How Effective is Forensic Science in Aid of Crime Scene Investigation.


A crime scene is any physical scene, anywhere that may provide potential evidence to an investigator. It may include a person’s body, any type of building, vehicles, and places in the open air or objects found at those locations (UNODC). “Crime scene investigation” therefore refers to an investigation where forensic or scientific techniques are used to preserve and gather physical evidence of a crime, or as stated by Vaux (2011) a crime scene investigation is an examination of the scene of a crime for any clues or evidence that may lead police to a suspect. Crime scene investigation is a slow and hardworking process, but the methodology that requires perfect care also tends to reveal important clues to the method, motive and suspect of the crime. Crime scene investigation consists of analyzing the scene of a specific crime in order to determine what happened and provide clues as to the identity of the suspect. This work explores the effectiveness of forensic science as a tool to help the investigation of a given crime scene. The efficacy of forensic science in this regard will be judged on how it contributed to arriving at the desired outcome. The outcome may be in the goal of leading police to a suspect, or revealing clues as to the method, motive and the perpetrator of the crime.

Two cases are used to understand the effectiveness of forensic techniques in crime scene investigation. The first is the case of Birmingham Six or the Birmingham pub bombing of 21st November 1974, which killed 28 people and injured more than 180 (Mullin, 1997). The second is Omagh bombing of 15th August 1998, which killed 29 people and left almost 300 people injured (Chalk, 2013, p. 185).


The principal forensic techniques applied in Birmingham Six case were Griess test, Dr Skuse’s test, TLC and ‘sniffer test’. For the Omagh bombing case, the forensic technique relied upon was LCN DNA test. In both cases, the techniques proved inadequate or ineffective in coming to the desired outcome of fixing liability on the culprits.


The aim of the research is to conduct a descriptive literature review on selected techniques of forensics with the purpose of understanding their use within the field of forensic investigation, and the acceptability of these techniques within the legal framework.

There are two cases which are analysed in detail in this work. One case is the famous case of the ‘Birmingham Six’ and the second case is the case of the Omagh bombing. The central aim of these two analysis is to objectively focus on the role forensic science played in clearing the Birmingham six of the bombing offence they were convicted of and on the reverse side how forensic science played a definitive role in identifying those responsible for the Omagh Bombing in Northern Ireland.


The objective pursued throughout is related to the study of the use of the technique to present evidence in a trial and to study the admissibility of the evidence based on the technique.


Forensic methods are important for crime scene investigation because these methods may provide or lead to valuable evidence, that has a scientific basis and which can be instrumental in finding criminals and fixing criminal liability. Thus, an important measure of effectiveness of forensic methods in crime scene investigation is the ability of the evidence to convince the jury and judge of its reliability. The significance of this research is seen in the interactions between forensic techniques and their effectiveness in criminal justice system, with the help of two cases, both of which involved use of forensic techniques ineffectively.

In investigation of crimes, there is an increasing application of different forensic techniques. The forensic techniques that have evolved over a period of time include a plethora of techniques from those that are purely laboratory oriented to those that involve use of neurological or psychological processes. This research focusses on some of the techniques that were seen to be used in the cases of Birmingham Six and Omagh bombing.

In the case of Birmingham Six, forensic scientists cast serious doubts on the reliability of the evidence placed in the case, which led to the conviction of the six men for the Birmingham pub bombings. The Griess Test was used to trace the nitroglycerine to the people charged (Gudjonsson, 2003, p. 453). Other tests used were TLC test and the ‘sniffer test’. It is interesting that the Griess Test was widely disregarded as unreliable by the majority of forensic experts who testified in the case (Gudjonsson, 2003, p. 453). The TLC test was held unreliable by its creator, John Yallop, in the court, who said that only the TLC could not be relied upon for proving that nitroglycerine traces were found on principal accused, the members of the Maguire family (Gudjonsson, 2003, p. 453). The men were convicted on the basis of the Dr Skuse’s forensic test and the confessions obtained by the police (Gudjonsson, 2003).

In Omagh bombing case, in Northern Ireland, the principal forensic technique used was LCN (Low Copy Number) DNA testing. In fact, the entire case against the principal accused, Sean Hoey, hinged on the evidence obtained through LCN (Krimsky & Simoncelli, 2013, p. 176). There was some divergence amongst the experts on the use of the technique (Krimsky & Simoncelli, 2013). The validity of the evidence was doubted by Judge Reg Weir himself, who said:

“It is not my function to criticise the seemingly thoughtless and slapdash approach of police and SOCO officers to the collection, storage and transmission of what must obviously have been potential exhibits in a possible future criminal trial but it is difficult to avoid some expression of surprise that in an era in which the potential for fibre, if not DNA, contamination was well known to the police such items were so widely and routinely handled with cavalier disregard for their integrity. The position so far as NIFS is concerned is even more difficult to comprehend as everyone there must have been very well aware of the risks of improper labelling, storage and examination.” (Krimsky & Simoncelli, 2013, p. 176).

In light of the statement above, it is not surprising that Sean Hoey’s conviction on the basis of the evidence obtained through the LCN technique was not obtained. In The Queen v Sean Hoey, Hoey was acquitted of all the charges against him. This points to the ineffectiveness of the LCN DNA technique. The decision also led to the establishment of a Forensic Science Regulator, headed by Professor Caddy, for the purpose of further study into the LCN technique and its utility in criminal investigation (Butler, 2012, p. 316). The Caddy report recommended that the jury should always be informed that the nature of the original starting material is unknown and the time at which the DNA was transferred cannot be inferred (Caddy, Taylor, & Linacre, 2008, section 7.4). The report was supportive of the use of LNC DNA technique (Adam, 2016).

It is noteworthy that the prosecution had relied on forensic evidence that was presented in two stages, that is, the initial examination of the reconstructed bomb and the later reexamination in the Forensic Science Service using the LT DNA testing (Caragine, Currie, & O'Connor, 2014, p. 176). The chain of custody or the lack of it, made the evidence weak as per Judge Weir, as is evident from the observation made by him in the judgement.

The effectiveness of forensic methods in crime scene investigation, is gauged from the legal impact of the method and its reception by the court and the jury. In both the cases that are to be studied in this work, it is seen that the effectiveness of the chosen forensic methods did not lead to the desired results. In the case of Birmingham Six, these men spent more than 15 years after being convicted on the basis of evidence that was later proved invalid. In the case of Sean Hoey, the evidence presented before the court was not convincing enough to get a conviction.

Design and Methods

This literature review will be conducted with the use of descriptive research design. As there are two cases selected for the research, to some extent the case study method will also be used. Being a literature review, research will be conducted on the basis of secondary resources like books, articles in journals and databases.

Descriptive research design

Descriptive research is a useful method of obtaining information, without having to test or verify the information (Monsen & Horn, 2008, p. 5). Once a well- focused research question is devised, descriptive research can be used to answer it (Monsen & Horn, 2008, p. 5). The research methodology would allow the researcher to gather information about the existing conditions (Sevilla, Ochave, Punsalan, Regala, & Uriarte, 2007, p. 94).

Case Study

A case is defined as an object of study (Vaus & Vaus, 2001, p. 220). A case study may involve study of an individual, an organisation, a decision of the court, or a situation. Collecting and analysing information about the case involves an underpinning of theory (Vaus & Vaus, 2001, p. 221). Case studies can also be descriptive, where the description highlights certain aspects of the case, although all aspects may not be described (Vaus & Vaus, 2001).

A case study is defined as an in-depth inquiry into a topic or phenomenon within its real-life setting (Yin, 2009). Case study research is best used when there is a difficulty to separate the phenomenon under study and the context where the phenomenon is studied or where the boundaries between the two are not recognised (Yin, 2009). Case studies are used in most types of research and researchers. Case studies may be used for descriptive and explanatory purposes in addition to its exploratory purposes (Yin, 2009).

Two cases which are analysed in detail in this work. One case is the famous case of the ‘Birmingham Six’ and the second case is the case of the Omagh bombing. The central aim of these two analysis is to objectively focus on the role forensic science played in clearing the Birmingham six of the bombing offence they were convicted of and on the reverse side how forensic science played a definitive role in identifying those responsible for the Omagh Bombing in Northern Ireland.

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Secondary research

As an extended literature review, this work involves secondary research methods. The research strategy involved will include searching for papers both manually as well as electronically. Journals in both print as well as electronic formats will be referred to. Databases will also be used for the purpose of generating information that can become subject matter of this extended literature review. Some of these journals and database are named here:

  • Names of Journals (print): International Journal of Legal Medicine, Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, Journal of Forensic Research, British Journal on Forensic Practice, Forensic Science International, International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, Journal of Digital Forensics, Security and the Law, The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, Medical, Science and the Law
  • Online Journals: Open Access Journal of Forensic Psychology, Forensic Magazine, Forensic Research
  • Databases: British Academy of Forensic Sciences (BAFS), Journal of Digital Forensics, Security and Law (JDFSL)


In a literature review, certain ethical issues are to be followed because ethics “incorporate moral principles and best practices” that makes the literature review stronger (Onwuegbuzie & Frels, 2016, p. 37). Therefore, it is imperative that a literature reviewer is an ethical literature reviewer (Onwuegbuzie & Frels, 2016). Some of the best practices include: professional competence, integrity, scholarly responsibility, social responsibility and respect of rights and dignity (Onwuegbuzie & Frels, 2016, p. 38).

Virtue ethics and pragmatic ethics are to inform a good literature review (Onwuegbuzie & Frels, 2016). It is also important as part of virtue ethics to honour the works of others and to ensure that sources are properly referenced.


  • Adam, C. D. (2016). Forensic Evidence in Court: Evaluation and Scientific Opinion. Sussex: John Wiley and Sons.
  • Butler, J. M. (2012). Advanced Topics in Forensic DNA Typing: Methodology. Waltham: Academic Press.
  • Caddy, B., Taylor, G., & Linacre, A. (2008). A review of the science of low template DNS analysis. The Stationary Office.
  • Chalk, P. (2013). Encyclopedia of Terrorism, Volume 1. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
  • Caragine, T., Currie, K., & O'Connor, C. (2014). Low Copy Number DNA profiling. In D. Primorac, & M. Schanfield, Forensic DNA Applications: An Interdisciplinary Perspective (pp. 171-188). Broken Sound Parkway: CRC Press.
  • Gudjonsson, G. H. (2003). The Psychology of Interrogations and Confessions: A Handbook . Sussex: John Wiley and Sons.
  • Krimsky, S., & Simoncelli, T. (2013). Genetic Justice: DNA Data Banks, Criminal Investigations, and Civil Liberties. New York: Colombia University Press.
  • Mullin, C. (1997). Error of Judgement: The Truth about the Birmingham Bombings. Poolbeg Press.
  • Monsen, E. R., & Horn, L. V. (2008). Research: Successful Approaches. American Dietic Association.
  • Onwuegbuzie, A. J., & Frels, R. (2016). Seven Steps to a Comprehensive Literature Review: A Multimodal and Cultural Approach. Londn=on: Sage.
  • Sevilla, C., Ochave, J., Punsalan, T., Regala, B., & Uriarte, G. (2007). Reseach Methods. Florentino: Rex Printing Company.
  • UNODC. (n.d.). Crime Scene Investigations. Retrieved from
  • Vaus, D., & Vaus, D. (2001). Research Design in Social Research. London: Sage.
  • Yin, R. (2009). Case Study Research: Design and Methods, Applied Social Research Methods Series, Volume 5. London: Sage Publications.

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