Ensuring the Reliability of Fire-Arm Identification Evidence

Keywords: Firearm identification, reliability, validity, cross-examination, relevance, forensic science, cartridge, bullet, criminal justice, firearm

Abstract

Notwithstanding the acceptance of firearm identification by courts, the scientific community has been reluctant to recognise firearm identification as a reliable method of conclusively establishing a connection between a particular bullet and a particular gun. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) in the United States (US) has categorised firearm identification as a discipline under forensic science, and forensic science has been described as a "fractured and burdened discipline". In addition, in 2009 the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concluded that forensic science is broken. With regard to firearm identification, the NAS Report emphasised the need for sufficient studies to be done because this report regarded this type of evidence as unreliable and lacking repeatability. The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) Report, released in September 2016, came to a conclusion similar to that of the 2009 NAS Report with regard to forensic science evidence. With regard to firearm identification, the report asserted that firearm identification evidence still "falls short of the scientific criteria for foundational validity". It is disturbing that courts across the globe are using different types of forensic science without subjecting them to scrutiny so as to determine their reliability. In the light of this, reliability and validity have become important factors which demand attention in Anglo-American litigation, even in jurisdictions that do not have a formal reliability standard (such as England and Wales, and South Africa). This article shows the role of cross-examination in establishing the reliability of firearm expert evidence. It also focusses on the role that South African forensic practitioners, prosecutors, defence counsels and presiding officers can play in ensuring the reliability of firearm identification evidence

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Published
2020-05-20
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