Authored By: Wasim Beg
The recent encounter involving the Uttar Pradesh police and noted gangster Vikas Dubey has made numerous headlines, opinions have been swinging from one extreme to the other. The opinions have mostly been guided by emotion and not necessarily by logic. However, that is an argument for another day. One aspect that went unnoticed was the unprofessionalism shown by the ‘forensic department’. The media had arrived and the news channels were beaming with live feed from the spot where the car with Vikas Dubey on-board had allegedly overturned. It was quite unsettling to see the casualness with which the whole issue was being handled- people from the general public were seen awfully close to the car, the officials from the ‘forensic department’ were strolling around and one of them, on being questioned by the media, casually quipped that the rain had washed away all the finger-prints and evidence and that they were on their way out. Barely a few minutes later, one could see the car in question being dragged away from the spot. One would have thought that a far more serious analysis was needed before the car could be moved from the spot. The trajectory that the car took, the tyre marks left on the spot, the angle at which the car came crashing down, the kind of damage that was caused to the car, analysis of the car on the inside, possible blood stains in and around the car would have been some rather obvious indicators as to what had happened. It was appalling to see the flippant attitude with which the whole thing was dealt with and within minutes the scene of the incident was cleared and declared open for people to move around. It throws open a wider question as to how seriously do we deal with handling of evidence at crime scenes and how efficient are the forensic departments that we have.
In India, the precedent generally followed by the Courts in the cases of admissibility of scientific evidence is that the Court normally requires corroboration as a rule of caution.
In Magan Bhiarilal v. State of Punjab[I], the Supreme Court struck down and set aside the conviction confirmed by the Punjab and Haryana High court on the basis of uncorroborated testimony of the handwriting expert. The Supreme Court observed: “It is well settled that expert opinion must always be received with great caution. There is a profusion of precedential authority which holds that it is unsafe to base a conviction solely on expert opinion without substantial corroboration.
In Mahmood v. State of U.P.[ii], The Supreme Court held that it is highly unsafe to convict a person on the sole testimony of an expert.
In Malappa Sidappa Alakumar v. State of Karnataka[iii], The Supreme Court held that if there is a conflict between medical and ocular evidence, than ocular evidence shall be preferred over the medical evidence, in case ocular evidence is acceptable, trustworthy and reliable.
It was held by the Supreme Court in Forest Range Officer v. P. Mohhamad Ali[iv] while determining the probative value of scientific expert evidence, it is clear that it assists the Court in reaching a particular conclusion where technical assistance is necessary. But it does not help the Court in interpretation. The law is well settled and it is a general rule accepted by the Courts that expert’s opinion if corroborated, can be relied upon.
A bare perusal of the law and judicial precedents in India would show that forensic evidence/expert opinions are always considered with utmost care and caution and would generally require corroboration. While this approach is thoroughly understandable and is in tune with what is followed under most jurisdictions (DNA analysis being a notable exception), this seems to have been misunderstood to mean that forensic science is not important. The use of forensic science in solving criminal cases is certainly on the rise all over the world, yet there are no such signs in India. The immensely wide field is essentially understood to be a branch restricted to analyses of finger-prints, ballistics and handwritings. Just to give an idea of the wide expanse of the field of forensics, it is worth-while to look at what a well-knit forensic department would consist of. A forensic unit that is well established would often consist of specialized units like the physical science unit, voice print unit, polygraph unit, DNA laboratory, Fire-arms unit, documents unit, psychiatric profiling unit, entomology unit, odontology unit, toxicology unit etc. Therefore, forensic science has a lot more to offer than what we usually tend to believe.
Traces of the use of forensic science can be found as far back as the times of Napoleon. The Dictator of France died in the island St. Helena, where he was kept in exile by the British. He died in 1821 and some questions were raised with regard to his death. What led to conspiracy theories doing the rounds was the fact that traces of arsenic were found in his hair samples. A seemingly innocuous question was raised by the forensics – ‘What was the colour of the wallpaper in Napoleon’s room?’ A part of the wallpaper was obtained and was seen to have developed a green pigment. It was found that the green pigment confirmed the presence of arsenic in the wallpaper and established how that was a common feature in subtropical regions. This helped rule-out the conspiracy theory and cemented the belief that he had succumbed to stomach cancer. This is an example that not only underlines the importance of forensic science but also of how what might seem innocuous to the untrained is exceptionally important to the forensic experts. This was 1821 and we are in 2020, one can only imagine the giant strides forensic science would have taken during this time. The forensic experts were also pressed into service to discard the ‘two gun-man theory’ in the JFK assassination case.
Let us now come to 2001, the fascinating ‘Adam case’ is difficult to miss. A torso (head and arms missing) was found in river Thames in Central London, the officials could not establish the identity of the victim and named him ‘Adam’. Adam was found wearing red shorts. The forensics had two things to work with, the red shorts that were found on the torso and the contents that were found inside his stomach. Fascinating as the field of forensics is, the shorts helped establish Adam’s recent travel history – the label on the shorts led them to a manufacturer in China and the batch number on the label helped the manufacturer trace that particular batch to West Germany. This became the central point to determine his travel history. Next was to examine the contents of Adam’s stomach – besides the expected, three unusual things were found – Clay, Colabar beans (found in Africa) and some Gold particles. It was established that these three things were used in African Black Magic related to human sacrifice. The investigators in combination with exceptional forensic experts had thus traced his recent travel as well as a strong indication of what he might have been through. The next important challenge for the investigation to move forward was to establish where Adam originally came from. There was ample indication that he was likely an African. With absolutely nothing to work with, the forensics decided to proceed with elemental analysis of Adam’s bones. The bone analyses often show pre-dominant presence of certain elements which could be indicative of the geographical location that one hails from. This may seem like a far cry, but it is immensely helpful in cases like these which may otherwise hit a dead-end. This technique often ends-up far more successful in-cases of people living in traditional societies that tend to eat ‘home grown’ food. The relation between eating home grown food and elemental analysis of the bones is that the elements in the bones end-up matching the rather unique elemental composition of the soil in which the food is grown. The elemental analysis of Adam’s bones ultimately led the investigators to a small geographical area in Nigeria. This case is a great example of how forensics can help establish important leads in a case where the usual ‘run of the mill’ investigation cannot establish much. This case should give a fascinating insight into what forensics are capable of achieving where the investigators hardly have anything to work with. This was in 2001, about two decades back.
Switch to India and we are all aware of the glaring short-comings in the Aarushi Talvar Murder case. Amongst other things, the forensics ignored something as basic as the blood prints/finger prints which were found on the terrace of Aarushi’s house. Aarushi’s camera was sent to a lab which did not even have the facility to retrieve deleted pictures. It was said that there was “no procedure of collecting” vaginal swabs for examination in Uttar Pradesh. Sealed covers containing forensic evidence were found to have been tampered with. How does one expect to nab the culprits with such shoddy investigation and an even worse effort by the forensics?
One could easily argue how such unprofessionalism ends-up benefitting the culprits. A comparison of the afore-mentioned Adam’s case and the Aarushi Talvar case would show how in one case the forensics helped build a case out of nothing and how in the other the lack of professionalism on their part made a solid case collapse under its own weight.
Three new laboratories that were opened in Bhopal, Guwahati and Pune and these have neither the infrastructure nor the manpower required. Instead of strengthening the depleted manpower in the existing forensic science laboratories in Chandigarh, Hyderabad and Kolkata, personnel were transferred to the new laboratories from these units for adjustment. A government appointed committee recommended that a large number of posts were required to be created in a conical pattern and that infrastructure was needed to be improved.
For a number of years, these laboratories, which had been under the tutelage and grip of police organizations from the beginning, have been forcibly groomed in the police culture. Further, the budget for the branch is a microscopic fraction of the police modernization budget. The increasing lack of quality has much to do with the unavailability of trained technicians and analysts. Many people at the helm seem to consider ‘forensic science’ to be of ‘ornamental and cosmetic utility’ to the investigating agencies. It is usually showcased only when some sensational crimes occur and is often done only with a view to satisfy the inquisitive and demanding media and citizens. Compared to other disciplines of science and technology, forensic science, experts say, is “static and stunted” in India.
The, forensics did play a decisive role in the case of Vishal Yadav v. State of Uttar Pradesh[v] where only a small portion of an un-burnt palm with fingers of the deceased were found. The process of DNA profiling helped identify the victim by matching the victim’s DNA with the DNA of the parents. However, DNA analyses have now become one of the very basic tasks that a forensics department performs.
The High Court of Bombay in the case of Anmol Singh Swarn Singh Jabbal v. The State of Maharastra[vi], the Court relied upon the DNA evidence and held up the life term for the murder of a female engineer by her colleague. Another case of Anthony Arikswamy Joseph v. State of Maharashtra[vii] the court relied on the scientific evidence of forensics of DNA profiles where the accused was convicted and punished for the murder of a 10 years old minor and subjecting him to the heinous offence of pederasty and then strangling him to death.
Cases like these certainly are encouraging and should be indicators enough for us to look to invest more and more in the field of forensic science and add teeth to our investigative departments.
The extreme importance for forensic science was beautifully summed-up by Edmond Locard when he said ‘Every contact leaves a trace’ – thereby meaning that every crime leaves a trace, just that, an expert eye is needed to find it.
[i] AIR 1977 SC 1091.
[ii] AIR SC 69.
[iii] AIR SC 2959.
[iv]AIR 1994 SC 120.
[v] (2014) SCC Online Del. 1373.
[vi] (2014) SCC Online Bom 397
[vii] (2014) 4 SCC 69.