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Picking up the pieces

The tests [must] be carried out by trained and qualified scientists. There is, however, a dearth of such experts in Indian forensic labs today, write Kiran Bedi & VN Sehgal.

india Updated: Jan 06, 2007 00:44 IST

Two gory visuals telecast during the coverage of the shocking tales of kidnapping, rape and murder in the Nithari urban cluster of Noida prompted this article. The first image showed the crude instrument that was used to dig out the skeletal remains of over 30 (and still counting) children and women. The second image showed the long claw of an earth-remover used to extract the human remains from the by-now notorious drain. By using such ‘medieval’ measures, the police have dealt a serious blow to the forensic investigation of the case. This case cried out for the presence of forensic scientists and medico-legal experts — including psychiatrists — from the very first visit to the crime scene.

Vital days have slipped by and already the defence has a strong case. If the prosecution’s case has to be ‘rescued’ and taken towards conviction — nothing short of a death penalty — despite there being no eye-witnesses, forensics will form a vital part of the case. The bones that have already been collected form the first stop of forensic inquiry. It is most important to know whether the bones collected by the prosecution are of human or animal origin. The forensic expert would consider the structure of the jaws, the hands, the feet and the skulls to establish whether they indeed are of human origin. If a large number of bones are recovered, there is no difficulty in establishing the source. Hence the prosecution ought to have collected as many bones as possible, since a single bone may make the task of identification more difficult. Bones that are not very old can be identified with simple techniques like human antisera (tissue mapping).

The case will need to link the dead with their blood relatives. Modern forensic techniques make use of DNA profiling and help identification in the most reliable manner. DNA (deoxy ribonucleic acid) is the basic genetic material present in all nucleated cells of the body. It stores all hereditary characters of an individual that he or she inherits from his or her parents. DNA profiling has been accepted by foreign courts as well as  Indian ones as the most reliable method for establishing the parentage of a victim. DNA can be extracted not only from old bones but also from burnt bones, blood, semen, hair with roots and saliva. Thus, bone studies can establish the parents of a child whose bones are subjected to this test.

In order to find out whether the set of recovered bones belong to one person or more, they may be arranged to form a skeleton. If there is no duplication and the bones fit inter se, they belong to one individual. Otherwise, they come from more than one person — as has been informed in the case of the Noida killings by the post-mortem report so far. In the Nithari case, the skulls seem to have been cut cleanly by an expert. Chances of a medical practitioner being involved cannot be ruled out, a scenario that has been considered in the post-mortem.

Certain bones, such as the vertebrae and the mandible (jaw bone), are highly characteristic and help to determine the number of victims. Thus, once again, ‘maximum recovery’ from the scene of the crime was vital. Determining the age and the genders of the victims is an important issue and is possible by checking the hair, the pelvic bone, the smoothness of bones and the number of teeth of the victims.

Photographic superimposition is another tool in the forensic kit. This technique needs to be followed up with investigations that could suggest the likelihood of a particular set of remains matching a particular missing person whose photographs are available but whose positive identification has not yet been established. In such cases, images of the skull, if any, can be compared with the submitted photographs to establish identification. This procedure is useful in excluding possibilities. Positive identification is possible depending on the uniqueness of the features observed. Comparisons are conducted through the use of digitalised images on a computer. This technique has been modernised by many experts, including forensic scientist Dr P. Chandrashekharan. DNA identification, however, remains the most reliable and definite method of identification.

In the case of the Noida killings, not only does one have to deal with identifying the victims but one also has to link the suspects with the crime. With no eye-witness, the prosecution has a difficult job ahead, basing its case only on the basis of tests involving narco-analysis, lie-detection and brain-mapping techniques.

Narco-analysis is essentially psychotherapy, conducted while the person is in a sleep-like state induced by barbiturates or other drugs as a means of releasing repressed feelings, thoughts or memories. The results of the tests conducted on the suspects of the Noida killings are not known yet. But if the tests are successful, the recovery of more missing parts of victims may be traced,  leading the prosecution to more possible discoveries.

Brain finger-printing uses a technology developed in the Nineties in which a suspect is carefully shown  selected words, phrases, weapons, the scene of the crime, photographs of victims, etc. on a computer screen. It is claimed that these images will only be recognised by the perpetrator of the crime and that this ‘recognition’ (EEG or brain wave responses) will be registered through sensors attached to a suspect’s head onto a computer generated image. This  is an alternative to the polygraph test, which has rendered enormous assistance to police investigations.

The key issue, of course, is regarding the acceptability of these forensic results in the courts. Between December 26 and 28, 2006, a workshop on technical and legal issues in connection with the polygraph test, narco-analysis and brain-mapping was held at the National Institute of Criminology and Forensic Science in New Delhi, which was also attended by senior police and judicial officers. The admissibility of these tests in courts was discussed at length and certain favourable recommendations with regard to their reliability were drafted for further action. It was felt that courts may accept the results of these tests as they are ‘reliable’ and based on modern technology. The only point to be considered by the courts was that these tests be carried out by trained and qualified scientists. There is, however, a dearth of such experts in Indian forensic labs today.

So the answer lies in providing extensive training within India and abroad to qualified scientists so that they can acquire expertise in these fields. In the process, they will be able to assist courts in a more meaningful manner without any shadow of doubt cast over their expertise and deductions. In the case of narco-analysis, in particular, the test merely confirms an already known fact. Such tests merely make it easier for the court to accept the facts. Most importantly, nowhere is it written that these tests are not to be accepted in court proceedings.

The Noida killings will not evaporate from our collective psyche in a hurry. In fact, it could be the test case for the science of forensics to help crack a case.

Kiran Bedi is an IPS officer. VN Sehgal is a former Director, Central Forensic Science Laboratory, Delhi

Barkha Dutt’s column will return next week

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