Criminology students to investigate the ‘CSI effect’

Published 16 December 2009

dnaDr Jenny Wise, whose book The Scientific Eyewitness was published in August, is preparing to give students of criminology at the University of New England the benefit of her expert insight into the social impact of forensic science.

This has been a big year for Jenny Wise: she took up a lectureship in criminology at UNE in January, graduated with a PhD in criminology from the University of New South Wales, and saw the publication of her PhD thesis – by the German publisher VDM Verlag – as The Scientific Eyewitness: The role of DNA profiling in shaping criminal justice.

UNE’s highly successful Bachelor of Criminology degree course, introduced in 2008, already includes practical experience of DNA sampling and analysis. Dr Wise will begin teaching her new unit, “Forensic Science and Criminal Justice”, in 2010. “I’ll be looking at the social impact of using forensic analysis technologies such as DNA profiling,” she said, “- the impact both on people within the criminal justice system and on members of the general public.”

Among the factors contributing to this impact is the so-called “CSI effect” – i.e., the changing attitudes of police officers, prosecutors and juries towards DNA evidence as a result of television programs such as CSI and Law and Order. “There’s a general belief that juries are more likely to convict a defendant if the Prosecution’s case is supported by DNA evidence,” Dr Wise said. “And prosecutors argue that juries are tending to acquit defendants when no such evidence is presented.

“This perception that DNA evidence is necessary – even when it is not – can lead, for example, to police officers asking for DNA tests when other forms of evidence, such as closed-circuit television footage, would, in fact, be conclusive.”

“DNA analysis is a fantastic forensic tool,” she said. “It’s a huge step forward from eye-witness identification. But we must recognise that, as fallible human beings are involved in the process, errors – such as the mislabelling of samples – can occur.”

Recalling a recent case in which a conviction of rape was quashed after faults in the DNA sampling procedure had been revealed, she said: “DNA should never be used as the sole piece of evidence in a court-room prosecution; it should always be supported by more traditional forms of evidence.”

Dr Wise’s book The New Scientific Eyewitness examines the rise of DNA evidence as a “scientific hero” that is regarded by politicians and law enforcement officials as the new gold standard in solving crimes and preventing miscarriages of justice. It analyses the use of DNA profiling in two jurisdictions – NSW in Australia and the Thames Valley in the UK – and reveals that its use is significantly changing investigative and prosecution practices within the criminal justice system.

People interested primarily in the basic science of the subject will – from 2010 – be able to include a major sequence of Forensic Science (following either a chemistry stream or a biochemistry stream) when undertaking UNE’s Bachelor of Science degree program.

Clicking on the image displayed here reveals a photograph of Dr Jenny Wise.