Jefferson B, Fourth Floor 01 Nov 2018 Organized Session
Human and Social Sciences 15:00 - 17:00

Contemporary forensic science has achieved unprecedented visibility as a uniquely compelling example of applied expertise. Dominated by new laboratory-based techniques, practitioners and the public they serve live in an apparent era of forensic infallibility, characterised by precision methodologies deemed capable not merely of solving the most intractable of contemporary criminal cases, but also of assessing, and correcting, conclusions derived from past investigations. This fascination rests on a normative standard of forensic truth, determined in particular by the practices and procedures of DNA typing, which has impoverished our ability to recognize, understand, and explain forms of forensic practice operating in other times and other places. The purpose of this panel is to explore ways of thinking about forensics, past and present, from a broader, historical and trans-national perspective. The papers raise questions about the importance of “location” (temporal and spatial) to the production and enactment of forms of forensic knowledge – differences in legal systems (e.g. burdens of proof, roles of experts and witnesses), in scientific institutional infrastructure and the degrees of credibility that they sustain, in the skills and distribution of investigative personnel, in financial and practical constraints on investigation, and in the popular cultures of forensics and of criminality within and against which forensic practitioners operate.

Organized by Ian Burney (Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester)

Forensic Facts and the Presumption of Innocence
15:00 - 15:30

For a quarter century the “Innocence Project” has garnered public attention for using DNA evidence toward the exoneration of persons wrongly convicted of crimes, often by means of forensic techniques that, in light of DNA no longer seem authoritative.  And yet DNA collection/interpretation remains a mainstay of fact-making within a forensic science closely tied to policing and prosecutorial institutions. Relying on a survey of programmatic statements in textbooks and similar sources from the eighteenth century onward, this paper explores a broader question of the deployment of science within legal institutions, i.e., was there an intrinsic bias in the forensic science enterprise itself? Did writers see their enterprise mainly as ancillary to the work of prosecution or mainly as the protecting innocent persons from popular prejudice or misleading appearances? While to some degree the answers to such questions reflect the structures of legal systems, they also reflect views about the nature of science, its appropriate organization, and its role in civil society. I shall briefly explore too the translation of those assumptions into procedural maxims, by addressing the tension between empiricism and interpretation evident in such texts.

Planted Poison and the Chemical Examiners in British India
15:30 - 16:00

This talk examines the work of British India’s chemical examiners (1879-1947) not only in detecting criminal poisoning, but also in identifying cases of fabricated evidence in which poison was planted by colonized subjects to frame adversaries. Colonial stereotypes about ‘native mendacity’ powered the turn to forensic science during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: if the courts could rely on scientific experts and test results, they could sidestep the perjury and forgery that was believed to be rife in ‘this land of lies.’ The belief that colonized subjects might try to frame their rivals by planting poison also produced a heightened awareness of the risk of wrongful convictions, at least when produced by lab work. The talk features cases of mineral poisons planted in liver and stomach samples where the form or location of the poison was wrong. It also examines debates over best practices in the sealing and preservation of forensic samples. Ever mistrustful of non-elite South Asians, British officials were convinced that lower-caste postal and railway workers would add arsenic to unaccompanied forensic samples traveling to regional toxicology labs. The talk draws upon the annual reports of the chemical examiners from the British Library and intra-departmental correspondence from the National Archives of India.

Who Murdered Haim Arlosoroff? The Politics of Acquittal in Interwar Palestine
16:00 - 16:30

On the night of June 16, 1933, Dr. Haim Arlosoroff, head of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency was shot while strolling along a Tel Aviv beach with his wife. Speculation was rife concerning the identity of the murderers: was this a sexual assault or robbery attempt or was this a political assassination? If the latter, were these Arab nationalists who had targeted a Zionist leader or were these anti-British communist operatives? Were these perhaps German agents who acted on the behest of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, whose wife had allegedly had a romantic encounter with Arlosoroff?


Given the high profile of the case, the murder investigation was overseen directly by the newly appointed head of the Palestine Police Criminal Investigation Department, Harry Rice. No forensic innovation was spared in determining the identity of the killers: from Bedouin trackers to ballistic and fabric analysis conducted by some of the most prominent forensic scientists of the time, Sydney Smith and Alfred Lucas. Ultimately, those prosecuted were members of Arlosoroff’s political rival, the Zionist Revisionist Party. Though the court found the two guilty beyond reasonable doubt, the two were acquitted on what amounted to a peculiar procedural technicality in Palestine law. I analyze the political considerations that led the court to exonerate on the one hand yet attribute the acquittal to a technicality rather than to the inherent weakness of the forensic evidence.

Spatters and Lies: Technologies of Truth in the Sam Sheppard Case, 1954-1966
16:30 - 17:00

This talk considers the contrasting forensic regimes involved in the celebrated 1955 trial and 1965 re-trial of Dr Sam Sheppard for the murder of his wife Marilyn. The first regime cohered around the Cleveland Coroner Sam Gerber, who took charge of the scene investigation, conducted a highly-publicized inquest, and provided sensational trial testimony which included his claim to have recognized the pattern of a ‘surgical instrument’ impressed on Marilyn’s bloody pillow. A second regime developed in the wake of Sheppard’s conviction and centered on the Berkeley criminologist Paul Kirk. Kirk provided an alternative, but equally striking, reading of the blood evidence: where Gerber saw qualitative, holistic shapes, Kirk deployed a pioneering (and since celebrated) exercise in spatial reasoning based on the emerging discipline of blood spatter analysis. 

The acquittal of Sheppard at his 1966 retrial could be seen as an instance of modern forensic technique as a catalyst for justice – with analytical and objective methods overcoming judgements based on mere common sense and local interest. I will suggest that this simple story obscures the more interesting – and surprising – route taken by those seeking to establish Sheppard’s innocence. In this campaign it was the polygraph rather than spatter analysis, and the detective writer Erle Stanley Gardner and the flamboyant defence attorney F Lee Bailey rather than Kirk, that took center stage. This twist, I will suggest, allows us to reflect on the inherently complex relationship between forensic facts and the broader context within which they are produced and

university of notre dame
University of Wisconsin-Madison
UC Hastings College of Law
Centre for the History of Sience, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester
Centre for the History of Sience, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester


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