One of the things I love most about practicing law is the criminal cases that I will be discussing. Stretching the gamut from murders to assaults to following money trails—legal and illegal—criminal law is a rigorous, detail-oriented discipline. It is the combination of the claim by the prosecution that “they did it” while the defense strives to prove that “the state has not demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that we did.” Part of the investigative process that leads to the collection of evidence pointing to innocence or guilt involves the dissemination of forensic science.
What is forensic science? Kathryn Ramsland writes in her book, Beating the Devil’s Game: A History of Forensic Science and Criminal Investigation, that “Forensic science is the application of scientific perspectives and techniques to the legal process, including investigations and courtroom protocol. It is correct to say that this is the use of scientific data and procedures on Specifically the legal system. She adds that “disciplines rely on the same values and methodology used by other members of the scientific community. There are rigorous procedures involved, including controlled conditions, reliable data collection, and attempt to disprove hypotheses.”
What does forensic science look like to collect data and try to prove or disprove a hypothesis from the perspective of familiar techniques or methods? Essentially, methodologies such as autopsy procedures, fingerprinting, testing and matching for toxins, bloodstain analysis, matching guns to bullets fired (ballistics), voice sample matches, handwriting assessments, and DNA analysis are all aspects of forensic science.
Forensic science has gained great cultural popularity over the past two decades with the emergence of crime shows
the television. My favorites among these crime shows are Law and Order (American TV series set in New York City), Mare of Easttown, Shetland, and Real Detective. This is a series built around crimes that are solved by the police who conduct investigations with the help of forensic science. A weary and exhausted detective, battling a careless regime, watching a medical examiner explain wounds on a corpse or sipping coffee while anxiously waiting for a crucial DNA test result are all now etched in our popular imagination. Towards the end of the episode, the detective solves the crime and the “villain” is captured.
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However, the realistic crime solution is a little different. India has the highest disparities in the proportions of police-citizens and judge-citizens. However, this is the topic of another column. We also have a woefully insufficient number of Forensic Science Laboratories (FSL). There are seven Central Forensic Laboratories in India in Hyderabad, Kolkata, Chandigarh, New Delhi, Guwahati, Bhopal and Pune. The laboratory in Delhi is under the control of the CBI and investigates cases on its behalf.
Six of these laboratories, with the exception of Delhi, are under the control of the Directorate of Forensic Science Services (DFSS), and its mission is to provide high quality and credible forensic services to the justice system. The National University of Forensic Sciences was established in Gandhinagar, Gujarat in the year 2020. The existing National Institute of Criminology and Forensic Medicine, Delhi has been merged into this new university. There are 32 FSL states and about 529 mobile FSL units, of which Delhi has one state FSL and six mobile units. There are many private forensic laboratories in the country and their quality and integrity standards vary.
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What does it mean to have insufficient state forensic facilities? This means that the FSL reports that the police and defense are anxiously waiting for a long time to prepare. This also means that all too often, forensic analysis is simply not done and the criminal justice system relies primarily on witness statements. Let’s look at some stats.
DNA tests discovered in 1985 were used to identify individuals implicated in alleged crimes. In 2017, The Hindu newspaper reported that while the UK completes DNA testing on more than 60,000 crimes annually, India with a population of more than 13 has completed these tests in fewer than 7,500 cases. Average time in each lab is huge.
Some of the shortage is due to the lack of laboratories while others are due to the lack of suitable qualified personnel. The Supreme Court in Response: Speedy Trial of Sentenced Prisoners (2018) after assessing the state of the Central Laboratories of Forensic Sciences noted that 97 scientific officer positions and 67 administrative positions were vacant. In state facilities, there was a lack of information about staffing from laboratories in many states. In all states, there were more than 50 percent of employee vacancies at their facilities. The court had asked the central government to address the situation. The court acknowledged that staffing shortages meant trials were often delayed because FSL reports were not received.
India has long and lasting relationships with forensic sciences. In 1896, Edward Henry, a judge in the country, during a long train journey, came up with the ring and delta system, which is the basis for all fingerprints today. Regardless of Henry’s discoveries, we definitely need to invest more in setting up FSL laboratories, training and hiring skilled personnel in forensic methodologies and reforms within our police to create a trained and skilled investigative cadre tasked with solving complex and heinous crimes.
There is an urgent need for high quality training facilities, accreditation standards and continuing education programs for our forensic experts. Forensic science is also in constant development, and it is important to know which aspects of the science are still credible and what methodologies should be discarded. Not more legislation and harsher punishments would solve crimes, but well-trained forensic staff who practice their profession in good quality laboratories that would help our criminal justice system.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 28, 2022 under the headline “How to Solve the Case”. The writer is a Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court of India