Impact of Forensic Science in the Law of Evidence

This is authored by Janaki Nair a 3rd year B.An LLB student in Symbiosis Law School Pune. The following article talks briefly about what Forensic Science is and the effect that it has left on the field of Evidence Law. 

INTRODUCTION 

Forensic science refers to the field in which science is applied in criminal (mostly) as well as civil laws to uncover answers. In the ancient period, although small scientifically – inclined practices were existent in some areas, the majority of the world heavily relied on mysticism and religious superstitions to explain any sort of crime. Improper techniques were also used for confessions to crime – the people were either forced into admissions, or the guilt has solely relied on witness testimonies. There was no legal or scientific backing for the acquittal or conviction of an accused. Thus, many innocents got unfairly punished and many guilty escaped scot-free from punishments. 

Forensic Science as a genuine investigative technique only came to be recognized with the advent of the Enlightenment period which brought about the notion of science prevailing over ignorant and inadequate traditions that did not have any factual backings. Throughout the years, different methods to understand and uncover criminal wrongs came into play starting from fingerprint analysis to the most modern ones such as DNA sequencing and facial reconstruction. These methods came to be assigned importance along with their legal counterpart – the law of evidence. 

Evidence law and forensic science can be said to be complementary partners in the field of law. Evidence law consists of rules and principles that govern the type of proof needed in the course of a trial. Forensic Science is the scientific method that is used to uncover important evidence and facts necessary for a criminal case to unfold. Evidence law is the legal backing through which forensic methods are rendered useful to the legal community. Both of them are different variants with which justice is administered into society. Thus, at present, these laws and methods work together to solve every ambiguity surrounding a crime.

Development of Forensic Science as a Proper Discipline

Forensic science was reportedly first applied by the Chinese in the 12th century, when Sung Tz’u, the author of the text ‘The Washing Away of Wrong’ wrote that a difference can be observed between natural death and homicide of a drowned person by checking the cartilage of the victim. Death by strangulation can be assumed if the cartilage is damaged near the neck of the victim. In the late 17th century, Prof. Mathieu Orfila became credited with the title of ‘Father of Toxicology’ by his successful attempt in using a microscope to observe and analyze blood as well as semen stains. 

One of the early methods of uncovering data that is still used to this day is Fingerprint Analysis. The fact that every fingerprint is unique to the individual made the field of Forensic Science come to the forefront in criminal and civil investigations. This gradually led to further experiments concerning the uniqueness of fingerprints and whether they remained unique even after new skin growth. In 1880, in Nature, a scientific journal, a scientist of the name Henry Faulds officially stated that the uniqueness of fingerprints makes it easier for investigative officers to track criminals and other people that were present at the crime scene. However, the police force around the world did not recognize this ability until decades later. Similar scientifically driven methods started developing throughout the following years. For example, a German man of the name Rudolph was the first to notice the varying characteristics of human hair for purposes of individual identification. The first case in which criminal profiling – the method of careful analysis of crime scene photographs to understand the mode and technique of crime – was used was in the case of the infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper to detect and expose the behavior of the murderer. 

Forensic Science saw a huge increase in recognition as well as demand from the late 18th century onwards with the advent of using blood, chemicals, material fiber, fingerprints, profiling, etc. All of these discoveries paved way for the most famous discovery in the field of forensic science and investigation – DNA Profiling. 

Due to these advancements in the field of Forensic Science, related investigative techniques were slowly embraced by the judicial systems. The courts of today both in India and around the world have provisions (either explicit or implied) that permit evidence received by way of the aforementioned investigative technique for a better understanding of the case at hand. 

Forensic Science in the Legal Scenerio

American Scenario 

The relevance of forensic science was first accepted in the United States of America in the early 20th century. In the year 1923, the concept of expert witness testimony started gaining ground. In the case of Frye v. the United States 293 F. 1013, the court had failed to consider the testimony of a polygraph instructor who claimed that the rise in blood pressure of the accused in the polygraph process directly shows that the accused is lying. The court, by rejecting that claim, stated that admissibility can only be given to that evidence that gained a common and general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs. 

The year 1975 saw the US Supreme Court circulating the Federal Rules of Evidence, which were enacted by Congressional legislation. These rules stated that forensic science findings should be deemed relevant and not prejudicial to any type of criminal investigation. The year 1987 also saw the first case that had gone through the trial process with the usage of DNA evidence. The pitchfork case was one in which a British man was initially suspected of two rape-murders in his locality who was released only after the DNA evidence of 5000 men proved that the crime was committed by a man of the name Colin Pitchfork. After this, DNA evidence became an important and common method based on which convictions or acquittals were decided by the court. By the year 1998, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of America established the National DNA Index System for the various American law enforcement offices to access and analyze DNA profiles from all across the country for their evidentiary requirements. 

As of the present, the United States Department of Justice sees forensic science as a ‘critical element of the criminal justice system’. The government, therefore, recognizes the importance of forensic science with the evidence laws as they state that forensic science helps the authorities to uncover clues and evidence from crime scenes and elsewhere to help these authorities in the investigation as well as prosecution of the real suspects and release the innocent from any suspicion of a crime. For this, the Department of Justice has established forensic science laboratories with various departments such as Alcohol, Firearms, and Explosives, Drugs, FBI, etc. 

Indian Scenario 

Indian law provisions are clearer with regards to the admissibility of forensic evidence before the court of law. Admissible evidence is one that cannot be outright dismissed based on insubstantial, unclear, and irrelevant arguments of the opposite parties. This kind of evidence holds a probative value in the Indian judiciary system. 

The criminal laws that focus on proof or evidence in the Indian Context are mainly the following – the Indian Evidence Act of 1872 (IEA), the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1973 (CrPC), and the Indian Penal Code of 1872 (IPC). Out of the three, forensic science is majorly held as permissible evidence under the Evidence Act. 

Under the Evidence Act, S.45 is the most important section about forensic science and investigation.  S. 45 states when a third party’s opinion becomes relevant to the Court. An opinion of a third party is relevant when the matter in the discussion is entirely technical, that the judge is not expected to have any knowledge about. The topics can vary from a foreign science, art, law, handwriting, etc. and the judge is allowed to rely on an expert who is proficient in the particular field. An opinion given by such a professional is known as an Expert Opinion. The evidence of a forensic scientist comes under this expert opinion where the expert is the scientist who uncovers scientifically-backed factual evidence from the crime scene and other related settings. 

An illustration of the above would be: In a homicide case, it is unclear whether the victim was murdered by A or B. A forensic scientist, who is an expert with dissecting a murder scene, can speak up about the fiber present in the victim’s clothes and link it to either of the two perpetrators or a third unknown one. In this situation, the court called for the forensic scientist’s expert opinion because of a lack of knowledge on the matter at hand.

However, India, unlike the US is a developing country that is sometimes restrained regarding letting scientific advancements take over the traditional judicial system that is dominated by the human mind. This problem has manifested in the form of the disregard for DNA test results in the court of law. The criminal codes such as CrPC and Evidence Act were incorporated in a time where scientific methods were not common in determining the guilt of a person. Though it is not a good excuse, many courts even now do not admit the modern mechanism of DNA test results because they believe that it comes in violation of the Right to Privacy under A.21 of the Indian Constitution, or even due to ‘public policy’. However, it has been reiterated time and again in the cases of Govind Singh, K. S Puttuswami, etc. that this right to privacy is not an absolute one. 

A landmark judgment for admissibility of DNA evidence is in the case of N D Tiwari. A person of the name Rohit claimed that he is the biological son of Tiwari which Tiwari claimed to be false. However, Tiwari was also reluctant to go for DNA testing as he further claimed that it would be a violation of his privacy and would also garner public humiliation. But the Apex court stated that the test results would not be revealed to the public eye which also makes the possibility of public humiliation non – existent. The court further stated that Tiwari’s reluctance cannot be a way for his possible son to not get the justice he so deserves. When modern mechanisms such as DNA tests make it possible for the uncovering of factual evidence, the judiciary must act upon them for the furtherance of justice and fairness in the country. 

However, till now, there is no specific legislation for DNA testing as legally acknowledged evidence before the court of law. Sections 53 and 54 of CrPC however talks about the examination of the suspect by medical practitioners on reasonable grounds of investigation. Moreover, forensic toxicology has gained a steadier ground in Indian law by there being separate acts for poisoning, drugs and cosmetics, narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances, etc. Fingerprint evidence is also legally permissible under S. 73 of the Evidence Act

Issues Faced by Forensic Science  

Even with all the technological advancements, the main factor that is pulling down the usage of modern forensic investigative methods is the traditional mindset of the Indian public. The lack of knowledge surrounding these methods leads to a distrust in the minds of the commoners who have been relying on age-old methods of finding out the ‘real culprits’ through archaic means. 

Moreover, forensic science is still a scientific method that ultimately relies upon human beings who are subjected to errs and miscalculations. This also does not present a good picture to people who heavily criticize the modern forensic techniques of investigation. Another disadvantage that the Indian scenario is likely to be affected more is the fact that the forensic tools and equipment are costly and energy-consuming. The state may not have enough resources to supply good quality equipment due to which their functioning might be subpar. 

Impact on Evidence

Even with a few lacunas, forensic science has still made an outstanding contribution to the field of investigation all around the world. Methods such as fingerprint analyzing, DNA profiling, facial reconstructing, fiber analyzing, etc. time and again prove to be important concepts necessary for the rule of law and evidence. It has made it much easier for the judicial system and other authorities to garner almost bullet-proof evidence thereby increasing the chances of administering justice to the aggrieved. 

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