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Sunday, 5 January 2003  
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Forensic Blunders

by Shanika Sriyananda Liyanage

Lack of knowledge, trained personnel and facilities is making a mockery of hi-tech criminal investigations carried out by the Government Analyst's Department, where conclusions are based on the faulty system of matching blood samples. Department officials themselves are now questioning the accuracy and reliability of their system of scientific investigations, making one wonder just how many innocents have been found guilty of rape and murder and how many felons have been set free.

Raped ... and ... strangled ... 16-year-old Samanmalee was killed two years ago. Her parents and the villagers wanted the culprit to be punished. But there wasn't enough evidence to convict him. In a desperate bid to solve the case, the court ordered hi-tech forensic investigations on the blood stained garments to tie the offence to the accused.

The victim's blood stained garment and a T-Shirt rescued from the scene, as evidence was handed over to a scientific officer, who matched these 'bits and pieces' to unravel the mystery of the rape/murder.

The culprit was identified as a close relatives of the victim, and the Court meted out the maximum punishment - death sentence.

This is just one of the cases where Sri Lanka's only Forensic Science Laboratory, the Government Analyst's Department (GAD), had bwwn called upon to use their expertise to solve a case which had almost reached a dead end. Although the GAD's input helped to solve this and many other similar cases, and although forensic investigations is being hailed as a huge step forward in criminal investigation methods it has also exposed the glaring inadequacies of the GAD, which in the end may prove to be more harmful than helpful.

Hampered by lack of facilities and personnel, officers of the department are in doubt about their investigations, especially when it concerns the results of rape cases.

This calls for some significant questions: Does this mean that those accused of murder and rape judged guilty on the basis of scientific evidences provided by the GAD, and sentenced for life or given the death penalty are in fact innocent? Is justice being manipulated in our bid to join the forensic bandwagon. And more significantly, what will happen to those who have already been found guilty based on 'forensic evidence'. Can the ordinary people continue to have faith in the law?

Doubts build up, while the proposal to improve criminal investigation facilities and introducing much needed technical know-how and equipment remains just a proposal.

"Yes, sometimes we are doubtful about the results, especially the outcome of rape cases because we lack faculties for DNA testing, admitted a high ranking official of the GAD.

When contacted W.D.G.S Gunatilake, Assistant Government Analyst (Explosives), said that though the suspect was more often than not identified as the felon by examining the blood stained garments of the victim, it is now difficult to say whether the blood belongs to that particular person or some one else.

"This is due to the absence of DNA technology, which is vital and the advanced technique applied in most of the countries in criminal cases.

If we can prove that the seminal fluid belongs to the suspect, it will be vital evidence to prove that the person had indeed committed the act of rape", he pointed out, stressing" We really need the DNA technique to pin down the real criminals".

"We can do wonders in criminal investigations, especially in rape, murder and accident cases", he said. Gunatilake said that over 50 per cent of the rape cases brought to their attention were reported from Ampara, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa districts and the majority of the victims were young girls from very poor families.

"Some research has to be done as to why there such a high number of rape cases reported from these districts. Most of the cases go unreported due to lack of knowledge on how to and where to report them", he added.

"We are satisfied with our investigations and we try our best to identify the culprit with the available technology", countered K. Sivaraja, Government Analyst, pointing out that the Secretary of the Ministry of Justice and Law Reform was very keen about establishing a DNA laboratory, which has a high degree of accuracy. "We will start it very soon", he said, but claimed that no one at the GAD was trained to carry out DNA testing.

He appreciated the support given by the scientific officers of the Department to solve over 17,542 of the 22,965 cases sent to the GAD during last year.

The Department, which provides analytical services mainly for state institutions, examines a myriad number of cases ranging from murder to rape, narcotics, firearm and ammunition, explosives and poisons, questionable documents, sweep tickets, forged coins and notes, liquors and food samples, cosmetics and 'hit and run' cases as part of the routine chores. It plays a vital role in resolving many cases, especially in incidents where there are no eye witnesses. But it has also become a 'house of lament ' for more staffe and modern technology.

One of the major problem faced by the Department is the severe shortage of scientific officers. Repeated requests to the Scientific Services Board, which make the appointments, has fallen on deaf ears.

According to Sivaraja, more than 14,542 cases are pending, mainly due to the shortage of trained scientific officers. The present cadre is 43. But the department is running with just 26 officers.

The cases received by the department has been increasing four fold annually.

The department also finds it difficult to send scientific officers to appear in courts and examine the scene of the crimes due to the shortage of officers.

On the other hand, according to Sivaraja, the officers also lack foreign training which is necessary for them to enhance their expertise, especially to give evidence in Courts. Since 2000, no one has been sent for training abroad.

The officers are sent to UK and India normally. " The Treasury, which granted Rs. 3 million for annual training, has cut the amount to Rs. 2 lakhs, this year", he lamented.

Sivaraja stressed the need to establish a separate laboratory for illicit liquor, which top the list of investigative cases received by the department. "Of the total, over 40 percent of the cases are for illegal liquor - kasippu and goda. Over 1000 such cases are received monthly", he said.

However, the department also face the difficulty in storing the bottles that are already examined due to lack of space in the century old building.

"We have to pack and store all examined bottles till the Court orders them to be removed. Storing of these bottles is a big problem for us", he pointed out.

What is DNA

Inherited from parents, 'Deoxyribonucleic acid' (DNA), is the fundamental building block for an individual's entire generic make up, which is considered the chemical blueprint that makes each of us unique.

One half of child's DNA is inherited from his or her mother while the other half from the father. Except identical twins, no two persons will have the same DNA, but every cell in a person's body has the same DNA.

A very small part of a tissue or smallest trace of body fluid of a person is enough and blood, saliva, sperm cells, muscle, teeth and bone can be used for DNA testing.

The DNA profile of the victims will be compared with DNA tissue samples found at the crime scene.

DNA evidence

DNA evidence was first used in England by Prof. Alex Jefry in a rape murder case, in 1984.

The first murder case in Sri Lanka that used the revolutionary gene technology - the DNA evidence -was the Hokandara massacre. The testing was done by the University of Colombo. Here, the blood was extracted from the bloodstained cloths of three suspects and then the DNA. Then it was matched with the blood samples of the victims.

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