Scientists must communicate – and effective communication is vital for forensic scientists. The challenge is to communicate findings and opinions accurately and in a manner that is understandable to whoever may have an interest in them – be it lay people, the legal profession or other scientists. It’s not always easy!
Forensic scientists write statements and reports on their results. They may also have to present evidence in person at courts of law. If their findings are accepted by both parties to the case, the forensic statement may simply be read to the court without the scientist having to attend.
Formal structures are used for statements these days. Forensic scientists set out their qualifications and experience and go on to describe the results of their examinations and provide interpretations and conclusions. It is also important to indicate what background information about an incident has influenced the work and to explain in simple terms the scientific techniques that have been used. Usually provided with the statement is a disclosure report summarising whether background database information has been used to make interpretations. When a scientist is acting on behalf of the prosecution a written statement is sent to the police who forward it on to the Crown Prosection Service who will decide whether the totality of evidence is sufficient to justify a charge. A scientist acting on behalf of the defence will forward a statement to the solicitor who has requested the work.
At courts of law, forensic scientists must communicate their results in response to questions from barristers and solicitors. In evidence-in-chief, the forensic scientist’s findings are presented and then in cross-examination they can be challenged by the representative of the other party to the case. Findings and opinions must be communicated clearly and with complete objectivity. If new background information is revealed at a trial, the forensic scientist must consider carefully whether or not it might change an interpretation.
A forensic scientist can be asked a very wide range of questions in cross-examimation. Amongst the most common when a scientist is giving evidence on behalf of the prosecution are questions about the scientist’s own qualifications and experience; whether the examination techniques employed are validated and reliable; the extent to which the evidence may link an accused person to the offence or just to the location of the offence; and the precise extent to which the evidence supports one evidential proposition relating to the crime rather than another.
We provide a template for a written statement of a structure very similar to that used by professional forensic scientists. Our events include partly-scripted role-play mini trials, structured in full like a real criminal trial, in which students assume the roles of judge, barrister, forensic scientist witness, accused, police officer, jury and usher. The forensic scientist delivers evidence-in-chief and is then cross-examined after which the jury delivers the verdict. The trials, which have humour as well as illustrating important principles of scientific communication, provide students with an insight into how science interacts with the wider world by allowing them to experience it themselves.