One of the things I learned quite quickly after I started going out to crime scenes for the FSS was that although they may not be visible to the naked eye, many – or all – of the pieces of the puzzle are there somewhere. You just need to understand what happened in order to know where to look for them so that you can start to fit them together to create a coherent picture. Context is vitally important in almost every case. And one of the things that can be very useful in helping you to understand the context is reading the statements of surviving victims, witnesses and any suspects. So there was considerable consternation – expressed by many of my colleagues and by me – when a notice was issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions towards the end of 1981 saying that forensic scientists would no longer be routinely supplied with statements before they examined evidential items.
Apparently, it had been decided that, ‘The danger of supplying statements in advance is that the scientist, under cross-examination, is liable to be accused of having “tailored” his findings to fit in with his knowledge of the alleged circumstances of the offence.’ While that may have sounded sensible in theory, the new regulation was a nightmare in practice. Because what it meant was that we were denied a proper framework for choosing the most useful items to examine and test within the context of the specific circumstances of each case and to understand the potential significance of the results. Fortunately, the police officers who submitted work to us understood that, and often bent the rules, until eventually everyone just seemed to forget about them.
Meanwhile, scientists at the six FSS laboratories – at Wetherby, Chorley, Birmingham, Chepstow, Huntingdon and Aldermaston – were becoming overwhelmed by cases. Service levels dropped, and morale dropped with them. The Home Office, which had invested heavily in new laboratories, obviously wanted to find a solution to the problem that would enable the scientists to get through more work more quickly. So they decided to send inspectors to one of the FSS laboratories to do a sort of time-and-motion study.
We all understood why the Home Office was keen to work out how many forensic scientists were actually needed and how big the labs ought to be to enable the work to be done as efficiently as possible. What was so exasperating was the fact that the people employed to do the assessment and write a report clearly had no understanding of what was involved in forensic investigations. Nor, apparently, did the people whose job it was to read and interpret that report. The laboratory they chose to inspect was the one at Chepstow. And as everything that was said about it was also true of all the other FSS laboratories, including my own at Wetherby and then Aldermaston, there can’t have been many forensic scientists who weren’t absolutely incensed by some of the comments that were made.
One infuriating ‘observation’ concerned some scientists who had gone out to a crime scene and then ‘just stood around’ for the first half an hour, instead of immediately getting down to testing things.
Apparently, no one thought to ask the scientists what they were actually doing. If they had, they would have discovered that they were trying to work out what might have happened before deciding what tests they needed to do and which items to take back to the laboratory for further examination. It was a misunderstanding that I addressed in a subsequent letter of protest I wrote, which was just one of many irate and indignant letters that were written in response to the Chepstow report.
One of the things I said in the letter was that, ‘Scene examinations have been glossed over in the report, yet this is one of the most testing areas of the forensic scientist’s work . . . The scientist needs an inquiring, alert and scientifically trained mind to interpret signs correctly, to distinguish between the significant and insignificant in an overwhelming mass of clues, to know which items need to be examined in depth and which may safely be ignored – an increasingly difficult task in the face of mounting selectivity.’ The word ‘selectivity’ was a reference to attempts to improve efficiency by cutting down on the number of items we examined, focusing on those that were of most apparent relevance. Obviously, if you weren’t going to look at everything, you had to be particularly careful not to exclude anything important. The points I was making are still relevant today, to a greater or lesser degree. As my director at Aldermaston used to say, going to a crime scene can save two weeks in the laboratory. To which, in view of some relatively recent changes in the commissioning and delivery of forensic services, one might now add the addendum, ‘but only if you know what you’re doing’.
Reaction to the Chepstow report notwithstanding, what was becoming obvious was that change to the FSS was badly needed, and that it was coming.