Forensic Science: Uncovering the truth

Dr Melanie Klinkner

Dr Melanie Klinkner, lecturer in Law at BU’s Business School, has devoted recent years to exploring the use of forensic science in two international criminal proceedings: the          International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and the Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), which is trying former members of the      Khmer Rouge.

The nature of atrocity crimes prosecuted at an international level is such that the accused is often a senior ranking military or governmental figure, with no direct involvement in any given base crime.

Forensic evidence is therefore called upon to show whether the scale and methodology of killings discovered         supports the hypothesis of systematic activity; a point that often needs making for higher-order charges, such as crimes against humanity and genocide, to be proven.

Dr Klinkner’s work grapples with a key conceptual debate surrounding the trustworthiness of forensic science as evidence.

“Challenges to forensic science are not so much rooted in rejections of scientific methods,” explains Dr Klinkner, “but in the problems of overcoming specific geographical and cultural variables. Ongoing hostilities, adverse weather conditions and cultural sensitivities towards the scientific examination of the dead are        common in places where forensic science is not well-developed as a tool of the criminal justice system. With current practices of relying on third-party investigations at the International Criminal Court (ICC), there may also be questions about the integrity and effectiveness of outsourcing forensic fieldwork.”

Another challenge Dr Klinkner acknowledges in the excavation of mass graves is that many have been contaminated by previous attempts.

The totemic ‘pyramid of skulls’ in Cambodian mass graves may be an iconoclastic image of the horrors of the       Khmer Rouge, but they pose difficulties for forensic anthropologists due to the alienation of crania from skeletons, the contamination of evidence and divorce of evidence from the crime scene.

Indeed, the cultural, religious and political imperatives of the aftermath of genocide are often in conflict with the dispassionate task of forensic science – the need to remember; to bury and grieve; to immortalise; to forgive; to display in museums; to collect with a view to remembrance rather than to analyse: all these motivations and           activities may sit uneasily with the requirements of a criminal investigation.

Ultimately, the examination of forensic evidence in international criminal tribunals requires an interdisciplinary      expertise – between legal scholarship, natural science and social science. Dr Klinkner and her colleagues in the Law Department, together with forensic archaeologists from BU’s School of Applied Sciences, are rare in being able to address so many aspects of forensic science in this evolving discipline.