Forensic expert testimony is given pride of place amongst the types of evidence that could be presented within criminal trials. The use of science to determine facts is seen as far superior to subjective eye-witness testimony or patchy circumstantial evidence.
However the case of Farah Jama, who was wrongfully convicted by the Victorian County Court of rape in 2006 on the basis of flawed DNA evidence, should give us pause regarding the ‘specialness’ of forensic science evidence.
The Jama Case
In 2005, a 48 year old woman was found semi-conscious inside a Melbourne nightclub toilet, with no recollection of what had happened the previous evening. Given the circumstances, Victoria Police suspected the woman may have been drugged and assaulted.
The victim was examined by a Sexual Assault Crisis Care Unit within a hospital for a physical examination. Routine swabs were taken and sent to the Victoria Police Forensic Science Laboratory for DNA analysis. The lab results came back with a match for Farah Jama who was arrested, prosecuted and convicted of the crime solely on the basis of the DNA match.
Problem was, Jama claimed he was at his father’s bedside the night of the assault. Moreover, no-one interviewed who was at the club that night had noticed a 19 year old man of African appearance amongst an event which catered to a predominately middle-aged Caucasian crowd.
In early 2009, solicitor Kimani Boden took on Jama’s case pro-bono and asked prosecutors to review the DNA evidence. Once medical files were reviewed by the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, doubts were expressed over the reliability of the DNA “match”. As a result, Jama was acquitted.
The most likely explanation for the faulty DNA “match” was cross-contamination at the hospital where the DNA samples were collected.
The Jama case occurred during a period of global scrutiny regarding the reliability of forensic evidence. In 2009, the US National Research Council produced a damning report on the state of forensic science in the US, finding many of the processes in place to validity forensic techniques were without merit.
Following the Jama findings, Justice Frank Vincent was asked to investigate how the prosecution case was mounted and pursued on dubious evidence.
The Vincent Report outlined a number of recommendations to improve the handling of DNA evidence in Australia. Including:
Better protocols and standards in relation to the content of examination kits for the collection of forensic samples and related measures to preserve the integrity of the DNA sampling process;
Measures to ensure too much trust in forensic science does not compromise the integrity and fairness of criminal prosecutions relying on DNA evidence; and
Further research into the presentation of expert DNA evidence in jury trials and its potential to be misunderstood by juries.
The Jama case is a good reminder that all evidence must be subject to scrutiny, even the kinds of evidence derived from the use of scientific methods.