test potential physical evidence would result in a greater reduction or even loss of the evidence’s forensic value. Multiple usual and high profile cases have illustrated that in spite of the availability of modern forensic technologies, specialized equipment and ultra-modern forensic laboratory analysis, their effectiveness and utilization of forensic evidence is only as effective as the skills and knowledge of the forensic practitioners (Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Science Community, 2022).

Most literature on crime scene investigation currently typically limits it to securing the crime scene, documenting the crime scene, collecting and packaging physical evidence. While these are important activities which must be properly undertaken, given their importance in the maintenance of the physical evidence’s integrity and the attainment of the criminal investigation’s final outcome, they are largely mechanical tasks which can be performed with moderate precision by any individual with minimal training (Lee & Pagliaro, 2013). However, despite their extreme importance, these crime scene investigation tasks directly impact on the solution of a crime to a very limited degree (Fish & Fish, 2013). It is in this regard that the sophisticated and innovative methods of teaching subjects in higher education can contribute to the training and development of forensic practitioners.

Crime scene investigators can apply forensic or scientific crime scene investigation which, besides the aforementioned mechanical tasks or aspects of crime scene investigation, also involves and demands the application of approaches that are more dynamic, including crime survey and analysis, hypothesis development by linking the scene, physical evidence and people, and crime scene reconstruction (Lee, Palmbach & Miller, 2001). Following the importance of the development of hypothesis in higher education, crime scene investigation personnel will be enabled to develop awareness of the dynamic nature of crime scenes as well as the significance of hypothesis development during investigations.

Higher education teaching and learning tools are based on and emphasise scientific reasoning. Similarly, forensic crime scene investigation, by virtue of being systematic, methodological and logical, is based on scientific reasoning. According to Lee, Palmbach & Miller (2001), it commences with the initial crime scene response, followed by the crime scene security, documentation of the crime scene, physical evidence recognition, collection, packaging and preservation. The subsequent steps involved in the crime scene investigation process are the examination of physical evidence, analysis and profiling of the crime scene and finally the reconstruction of the crime scene (Lee, Palmbach & Miller, 2001). Additionally, forensic crime scene investigation is perceived as systematic due to the fact that they are based on the Linkage principle, as well as the principles of the Locard Transfer Theory (Crispino et al., 2011). The application of scientific knowledge alongside the various forensic techniques will significantly contribute to the generation of crucial investigative leads that ultimately lead to the solution of a crime.

The effective and successful (accurate and just) conclusion of cases and delivery of justice outcomes is dependent, to a large extent, on the forensic crime scene investigators’ skills, knowledge and attitudes. According to Roberetson (2012), this can only be achieved through the professional and effective processing of the crime scene. Therefore, the knowledge, skills and attitudes of crime scene investigators contributes immensely to the success or failure of criminal investigations (Stanley & Horswell, 2004). Through training and continuous professional development, forensic crime scene practitioners or personnel (investigators and examiners) can be equipped with the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes, as well as acquire key attributes that contribute to their professionalism, just like innovative teaching methods equip students with skills and knowledge that are critical to their academic and future professional performance.

The importance of professionalism and possession of the requisite skills and knowledge among crime scene professionals has been demonstrated by the UK Scientific Work Improvement Model (SWIM) report, a 2-year quantitative analysis that explored how the forensic process varied among 41 police forces across Wales and England (British Home Office, 2007). The report identified four stages, including scene attendance and submission of evidence, in which the effective application of forensic science in volume crime was impacted upon by efficiencies. The SWIM project recorded significant differences in the performance of crime scene officers, whereby the top quartile comprised crime scene officers who were on average collected higher quality evidence, attended more crime scenes, submitted evidence twice as fast, and collected evidence that demonstrated increased potential of leading to positive identifications (Adderley & Bond, 2008). This difference in the performance and accuracy of crime scene officers was also highlighted by a report by the National Academy of Sciences. However, the report suggests that the observed crime scene mistakes, inefficiencies and inaccuracies were not entirely out of malice, but could also be termed as honest mistakes that can be attributed to the crime scene personnel’s haste, and lack of proper training and/or experience (The National Academy of Sciences, 2009). Therefore, the above-mentioned two reports highlight that some forensic practitioners perform better in terms of the quality of their work compared to their peers, a phenomenon that can be attributed to the skills, knowledge and attitudes they possess and which are critical to top performance in forensic investigations.

The various teaching methods employed in higher education equip learners with key skills such as research and investigation, interpersonal and communication, report writing and generation, problem solving and flexibility. These, according to Kelty, Julian & Robertson (2012), are among the key qualities that have been identified by human resource literature as contributing to the effectiveness of employees regardless of their industry, organization of profession. According to Robbins & Judge (2010), among the key qualities of high-performing individuals are work and organizational commitment, ability and willingness to learn new skills, good interpersonal skills, professional growth and development, flexibility, and problem solving ability and skills. Smith, Flanagan & Webb (2000), in their exploration of the skills that senior police investigators whose part of their roles included attending crime scenes, found that the effective senior police investigators, despite the complexity of their work, demonstrated 22 core skills which they further categorized into three main skill clusters; knowledge skills, investigative abilities and management skills.

Fahsing, Glomseth & Gottschalk (2008) additionally identifies six managerial skills that effective investigators demonstrated: motivational leadership- for mentoring and leading their juniors; problem solving- recognizing opportunities and initiatives during investigation; resourcing ability (for effective resource allocation during investigations); liaising (to manage information flows) and gatekeeper skills, through which to effectively communicate with external environment; networking (relating and informing or communicating with other staff and organizational units. The skills identified above, in combination, comprise the attributes that make crime scene investigators and examiners effective, resulting in their high performance. Additionally, just like the innovative teaching methods used in higher education seek to enhance competence and develop learners professional abilities, training and developing forensic practitioners to become effective and highly proficient in their roles, contributing to their development towards and likely qualification for legal expert status (Kelty, Julian & Robertson, 2011). Training and development of forensic practitioners also contributes to their effectiveness in the recognition, collection and recording of evidence that is of a higher quality. Forensic practitioners’ effectiveness and high performance is important because it promotes the valuable role of forensic science in the criminal justice process, by minimizing the potential risk of achieving wrongful convictions due, in part, to poor crime scene investigations (Kelty, Julian & Robertson, 2011). This is an outcome that produces clear justice/legal and economic implications.

Teamwork and multidisciplinary approaches are vital aspects of learning and teaching, particularly in higher education. Similarly, Harding et al. (2011), Maglietta et al., 2017, Pomara et al. (2015), and Sessa et al. (2018) believe that the adoption of a multidisciplinary approach is also an essential aspect of criminal investigations. The discovery, collection, examination and analysis of evidence by a multidisciplinary forensic team contribute to the provision of critical and high quality data for evaluation by the prosecution (Ferrara et al., 2019). Currently, the forensics environment can be described as that of specialization, such that forensic practitioners become experts in a specific discipline. According to Robertson & Roux (2018), Roux et al. (2015), Stoney & Stoney (2015), this results in the diminishing of the generalist approach whereby one forensic practitioner could be involved in the roles of multiple disciplines. A multidisciplinary approach is therefore particularly important given that the generalist approach that facilitates the development of cumulative knowledge and skills in various domains, which in turn results in deeper and broader knowledge (Epstein, 2021), is hindered by specialization. Whereas research demonstrates that the diversity of knowledge, skills and experience of team or organizational members contributes to their effective resolution of issues or problems (Edmondson & Harvey, 2018), the forensic science’s drift towards specialization, according to Kelty, Robertson & Julian (2017) and Robertson & Roux (2018), has brought about the unintended consequence of disagreement between theory and practice. This has resulted in an ongoing debate regarding whether forensic science education should be aimed at equipping forensic practitioners with general skill sets, and what particular skill sets are critical in forensic science, as well as whether specialization diminishes forensic students’ and practitioners’ critical thinking and problem-solving abilities in complex situations. However, given the depth and breadth of the forensic science field and disciplines today, it is acknowledged that it may not be feasible for a single forensic practitioner to be versed with and master multiple disciplines (Ferrara et al., 2019). Therefore, forensic practitioners frequently need to work collaboratively with experts from other fields in order to solve crimes, for example, psychologists, sketch artists, trained dog units, among others. For instance, for crime scene investigations that may necessitate the identification of invisible traces or hidden objects, such as human bodies, forensic practitioners are increasingly integrating the use of trained dog units. According to Riezzo et al. (2014), forensic practitioners collaborate with trained dog units given cadaver dogs’ ability to detect and locate hidden human remains, fluids or decomposing odors due to their strong olfactory system perceptions. Therefore, in cases that involve such investigations, it would be difficult for forensic practitioners effectively conclude investigations without implementing a multidisciplinary approach. As such, Roux, Ribaux & Crispino (2018) and San Pietro, Kammrath & Peter (2019) assert that it is necessary for forensic science educators to critically understand the key skills required in forensics and to develop a curriculum that incorporates the appropriate theory-practice level so as to prepare and develop students to become effective forensic practitioners.

Technological advancements have, over the years, significantly altered how humans undertake various tasks and activities. Learning and teaching are increasingly being undertaken through digital means (applications and tools). Given its pervasiveness, the application of digital technologies is also a popular aspect of forensic sciences known as digital forensic science and is at the core of delivering justice throughout the entire criminal justice system (Sammons, 2012). Therefore, as crime and criminals are increasingly becoming more digitally sophisticated, forensic practitioners have also made great strides at adopting and making use developments in mobile technologies, artificial intelligence, cloud, analytics and sensors as a way of taking advantage of the potential offered by digital forensics in the solution of crimes (Caviglione, Wendzel & Mazurczyk, 2017).

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Forensic science has emerged as an essential tool in the delivery of justice in today’s criminal justice system. It is therefore important to have forensic practitioners that are adequately trained and developed to enable them acquire the necessary skills, knowledge and attitudes, which will in turn facilitate them to effectively conduct forensic crime scene investigations following the required procedures and that are of the established reliability and validity standards. This is vital since forensic practitioners’ failure to effectively investigate and examine crime scenes would result in serious consequences for the criminal justice system, including inability to solve cases and condemnation of innocent individuals, which could result in the overturning of such convictions should there emerge new evidence that exonerates them.


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