Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The ABC for good or evil?

Seemingly great attainment?

Reported by the ABC's Australian Story: THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL

The program was based on Dr Lynne Milne as the only forensic palynologist in the country who was the focus of the Australian Story.

The media drew viewers in because of her seemingly great attainment that had previously never recognised until she met superintendent Haydn Green who heads up the forensics division of the Western Australian police force.

He had a suspect that he wanted to find guilty based on the chances of a spouse killing a spouse which were greater in anycase, at least more likely than that of a stranger.

Michael Bodsworth - who was Samantha's de facto and father of her two children - was the prime suspect.

The only problem was that the suspect de facto lived in another State and they could not place him at the crime scene.

For about 3 seconds the show mentioned that after the forensic palynologist evidence was discovered and the accused was told about it he then gave a statement to police admitting to the crime. [?]

But no evidence was reported along those lines on Australian Story. [?] Whether that was true needs to be investigated because the forensic material is also a bit of a worry. [?]

Is this a new scientific way of solving crime or a scientific way of framing people for a crime? Did any other scientists investigate the methods used by Dr Milne for their validity?

The real shonkiness in forensic palynology is that there has not been anywhere near enough work done on the distribution and variability of different pollens to be able to know what - if any - significance can be placed on a match.

If the crime was committed in the victim's exotic plant nursery and the suspect who denies he was ever there has pollen on his clothes from an incredibly rare plant found only on Sumatran mountaintops or in the victim's greenhouse then you've got some evidence. But cases like that only come up on TV.

The real scenario is likely to be someone like Dr Milne takes the stand and swears that microscopic traces of pollen on the suspect's shirt matches that produced by one or two flowers near the murder scene - the judge and jury nod their head and the defence lawyer, who failed high school science, looks worried and mounts an ineffective cross examination.

Questions never asked is how common pollens matching those might be, whether those flowers might also be grown in the front yard of the suspect's neighbour's house, how far the pollen can spread from source due to wind and insects, etc, whether police from the murder scene also came into contact with the suspect - possibly inadvertently or otherwise transferring traces of pollen or even how many other people's clothes were tested to see if they too had traces of matching pollen (which might imply that it is fairly widely distributed).

It reminds me a bit of some dodgy evidence the notorious South Australian forensic scientist, Colin Manock, gave about seeds allegedly found in mud on the suspect's car that matched seeds from the murder scene. [?]

What the jury didn't hear is that those kinds of seeds are extremely common on SA roadsides at that time of year and could be expected to be found on the cars of almost everyone who drove in the countryside.

Firstly, she only checked for the presence of the wattle at the suspect's home and the murder scene - nowhere else. Those wattles may be as common as muck all over the rest of QLD and could have ended up in the suspect's car as the result of driving almost anywhere - not necessarily to Noosa where the body was found.

Secondly, her own problems with static electricity etc showed how easy it is for that sort of pollen to spread and stick to things - demonstrating how incredibly easy it would have been for the evidence to be contaminated. [?]

Thirdly, she *dropped* the evidence (a tiny speck of pollen) on her own carpet and hunted around on the floor until she found a speck of pollen she *assumed* was the same one she dropped. [?]

The incriminating evidence could have come from her own garden or been tracked in on her kids shoes.

Fourthly she says "I look at them not as I'm trying to prove somebody guilty or innocent but it's I'm doing the science and the result will then tell me whether the person is guilty or innocent".

This is a classic example of what Professor William Thompson causes 'forensic examiner bias' and is a leading cause of wrongful conviction with expert evidence. [?]

The 'science' does *not* tell anyone whether someone is guilty or innocent - it simply provides evidence that a *court* is supposed to use to determine guilt or innocence.

There could be dozens of reasons she got the result she did which are still consistent with the innocence of the suspect (e.g. she made an error, the evidence was contaminated or planted, the pollens matched by chance).

If she wrote her reports and took the stand while believing that 'science' had already 'proved' the suspect guilty it would have affected the way she reported her procedures and results and how she gave evidence. After all, in her mind, unless she could convince the jury that science had fingered the guilty man then a murderer would walk free - maybe to kill again.

Most people trained in science are consequentialists - they believe that outcomes determine whether or not a particular behaviour is ethical (lawyers are trained to be proceduralists - if they follow the appropriate procedures they are being ethical, regardless of what the results of doing so might be). To a consequentialist it is OK to lie, if by doing so you are getting the 'right' result in the end (e.g. the conviction of a guilty person).

So if Milne is a consequentialist who sincerely (and mistakenly) thinks that science had 'proved' that Bodsworth was guilty, she would have had few qualms about exaggerating the evidence and hiding any possible errors she had made if it would increase the chance of a guilty verdict.

Australian Story:

When Dr Lynne Milne was asked to help solve the murder of Samantha Bodsworth, her only previous dealings with police had been blowing into breathalysers and receiving speeding tickets.

However the single mother and PhD student, who was just recovering from her own personal tragedies, got drawn into the world of forensic science and crime.

Through her knowledge of microscopic pollen, Dr Milne was able to apply her skills to smashing the alibi of a murderer, and in the process change the course of her own career and of criminal investigation in Australia.

Her evidence in the case of Samantha Bodsworth resulted in the conviction for murder of Samantha's former de facto husband Michael. As the only forensic palynologist in the country, Dr Milne is now in demand by police forces in several states.

Her new work takes her far from the stuffy confines of the laboratory. Though she never planned to get involved in the human side of crime, she has become close friends with the grieving family of Samantha Bodsworth.

Australian Story tells the tale of one woman's mission to bring forensic palynology to the forefront of Australian crime fighting.

The Garden of Good and Evil - Transcript

SNR SGT JULIE ELLIOTT, PRESENTER: Hello, I'm Senior Sergeant Julie Elliott from the media office of the Queensland Police. Tonight's Australian Story is about a scientist and a single mum. She's helped develop a whole new field of forensics based on her expert knowledge of pollen. Recently, she's helped solve some serious crimes in Western Australia, but it all began with a murder investigation in Noosa a few years ago. This is Lynne Milne's story.

Interview with Dr Lynne Milne

Dr Lynne Milne has brought forensic palynology to the forefront of Australian crime fighting after helping to solve the murder of Samantha Bodsworth. She tells Australian Story about her journey through personal tragedy to professional triumph.

Interview with Superindendent Haydn Green

Superintendent Haydn Green heads up the forensics division of the Western Australian police force, as a former student of Dr Lynne Milne, he is excited by the way palynology is used to help solve crimes.

DNA leads 'CSI' cold-case squad to first arrest?

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