SCOTTISH scientists are working with judges to improve confidence in forensic evidence being brought before the courts amid a growing crisis over techniques beloved of TV crime shows such as CSI.
Experts say forensic science is facing an impending emergency, with concerns raised over the reliability of commonly used evidence - such as fingerprints, bite marks and blood splatter analysis - and a series of recent high-profile miscarriage of justice cases.
Last week a shocking report emerged in the US which found the testimony of scientists from an elite FBI forensic unit which carried out microscopic hair analysis - matching defendants and a hair found at a crime scene - was scientifically indefensible in 95 per cent cases which have been re-examined.
Loading article content
The review found FBI examiners provided flawed evidence which pointed to the guilt of the defendants in 257 out of 268 trials between 1972 and 1999. In 32 of these cases, the defendants were sentenced to death - 14 have already been executed or have died in prison.
And it is feared this is the tip of the iceberg: more than 2,500 cases involving the unit are under review, and the FBI experts provided training on how to present evidence in court across the country raising the prospect of tens of thousands of other cases being affected.
Professor Niamh Nic Daeid (CORR), of the University of Dundee's Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, told the Sunday Herald a recent summit had been held in London to bring together international researchers, academics and members of the judiciary for the first time to discuss how to make sure courts have confidence in forensic evidence.
Nic Daeid, who organised the event with colleague and leading forensic anthropologist Professor Sue Black, said the issues surrounding the reliability of forensics were global.
"At the meeting we had very senior judicial engagement, including the judiciary from Scotland, which was the first time we had really got to that point," she said.
"We are pushing to develop almost a common approach and to provide background scientific information, so the judiciary will have confidence in the science that is coming before them in the courtroom.
"Science and the law are not comfortable bedfellows - we usually speak with each other in an adversarial manner in the courtroom, so what we need to do is speak to each other in a much more collegiate and conversational manner to try to address what our common problems and common concerns are, which is what we have now begun to do."
A three-part BBC Radio 4 series on forensics, which began last week, highlighted recent high-profile cases involving failures in forensics include Barry George, who spent seven years in jail for the murder of TV presenter Jill Dando before his conviction - based largely on a speck of gunshot residue found in his pocket - was overturned.
Other recent scandals include the case of Scottish police officer Shirley McKie, who was paid compensation after being wrongly accused of visiting the scene of a murder on the basis of a thumbprint.
Last month Italian judges cleared American Amanda Knox of the murder of UK student Meredith Kercher after doubts were raised over DNA evidence.
In 2009, a report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in America uncovered serious problems over flawed science - such as fingerprints, bite mark and blood spatter analysis - being presented in courtrooms by unreliable experts, yet being viewed as foolproof evidence in court.
Another type of forensic evidence which came under attack as unreliable in the NAS report was hair analysis. This technique, based on matching particular characteristics in a strand of hair, first became popular in the 1950s, but it has now been replaced by more sophisticated DNA analysis.
Speaking on Radio 4's "Forensics in Crisis" programme, which is broadcast on Tuesday at 11am, Nic Daeid said the NAS report exposed "significant scientific deficiencies" in the methods to both examine and interpret evidence.
She said: "In many areas the NAS was looking at a number of different types of what we would call really quite conventional evidence types that is used almost on a daily basis - looking at examination of things like fibres and hair and so on....there was a general concern around the validity, around the professionalism of how forensic analysis was being carried out."
She added: "Forensic science and forensic evidence is not a national issue, it is an international issue. The techniques we use in the United Kingdom are the same techniques broadly speaking as are used in the United States or in Europe or in Australia or elsewhere around the world. So for many of the evidence types, it is completely relevant right the way across the world."
There are also concerns with funding of forensic services in England and Wales. The Forensic Science Service, which carried out testing and research south of the border, was closed by the UK Government in 2012, resulting in the world's first commercial private market for forensic services.
But Nic Daeid said Scotland was in a stronger position as it has the Scottish Police Authority Forensic Services laboratory, which is funded by the Scottish Government, as well as a community of academic experts who work together.
She added: "In Scotland it is a much more collegiate community, because we are a small country and we know each other and we know each other's skills and expertise.
"As a consequence of that I think there is a much more well-defined and certainly less fragmented approach to forensic science here."