Klatzow wants legacy of ‘forensic heresy’ carried on
Cape Town - South Africa’s pre-eminent independent forensic scientist David Klatzow is looking for benefactors to help him establish a not-for-profit enterprise to extend invariably costly forensic services to those who can’t afford it.
He also hopes to set up a training programmeto share his more than 30 years’ experience in advancing the cause of investigative science, by doggedly challenging orthodoxies and subjecting conventional certainties to rigorous examination.
The outspoken scientist and author of two books on the difficulties and the pitfalls of forensic science, told Weekend Argus in an interview at his Rondebosch office that South Africa’s recent entry into the world of DNA forensics meant the risks associated with imperfectly understood science, and sometimes sloppy methods, could affect growing numbers of people, many of whom would almost certainly not be able to afford the expensive professional services required to test or validate evidence against them.
In the popular mind – partly on the strength of unrealistic public expectations engendered by television series about forensic scientists, such as CSI – DNA tests, along with other indicators such as fingerprint and hair analysis, or bullet lead analysis, were considered dependable or decisive in proving guilt or innocence. But, on the strength of his own considerable experience, and telling cases elsewhere in the world, such certainty was unfounded.
There was a strong need, he said, for promoting “heretical” thinking that challenged the authority of orthodox assumptions, and he was keen, after a long career, to share his expertise and the considerable resources of his private lab with new entrants into the field, and with clients who might not otherwise be able to afford the service.
“I want to leave a legacy, and I do not want my lab to be sold off when I drop off the twig. It has a value as a going concern, and I have what is probably the best library in South Africa on forensics. Equally, I do not want the experience I have to die with me.”
Klatzow is hoping to attract funding for a non-profit organisation to finance the day-to-day running of the lab, enabling him to train new scientists, and give help to the less well-off. An additional benefit would be “that it would also keep the State on its toes”.
One of the problems with forensic science in South Africa was that it was located primarily with the police force.
“Science is always plagued by the possibility of bias, and while it is generally held that ‘seeing is believing’, in forensic science, often, ‘believing is seeing’. The result is confirmational and collegiate bias.
“I realised this early in my career, but it is not something that’s easily said without experience. Over the years, I said exactly this and whenever I challenged the State I was painted as the devil incarnate, and treated with the extreme wariness that behoves working with Satan himself.”
Klatzow said that over the course of his career he “began to see the flaws and gaps in traditional forensic science, ideas ahead of their time”.
These had come to the fore in recent years, in part through the work of the likes of cognitive neuroscientist Itiel Dror, and in the book, Strengthening Forensic Science, The Path Forward (produced by National Institute of Justice in the US) “in which all the old supposedly trusted procedures – fingerprints, bite-mark and hair analysis, and bullet-lead analysis among them – have been shown to be prone to contextual bias and are underpinned by science so weak it barely deserves to be called science.” In addition, South Africa’s new DNA Bill “introduces a new set of problems”.
“First, we don’t know what the long-term effects of this law will be, but are learning as we go along. Its success depends on having a very large database which, almost by definition, is inaccessible to the defence, because the State claims that it includes private information (though at same time the State says nobody could ever get at the private information).
“The second problem is that the actual inferences which are being drawn are not exactly what has been sold to the courts.”
Scientists were telling the courts that DNA was “infallible”.
“The truth is, it’s not. In one case in the US, 117 top labs were given the same sample. At one extreme, one lab said there was a one in 640 000 chance of an exclusion. At the other end of the scale, it was 1.18 times 10 to the power of 15. How can the same sample produce results so vastly different? The reason is that we do not know what the real gene frequencies are.”
He cited another instance where a DNA sample was measured against a database of 65 000 people and was found to match 90 of them.
“This means you have to take a hard look at statistics, and recognise that what’s being sold in the DNA world is not necessarily the same as the reality.
“In a case in Britain, a sample was sent to 17 labs; one said the man could not be excluded, four said the results were inconclusive, and 12 said the man could be excluded. Until we sort that out, we have a problem.”
Klatzow – whose books, Steeped in Blood, The life and times of a forensic scientist, and Justice Denied, The role of forensic science in the miscarriage of justice, give much attention to his own experience of confronting such inconsistencies – said preserving the space for “heresy” was vital to ensuring forensic science’s validity and usefulness.
“All progress comes from heresy – and I’m talking of the likes of Galileo (excommunicated by the Roman Catholic church for the temerity of suggesting the Earth revolved around the sun), (Max) Planck (the originator of quantum theory), (Albert) Einstein (formulator of the theory of relativity), (William) Harvey (who described blood circulation)… and all stagnation has come about through adherence to authority.
“So I am hoping to establish, as a legacy, an institution that will participate in heresies and forward the subject. But I won’t be able to do it unless we get buy-in from people who value justice,” Klatzow said.