Court to weigh dubious evidence

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FORENSIC experts hope the High Court will set new limits on the use of questionable scientific evidence in courtrooms in two ­upcoming cases.

In the first, Honeysett v The Queen, the High Court has been asked to consider whether “face mapping” or “body mapping” from CCTV footage constitutes “specialised knowledge” within the meaning of the NSW Evidence Act.

Anthony Charles Honeysett, an Aboriginal man, was accused of being one of three men involved in an armed robbery of a hotel in Sydney’s northern beaches in 2008. At his trial, an anatomy professor testified there were eight common features between Honeysett and the offender in CCTV footage.

The offender wore a pillowcase or T-shirt over his head, a long-sleeved top and long pants. There was also some DNA evidence linking the accused to the crime, but he argued this was circumstantial.

Gary Edmond, a legal professor at the University of NSW, said body mapping was one of many identification techniques — including those used to match bite marks, ballistics, soil, voices and foot, shoe and tyre prints — that had never been validated. He said such techniques were routinely used in courts in ways that no scientific study could support. “The specialised knowledge in this case is the interpretation of images,” he said.

“Yes, he’s a highly qualified professor of anatomy, but the question is, how do you interpret low-quality CCTV images where the person’s wearing a disguise? We don’t know whether he can do it or how well he can do it.” He said such techniques could be evaluated, but that had not happened. “We’ve been allowing these people in and we get the same problem in case after case,” he said.

Professor Edmond said research on unfamiliar face-matching had shown it to be very error-prone, and those with experience, such as anatomists and passport officers, performed no better than ordinary people. He said courts needed to read the need for reliability into specialised knowledge, as they had done in other jurisdictions. “The danger is that the evidence will be misunderstood by the jury and that may lead to wrongful convictions,” he said.

The ABC’s Radio National Program discusses this in the link below. Press play to listen to the Podcast.

In the second case, Fitzgerald v The Queen, the High Court has been asked to decide whether a mixed sample of DNA from two or three people, taken from what appeared to be a blood stain on a didgeridoo, was enough on its own to convict the accused.

Daniel Glenn Fitzgerald was convicted of murder and causing aggravated harm, as one of a ­larger group involved in a family brawl that left one man dead and one with brain injuries. Other than his DNA being found on the didgeridoo in the home, he was not linked to the group, and the prosecution did not proffer a ­motive for him being involved.

Charles Sturt University professor Jane Goodman-Delahunty said the problem was that scientific evidence of a DNA match, even if strong, was not proof an accused was at a crime scene.

She said, in Fitzgerald, the question was whether the mere fact of a DNA match was unduly persuasive to the jury and overwhelmed other considerations about potential innocent explanations for the match.

“Juries are usually cautious about relying on circumstantial evidence, and prefer direct evidence,” she said. “In the case of forensic scientific evidence, and DNA profiles in particular, research has shown that they do not show the same degree of caution and may infer that evidence of a match establishes that the ­accused was at the crime scene and committed the crime.”

She said jury research showed jurors could be “blinded by ­science” — and mere evidence of a DNA match could increase their tendency to convict.

Independent DNA consultant Brian McDonald said he believed courts should not use DNA to convict someone with a total lack of corroborating evidence.

The ABC’s Radio National Program discusses this in the link below. Press play to listen to the Podcast.

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Source: Australian Business Review & ABC Radio National