The enactment of Law No. 41/2016 establishing the Rwanda Forensic Laboratory is an extremely exciting milestone for Rwandans because it translates into speedy reception of analysis results.
It also means that private individuals will be able to access some services like paternity tests upon request.
Since 2005, Rwanda has had a functional Forensic Laboratory (Kigali Forensic Laboratory) that processed DNA samples, analyzed Questioned Documents (documents whose authenticity is in dispute) and carries out fingerprint analysis.
The new fully-equipped laboratory looks to build on the existing services and augment the nation’s ability to solve cases based on different types of evidence.
This is a timely development because, with economic growth, crime evolution is bound to manifest at times in sophisticated ways and consequently the need for the adjustment in the approach to criminal investigation.
These developments raise the question, “what does this mean for Rwanda?” While we undoubtedly needed this upgrade for our criminal investigation capabilities, the Rwanda Forensic Laboratory is also looking to establish itself as a reliable accredited referral lab for the region.
It also means that the Rwanda Forensic Laboratory will finally have the resources to carry out research on personal identification markers found in Rwandans for tailor-made analyses.
With the fully equipped laboratory and the training of analysts, the Rwanda Forensic Laboratory will be more than capable to carry out the investigative tests.
That said, an investment in ‘Forensic Awareness’ would be next ideal step; not only for first responders (police, fire fighters, medical and military personnel) but also for the general public.
There has to be a notion on the basics of forensic science. The public should be sensitised in areas such as evidence preservation so that they are fully aware of the importance in the exact same way there is a general understanding among Rwandans on the preservation of traffic accident scenes.
The term ‘Forensic Awareness’ loosely refers to the knowledge into how to identify and understand an exhibit’s evidential value, the risks of contamination, preventative measures and protection of oneself, the scene and its contents.
It is particularly required in this day and age due to the TV-inspired misconceptions coined as ‘The CSI effect’ which refers to the exaggerated portrayal of forensic science on television shows that influence public perception.
I am frequently asked if I do all the ‘cool’ things on “Dexter” or ‘Criminal Minds” like attend crime scenes, carry out autopsies, develop the suspect’s fingerprints and proceed to search their internet history all within twenty-four hours!
Tempting as it may be to blurt out ‘yes, of course I do’; it honestly does not work like that.
What is shown on TV are novel cases depicting an extreme haze on the jurisdiction of the law enforcement agencies and the scientists; for example, a forensic scientist should generally not be simultaneously involved in both the collection and analysis of samples.
The television shows also often depict the forensic scientist showing a reckless disregard for chain of custody and collection of evidence rules which in the real world would render the evidence tainted or illegally obtained.
Evidence that is illegally obtained is not admissible in court and breaches in chain of custody will inevitably impair the probative value of the evidence.
There are of course a multitude of other misconceptions like the omnipresence of DNA and fingerprint evidence at all crime scenes and the expectation to obtain complete DNA profiles and definite answers from every analysis.
The alarming issue with such misconceptions is that all disciplines of Forensic Science are placed on a pedestal, the magic bullet, so to speak, for resolving all investigations or disputes.
This is dangerous because there are numerous cases of first-responders or scientists’ preconceptions prevailing over the actual truth. The science itself is not as unambiguous as we would like to envision it to be and there has to be a conscious effort and sense of accountability from the first-responders at the crime scene leading up to the Court room.
Factually, the science itself as a whole is known to be largely based on probabilities, with a common example being the paternity tests that will never declare the alleged father as undoubtedly 100 per cent the father but will instead be phrased as “the alleged father is not excluded as the biological father of the child’’ with the probability of paternity being 99.9998%.
What this signifies is that while the establishment of the Rwanda Forensic Laboratory is a timely boon for the country, now is the time to stay alert in order to avoid laxness in criminal investigations because forensic analyses serve to complement other investigative methods and not provide an instant resolution on its own.
All parties in an investigation, as well as the general public, have a role to play and this can begin to take shape with forensic awareness and a keen sense of accountability from all involved.
The author is a forensic scientist based in Kigali