The Innocence Network UK is a British association that investigates court cases where it is believed that miscarriages of justice might have been committed. Nowadays many universities are part of this association, such as the University of Winchester. Our journalism course, unlike many others, takes part in the investigations, and the project has even become the topic of our final year project. Despite the fact that only the third years can really investigate and take decisions, anybody can get involved from year one.
To help us getting a better understanding of our case, we met Nigel Hodge, a freelance forensic scientist, expert in DNA profiling, bloodstain pattern analysis and crime scene investigation. He investigated more than a hundred murder cases, and we definitely needed his experience and expertise to understand the scientific side of our case.
Hodge first explained us what his job is like: he has to collect forensic evidence to serve the case and to help juries take their decision. His duty is to remain impartial, he does not work for the defendant or the victim. He said that his duty was to the truth. This is one of the reasons why he doesn't want to meet the defendant, or even to see a picture of the person. According to him, it is too easy to be biased once you have seen the face of the defendant. He then explained the emotional side of his profession and the need to remain emotionally detached: "Violence does hit you, but you need to get on with it, or you won't do the job!". According to Hodge, the saddest thing on a murder scene is to see how people used to live before they died. He also confessed that he usually forgets the case once it is over, to be able to be fully concentrated on the next one.
What we've learnt
Hodge got then into more detail and gave us the information we needed to scientifically understand the forensic evidence given in our case:
DNA: there has been a great improvement in the methods used to detect DNA. The downside of this is that the devices to detect DNA are so sensitive that the results are sometimes unusable as evidence. DNA can stay several years on items, but it can degrade overtime, depending on external conditions (temperature, humidity, light). Forensic experts cannot date DNA.
Footprint: they can be very useful because they are unique and they do not disappear. However the shoes get worn and therefore they won't leave the same footprint, which makes the original footprint unusable if the shoe that made it is not found quickly.
Blood: using blood as an evidence can be tricky because if it's not frozen it is not possible to use it for anything. However if it has been frozen, you can re-use it fifteen years later without any problems.
How the re-open a case
Nigel Hodge also told us about the legal procedures to follow to be able to re-open a case.
- Getting a lawyer involved is the most important thing to do before starting anything else.
- Have your case reviewed by the Criminal Case Review Commission.
- Prove that the jury was mislead by the evidence used in the last trial.
- Show that some evidence should have been used in the trial.
- Have a good relationship with the police. They are the "enemy", but it is important to be nice and friendly to get what you want.
It can be really difficult to get evidence reviewed a second time as they might be unusable/destroyed.
Miscarriages of justice can happen because the legal team is sometimes poorly educated on forensic science. They do not always understand the forensic evidence, which in the end can lead to a poor defence.