CSI: heart of darkness

The success of forensic science must not blind the discipline to the truths to be gleaned from studying the chaos of criminality, argues Stephen Wade

July 18, 2010

In 1974, I studied at the University of Leeds for an MA in dialectology. My tutor was Stanley Ellis, who died last year. None of his students knew that Ellis had another life beyond teaching us how to transcribe spoken texts: he was also a forensic linguist, travelling the length and breadth of the land to the new Crown Courts, for which he acted as a consultant. He, along with Jack Windsor Lewis, worked on the infamous “Ripper Tapes” during Peter Sutcliffe’s campaign of terror against women in the North. As we now know, the tapes were hoaxes, but Ellis correctly identified the locale of their creator – John Humble, from Castleton, Sunderland.

Ellis was a humorous character. He told anecdotes about fieldwork in which he collected the fading dialectal grammar of the English shires. He was a member of the grand tradition of forensic experts who succeeded thanks to a highly individual passion.

Another was Fred Cherrill. The man who became known as “Cherrill of the Yard” was the foremost practitioner of fingerprint analysis in the interwar years. His interest in the technique was piqued when he saw finger marks left in rat slime on the walls of his father’s windmill.

Today, forensic science inhabits another world: DNA has revolutionised the business, a force bringing fresh arrests almost every week as cold cases hot up again and miscarriages of justice are filed for the Criminal Cases Review Commission to reconsider.

We now have specialists in the minutest areas of expertise – academics who are authorities in earprints and tooth marks, in femurs and poison traces. There are students across the UK absorbing the facts about blood-spatter patterns and analysing text messages to establish identity in fraud cases.

Last week, one of the many organisations formed to regulate and supervise forensic-science courses, the Forensic Science Society, held its summer conference in Derbyshire.

The conference brief raised some important issues: “With the ever-changing marketplace in terms of the provision of forensic science, the question has to be asked: are we delivering confidence to the criminal justice system and reassuring the general public? Do those involved in the investigative process have the appropriate skill? Is the science correct and understood?”

There are now established benchmark criteria for the expertise necessary in the field: in Ellis’ area, for example, influential books include John Olsson’s Wordcrime: Solving Crime through Forensic Linguistics (Continuum, 2009). However, dark shadows also loom. To come up with the answers, we must first identify the shortcomings.

In the past 20 years, forensic profiling has fired the popular imagination, influencing society’s fascination with serial killers. However, confidence in the approach has taken a hit as a result of cases such as Colin Stagg’s wrongful prosecution for the murder of Rachel Nickell. The profiler involved, Paul Britton, author of the huge best-seller The Jigsaw Man (1998), made mistakes that perhaps stemmed from the overconfidence inherent in his trade.

Today’s forensic-science students are clearly excited by the streamlined successes of laboratory evidence: in the past decade, high-profile cases include the work of John French, the forensic phonetician who studied Tecwen Whittock’s affirmative coughing during Charles Ingram’s fraudulent turn on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? This is exciting stuff, the allure of the modern Sherlock Holmes.

But academics and students must also widen their scope. They must study accounts of true crime, visit prisons and delve into the complexity of human motivation: in short, they need to be faced with the messy human situation created when crime invades individual lives. Real “characters” such as Ellis and Cherrill met, talked to and worked with criminals, victims and investigators. They learned their skills by being, as Joseph Conrad put it, “immersed in the destructive element”.

The answers for the Forensic Science Society lie in an understanding of the chaos of criminality, as well as the order of blood patterns and prints.

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