Monday, December 10, 2007

Forensics as debate and discussion

For those that are familiar with this blog, you'll remember that I separate Forensics from Forensic Science. Forensics, from the Latin root "forensis," meaning forum and Forensic Science meaning the application of a broad spectrum of tools and techniques to answer questions about a particular piece of evidence in the legal system.

From the Forensics as debate and discussion files, I call your attention to  The Institute of Ideas and Pfizer Debating Matters Competition 2007/08 (link). Part of their competition involves a debate on CCTV. From time to time, we (as analysts) will get drawn into a discussion about the nature of the evidence we analyse. Here is an overview of this debate's central points:
  • Closed circuit television (CCTV) is a threat to our freedom
  • Is CCTV effective?
  • Have we sleep-walked our way into a surveillance society?
  • Surely if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear?
  • So is CCTV less like Big Brother and more like a benevolent father?
A big part of using Photoshop for Forensic work is being able to explain your results in court. Whilst on the stand and under cross examination, you may get questions like the ones above. "I call your attention to People's 34A. I find that this image is grainy and unclear. What is clear is that this does not show my client - the one sitting over there. Don't you agree? With this in mind, is CCTV effective as evidence? Clearly, I would say no ..." It's up to your side's attorney to object when appropriate to do so, but you may have to answer questions such as these. You are an expert and the courts will want to hear your opinion. That is why you are there. How do you prepare?

Check out the Institute for Ideas' page on their CCTV debate. See how the arguments are structured. See the questions and responses. Look at the articles that they cite. Examine the data that they refer to. What conclusions can you draw? Is there a particular style involved when making an argument? Do you buy their premise? Are their facts correct (one side says 4.5m-5m cameras in the UK and the other rules out private unmanned CCTV and comes to a total of around 1.5m)?

There will be a time when you are on the stand and the attorney will attempt to frame a question to suit his/her client's best interest ... and it may not fit the facts. Do you accept the premise of the question and proceed to answer from a position of weakness? Do you challenge the premise? Do you ask him/her to restate the question in simpler terms? Notice on the debate's page that there are arguments both for and against. What do you do? Challenging the premise could make you appear to be a bit cocky whereas having the question restated could make you seem as though you aren't an expert. 

Preparation is the key. Preparation starts with information; info like the links on this page. I want you to be as prepared as possible to engage in courtroom forensics as you are to engage in the forensic science for which you are employed (or wish to be employed). Of course it can be done. I am sure that, with adequate preparation and a dash of confidence, you can do it too.


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