India’s Leading Legal and Forensic Experts Call for Transforming DNA into Courtroom Evidence to Combat Rising Sexual Crimes

A compelling debate on ‘Building DNA Casework in India to Strengthen Investigations in Sexual Assault and Rape Cases’ was witnessed on the second day of the 24th All India Forensic Science Conference in Ahmedabad. Highlighting a sense of urgency to address the lacking demand for DNA casework in India, the forum drew attention to examples like that of Italy, where DNA evidence is effectively used to solve crime even in the absence of a database! The panel, therefore, recommended greater investment in the implementation of DNA casework in India and optimising existing forensic infrastructure to yield better results, improve conviction rate, and reduce backlogs.

The specialist group from forensics, law enforcement, victim advocacy, and policy & legislation, were of the view that even in cases where DNA was collected, samples were either irrelevant or DNA yields turned out to be poor. Apart from education and training of first responders and officials involved throughout the chain of custody of evidence, the panel recommended a central ‘standard operating procedure’ in the form of an investigation manual for personnel to refer to.

While last year saw the conviction rate in crimes against women fall to 18.9% – the lowest in a decade1 with only one in every four rape cases resulting in conviction, experts pointed out that little DNA casework was being generated in investigations and courtrooms. They admitted that reason was lack of training crime respondents in handling evidence, improper crime scene management, overburdened and underfunded forensic labs, and overall lack of awareness about DNA evidence collection, especially in sexual assault cases.

Speaking at the occasion, Tim Schellberg, President, Gordon Thomas Honeywell-Governmental Affair, said, “Groups in India that focus on protecting women and children against violent and sexual crime should demand DNA collection from crime scenes along with timely testing. Only then will India be able to take full advantage of forensic DNA to confirm the involvement of known suspects and increase conviction rate. Statistics and high-profile crimes in India indicate that DNA ‘collect and test’ approach is necessary to convict the guilty and provide justice to victims.”

Ravi Kant, Senior Advocate at Supreme Court and President of Shakti Vahni, said, “If India has to instill the fear of the law among criminals, we have to ensure that our forensics infrastructure is strengthened in India and brought at par with global standards. The crime scene must be protected, crucial evidence collected, scientifically examined, and analysed. DNA fingerprinting offers one of the most reliable forensic tools in solving cases of rape and violence against women, and can prove to be a potent weapon against sexual predators.”
Dr. G. K. Goswami, IPS, Joint Director, CBI, Lucknow, said, “There is a need to tackle the issues of both capability and capacity to collect and test DNA evidence effectively in India. While periodical on-job and demonstrative training of all stakeholders must be ensured, there is a dire need to augment our forensic facilities both in terms of qualified personnel and technology. Field studies have revealed that investigating agencies many times avoid preferring forensic evidence due to undue delay in forensic reporting.”

Dr. Rajiv Giroti, Dy. Director CFSL, Hyderabad, said, “To strengthen the criminal justice system, it is critical to invest in the infrastructure and upgrading FSLs for DNA collection, testing, and comparison. In most cases at present, DNA is not properly collected at crime scenes and when it is collected, it is stuck in long backlogs in the underfunded laboratories. Effective and extensive use of DNA requires an integrated approach. Efficiency and quality in the labs can only be achieved through changes in evidence collection and increased coordination between investigating agencies and other stakeholders in the justice system.”

Panellists acknowledged that while the growth of forensic DNA has been prolific in most countries, India is woefully behind. Not only does India not have a criminal DNA database program, India has not fully embraced the basics of DNA – Collecting DNA from known suspects and comparing it to DNA left at crime scenes. India successfully develops DNA profiles on less than 10,000 cases annually2. By comparison, the United Kingdom, a country 13 times smaller than India, successfully completes DNA testing on an estimated 50,000 cases per year.

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