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The Oscar Pistorius trial and the role of forensic bias

Conflicting interpretations of forensic evidence

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Published: 11 September 2014 (GMT+10)
forensic-crime
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The trial of South African Olympic and Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, charged with the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, has received a great deal of international media coverage recently. The judge1 in the case allowed the proceedings to be open to live television coverage, unusual for the South African criminal court system. This provided an insight into the nature of forensic interpretation which is also of relevance to the origins debate.

Both the prosecution and defence called expert witnesses to offer testimony on their behalf. Various forensic experts presented evidence on the trajectory of the bullets and the order in which they struck the victim, the source of screams heard on the night of her death, whether loud noises heard by neighbours were from gunshots or a cricket bat striking the bathroom door behind which the victim was cowering, the period before death she had last eaten based on her stomach content, and various other items of evidence relevant to the criminal investigation.

What was of great interest was that the experts appearing for both sides in the Oscar Pistorius trial presented conflicting interpretations of the exact same evidence. In all of the evidence listed above, the experts had differing opinions on the rates of processes, the order of events, the height from which shots were fired and their order, which bullet holes in the door corresponded with wounds in the victim, whether screams heard could be attributed to a male or female, and so on. And this is interpretation of evidence that was collected within hours and days of the shooting.

A legal commentator on one of the shows covering the trial made the observation that while expert evidence was meant to be impartial and objective, the two parties involved would hardly pay for and present evidence unless it was favourable to their case. This is an example of ‘He who pays the piper calls the tune’. And these ‘pipers’ are paid handsomely; up to about R15,000 a day (roughly US$1,500), an amount equal to about ¼ of the annual household income in South Africa. This is not to imply that these witnesses were necessarily being deliberately dishonest. It is just that bias obviously does play a significant role when it comes to interpreting such things as the past processes and time periods which resulted in the evidence which is observed in the present.

CMI regularly points out the fact that in the matter of origins, investigation of the past is not the same as observational, repeatable, experimental science. We often refer to this as historical, origins or forensic science. We observe phenomena such as fossils, canyons, rocks, living cells and DNA in the present. We can measure and observe the height, width, shape, quantities and processes going on in these phenomena in the present; but we cannot observe or repeat the nature, rate or time of processes in the past that led to the origin of those phenomena. Time is the most precious of commodities; once a moment is gone, it is gone forever. Things that happened thousands, or in the case of evolutionary belief millions of years ago, cannot be replayed. If an event that occurred just a few hours, days or months ago cannot be reconstructed from forensic evidence with any measure of certainty, as in this criminal trial, often with contradictory interpretations, the idea that ancient history can be reliably known from forensic evidence alone, is absurd.

And crime forensics even has the benefit of being able to carry out control experiments to monitor the rate of some processes. Cadavers are buried and their rate of decay observed, food eaten at a known time prior to death can be examined in the stomach to try and establish rates of digestion, the distance certain sounds can carry can be measured, the time taken for muddy shoe prints to harden can be measured. These observations can then be applied to a particular crime scene. But even then each crime takes place in different circumstances, and every victim is unique; making absolute certainty on the interpretation of forensic evidence elusive. When it comes to the origin of our vast universe and amazingly complex earth, and the breath-taking diversity of life, we do not even have the benefits of a control experiment. There is only one universe and we are living in it. We do not have another one that we have objectively observed to see how it formed. What utter hubris to imagine that we can tell an accurate story about the past times and processes that resulted in such a universe, merely by observing it in the present! If such storytelling is ambiguous at best for an event that occurred a year ago, how much more so for events alleged to be outside of recorded history?

One of the expert witnesses for the defence in the Oscar Pistorius trial described himself as a ‘forensic geologist’. With a Masters degree in geology and extensive experience in the mining industry (mineralogy), academia and crime forensics, he seemed to offer credible expertise. However, the prosecution very quickly undermined his credibility in offering evidence on ballistics and acoustics, areas outside of his field of expertise. In an interview prior to his appearance, he said that when he was approached by the Pistorius team, “’I almost turned it down,’ says Dixon, ‘because of the past, you know, you sort of tend to be on one side’.”2 Hardly a reassurance of objectivity, even though the same article says that “Dixon says in his field there is no room for prejudice”. Possibly he is a product of an intellectual paradigm that believes itself capable of reliably telling big stories about the distant past based purely on observations in the present. He therefore had the seemingly misguided confidence that he could accurately tell stories about the recent past based on the same principle. Both notions are misguided.

CMI, along with other organisations and individuals supporting the biblical account of creation and the Flood, often point out that unprovable assumptions play a huge role when it comes to establishing the past history of something based on the interpretation of forensic evidence. These are philosophical assumptions, the most dominant today in the matter of origins being philosophical naturalism, or materialism; the belief that all the phenomena in the universe, including its origin, can and must be accounted for by purely natural and material causes. A ‘divine foot’ is not allowed in the door.3

Another assumption that has played a major role in the development of evolutionary theory over the past 200 years is that of uniformitarianism, the idea that processes observable in the present are the key to interpreting the past. Even many secular geologists and biologists are increasingly rejecting this notion, at least in its purest, most dogmatic form, and invoking other explanations. These include multiple major catastrophes in the case of geology, and unscientific concepts such as panspermia (life seeded from outer space) or versions of the Gaia hypothesis (the entire earth, including the biosphere, is a ‘living’, self-regulating entity)4 in accounting for life.

Further, with the lure of prestige, fame and fortune accompanying evolutionary ‘discoveries’ in academia today, and with most universities firmly ensconced within the reigning materialist paradigm, one would have to be naïve not to believe that much of the evolutionary interpretation is also influenced by the rewards that come with telling the ‘right’ stories. Materialistic bias in a materialistic world–much as there was bias on display within criminal forensic interpretation during the Pistorius trial.

Another marked feature of the Oscar Pistorius trial has been the weight placed on either validating or discrediting eyewitness testimony, most notably the accounts given by various (ear) witnesses of the screams and loud bangs they heard that terrible night, as well as what lights were visible in the house. Again, legal commentators pointed to these testimonies as being the most important in weighing the evidence against Pistorius. That is because, when it comes to the past, an objective, reliable eyewitness account of events carries the most weight. When it comes to origins, the claimed evolution from the Big Bang onward had no eyewitnesses and has never been observed in the field or repeated in a laboratory.5

By contrast, creation had the ultimate, most reliable and truthful eyewitness possible, the eternal Creator God Himself. And He has given us an account of that supernatural, six-day, once-off event—primarily in the book of Genesis, but confirmed by many other passages of the inspired Word of God. Noah and his family were eyewitnesses of the Flood judgment about 1650 years after creation, and God (and possibly Noah himself) ensured that the account was also recorded for us in the Bible. As in a court of law, let us take the objective, unbiased account of the ultimate eyewitness at His plain meaning when evaluating the evidence for where this wonderful universe, including mice and men, has come from. When we do so, we will find that all of the ‘forensic’ evidence available to humanity as made in God’s image makes perfect sense when interpreted in the light of that record.

References and notes

  1. Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa, Gauteng Division, High Court of South Africa. Return to text.
  2. Time magazine online article, Oscar Pistorius Hires Dream Team Ahead of Murder Trial, 7 February 2014. Return to text.
  3. Richard Lewontin, Billions and billions of demons (review of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan, 1997), The New York Review, p. 31, 9 January 1997. Return to text.
  4. creation.com/slaying-dragon. Return to text.
  5. There are many articles on creation.com showing that the variation and adaptation seen in nature, and often involving natural selection, provides no evidence of goo-to-you evolution, showing rather an overall downhill trend in the living world. Return to text.

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