Forensic science: Closing the gap between facts and fiction

The credibility of any criminal justice system lies in the fairness of court ruling rendered. Unfortunately, sometimes we see criminals getting away unpunished while in other instances, the innocent are wrongly prosecuted. It is a global phenomenon.

In putting together pieces of the investigative puzzle, investigators traditionally applied different techniques most popularly being collecting accounts of eye witnesses or victims. 

But with criminals getting cleverer and crime more sophisticated, using scientific methods and resorting to forensic evidence has so far proven the most effective way to ensure fair justice and by extension fight crime.

Traditional investigation techniques involved combing crime scenes for evidence, interrogating suspects and interviewing witnesses.

This was a problem given that there are so many factors that can impair the accuracy of eyewitness’ testimonies like the stress or confusion that generally follow any incident of criminal nature; not forgetting that sometimes there are even no witnesses to testify.

Therefore, law enforcement institutions greatly stepped up their capabilities to solve crime by adopting different modern scientific methods of forensic techniques and procedures.

Forensic technology includes scientific analysis of evidence recovered at a crime scene and then presents the findings to judicial authorities. Forensic evidence is analyzed through different scientific methods like ballistics, blood tests, DNA test and fingerprints matching.

At times, all these are used to put together a criminal case but it is not a must that all are deployed; depending on the nature of the crime committed, even one method of the above may suffice.

Rwanda National Police (RNP), in its continuous effort to ensure that criminals are brought to book and victims get justice, uses various methods of investigation including modern scientific techniques and forensic science.

With the establishment of the Kigali Forensic Laboratory (KFL) in 2005; RNP through the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) has been able to effectively support the judicial system in closing the gap between fact and fiction during a criminal procedure.

The forensic laboratory supports the justice sector by providing scientific evidence which, when corroborated with testimonies and other conventional techniques, further help investigators to build a strong case for prosecutors.

However, if one of these pieces of evidence is not identified in time, collected or well preserved and tested, its forensic value may be greatly depleted or even lost forever, which in effect affects the case.

KFL has different divisions or units and each unit deals with a particular type of evidence. They include the physical evidence division, biological evidence division and chemical evidence division.

Physical evidence deals with fingerprints, footprints and handprints analysis, questioned documents analysis, footwear and tyre marks corroboration.

The biological evidence division deals with body fluid search and recovery, DNA sampling from body fluid, hair tissues and bones.

Todate, KFL only searches and recovers DNA samples, document examination and fingerprint analysis.

However, the DNA samples have to be sent to Germany based on a MoU between National Prosecution Office and University of Hamburg.

This is still a challenge in terms financial costs and time. But with the newly built Rwanda Forensic Laboratory that is set to be operational soon, all analyses will be done locally which will not only reduce cost but also expedite justice delivery.

The new multi-million dollar laboratory will offer about ten forensic services including DNA, toxicology and ballistics.

Toxicology is a test done on a person who, for instance, is poisoned while ballistics are tests that involve arms and explosives.

Officers from the chemical evidence division identify and analyze poisons or drugs and their effects on the body; chemicals on different crime scenes like fire accidents or arson. On such scenes, investigators seek to identify whether there is presence of fire accelerants, which help the investigator to conclude for a fire accident or arson.

One cannot ignore the fact that science is not perfect and all forensic science methodology and discipline suffer shortcomings. Trace evidences alone cannot prove that a particular individual committed a crime. Forensic scientists are able to identify who left particular evidence but they cannot determine when the evidence was left, which complicate the reconstruction of a crime.

Despite these challenges, it is without doubt that the adoption of forensic methods is a major upgrade of our investigative techniques.

Also, more efforts have also been put in training police officers in forensic sciences, and with the ongoing process to establish the Rwanda Investigations Bureau (RIB), we can be sure to see an increase of the conviction rate, which rose from 79.5% in 2016 to 84.2% in 2017, as remarked the Prosecutor General in the ceremony of officially launching the 2017-21018 judicial year.

In an era where we are facing more atrocious crimes, sex crimes, drug related crimes, cyber-crimes… It is time we engage a more strong impetus to make sure no criminal easily gets away with it.

The writer is an officer with Rwanda National Police

The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.