Forensic science is, in essence, the study and application of a series of facts, objects and observations which – when combined with an expert interpretation and witness testimony – tell a story about an event. These facts become evidence, and can either prove or disprove a story. They must be preserved, studied and analysed according to rules set up by courts to validate bona fide evidence. The stakes are extreme – people’s lives, freedoms, fortunes and reputations are at risk.
To most of the public, forensic methods were unknown as long as those individuals didn’t commit a crime. Still, we have a fascination with stories about how things go wrong, how a crime can be perpetrated, and how justice is subsequently served.
Two decades ago, television began showing us the inner workings of crime labs, and the importance that forensic science had on cases in shows like CSI, Bones and NCIS. Later, as interest in forensics heated up, more specific shows like The Forensic Files provided a deeper look into the technologies, techniques and science of making a case against a perpetrator. These shows are simply one way conduits of information. The audience is only required to sit back and watch the case being wrapped up within the prescribed hour – according to a script.
Justice doesn’t really work like that. Nor is it very satisfying for those members of the public who want to participate in understanding and investigating the real truth.
A cautionary tale: the Boston Reddit fiasco
Traditionally, police agencies keep a cap on information while they conduct an investigation. Until something is proven to be true, it is critical to keep hunches and unproven tips out of the public eye. However, Reddit was determined to assist in the manhunt of the Boston Marathon bombers, and presumed that thousands of eyes searching through the limited information released – including unidentified photos of the Tsamaev brothers – could identify suspects by mining whatever else was online from the event.
Reddit users found their ignition in suspect photo number 2, released by the Boston Police in a traditional means of reaching out to the public for information. Reddit users hastily submitted that this particular image matched a photo of Brown University student Sunil Tripathi, who had also attended the Marathon and was photographed in the crowd. Rumours about a note left in his room, his absence from his home (which triggered an FBI missing persons report), and a made-up report that Tripathi’s name had been heard on the police radio, seemed to be all the evidence Reddit’s hive needed. There was no filter that news organisations apply to sort out bad information, and no attempt to confirm ‘facts’ with reliable law enforcement sources.
The amateur sleuths at Reddit not only got it wrong, but the publicity and loudly proclaimed untruths caused a lot of pain for Tripathi, his family and law enforcement. In short, it was a how-to lesson on how not to crowdsource an investigation. And proof those amateurish ‘forensic’ investigators who disregard protocol can cause more damage than good.
Tangled webs: Oscar Pistorius and Shrien Dewani
When critical information was necessary for a true verdict, forensic evidence became a critical component in two widely followed cases out of South Africa.
In the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, the defence enlisted Roger Dixon, a police laboratory employee and an expert in geology who attempted to testify about a variety of issues outside of his expertise, such as ballistics, sound and blood spatter. He did not attend the post-mortem of Ms. Steenkamp, the victim, yet he testified about her injuries. Due to this, his testimony came under intense and sustained attacks for credibility, the manner of his investigation, and the fact that he could not properly explain the forensic evidence.
Shrien Dewani, on the other hand, had been accused as an accomplice by his taxi driver and guide hired on his honeymoon with his bride Ani Dewani, who had been driving the newlyweds around Cape Town when his bride was kidnapped and murdered. The driver – Zola Tonga – told police that Shrien paid him to murder his wife. Ultimately, the husband was exonerated because the tainted witness story did not hold up against the forensics and because of inconsistencies in the witness reports, but not before an extensive battle about extradition and a trial in South Africa came to pass.
In both cases, the daily proceedings were widely reported, and much interest was taken by the public on online forums and comments sections of news agencies.
NPR’s Serial podcast – the best of all worlds?
A recent innovation combines the best of in-depth analysis, storytelling at its finest, intrigue, plot twists and insider information around a cold case that has captivated audiences world-wide. But what sets Serial apart is the ability for people to learn as the story is woven together over a number of weeks – and supported by credible experts with considerable insight into police procedure and forensic aspects.
What holds Serial together is the thoughtful and comprehensive commentary by the show’s host, Sarah Koenig, as she revisits this 1999 murder case, set in Baltimore, Maryland, and retraces the evidence that put Adnan Mused Syed in prison for the murder of his girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Like many cases, there are unturned stones, controversial evidence and shady witnesses, such that there is doubt as to whether or not the real murderer was apprehended and punished.
Serial uses the faded podcast documentary format, and it is celebrated for “combining the drama of prestige-TV-style episodic storytelling, the portability of podcasts and the trustworthiness of its parent program This American Life while developing a new media category described as a ‘new generation of audio storytelling'” (The New Yorker).
Of course, discussions of evidence in the case, even minor points such as the importance of cell phone towers which captured and located in geographic space and time – are explained better than at court. The series of cell phone calls during the hours around the murder can now be explained in a way that the original court could not comprehend. And each clue is discussed and interpreted to shed new light on the case.
The nature of forensic evidence has always had a critical role in determining causation. The manner in which it has been portrayed to audiences hungry to know the truth has changed from simply being delivered as a part of a script, to the highest evolution presented by Serial – an in-depth look at all aspects of a case, including analysis of witness statements, physical evidence and motives by an audience excited to play a very small part, under controlled settings, in the right outcome.
Your Turn: are you a criminal court junkie? Do you have a favorite way of satiating your curiosity? Have you followed Serial? What do like about the more intensive content delivery moderated by Sarah Koenig?