Ahead of Dundee University’s latest Saturday evening lecture, forensic anthropology Professor Sue Black tells MICHAEL ALEXANDER why forensic science is growing ever more important in the solving of international crime.
As one of Britain’s leading experts in human identification, Dundee University’s legendary Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology Professor Sue Black has investigated some of the most high profile and horrific international war crimes of our times.
She has sifted through the burned, maggot-ridden remains of Kosovan war victims with her bare hands to see if physical evidence corroborated claims they had been murdered by Serbian soldiers.
And she has travelled to Sierra Leone, Thailand and Iraq on behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to help identify the bodies of those killed in natural disasters and massacres.
So it is with anticipation that she looks forward to welcoming the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to Dundee University on March 5 to discuss the importance of scientific evidence in high-profile trials.
Fatou Bensouda, a Gambian lawyer and the first female to lead the Office of the Prosecutor at the ICC in The Hague, is one of four highly successful and inspirational women leading the next instalment of the university’s Saturday Evening Lecture Series.
Bensouda’s office investigates and prosecutes cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. She was heavily involved in the international criminal trials associated with Rwanda.
She will be in conversation with leading Scots lawyer Dorothy Bain QC to discuss the use of scientific and other evidence in the investigation of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Professor Black, along with Professor Niamh Nic Daeid, will introduce the event, entitled ‘International Crime’.
And with March 5 also International Women’s Day, the talk will take on extra significance as it is one of the first events in Dundee University’s Women in Science Festival, organised to celebrate the role played by women in science, technology, engineering and maths.
“The really interesting thing about this lecture is that we don’t really know how it will go,“ Professor Black told The Courier.
“But I would expect that Mrs Bensouda will probe into areas of how challenging is it for women working in the International Criminal Court circuit, and how difficult is it for women in law. I would anticipate but I just don’t know that she’ll look at the changing landscape of international crime.
“With so much of international crime now occurring digitally and online, how does that affect the criminal courts? How has the criminal court evolved? All of these things are up there. And I suspect Dorothy Bain QC, whose work and recommendations led to the formation of Scotland’s National Sexual Crimes Unit in 2009, will also probe her background and how she came to be in the position she is in, because she’s a terrific role model for women. They both are.”
Forensic science has helped put the likes of Bosnian Serbs Radovan Karadi and Ratko Mladi on trial for alleged war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.
Yet Professor Black says there’s still work to be done to further improve confidence in the unassailability of forensic evidence in court.
This was recognised in December when Dundee University was awarded £10 million to establish a new research centre for forensic science.
The grant came from the Leverhulme Trust and aims to ensure the science remains a “vital component” of the criminal justice system.
“My principal role is identification of victims,“ Professor Black explained. “This is something that has become increasingly important in the modern international judicial system.
“If the international courts are going to prosecute someone for murder, for genocide, then you need to be prosecuting them for the murder of somebody, and you need to know who that somebody is.
“Because if you are prosecuting somebody for the murder of Joe Bloggs and then Joe Bloggs turns up alive, then that prosecution holds no water.”
In terms of international focus, then it’s Kosovo that’s had the greatest impact on her.
“It sent out a message across the world that said if you are a political leader and your intention is to suppress those who don’t agree with you, then the international courts will come after you.
It’s that warning shot which says, this is unacceptable behaviour. And to be able to prove that in a court room, we needed to be able to have unassailable forensic evidence.”
But as well as identifying the dead, it can be just as important to identify the living.
“There is always the old school science that says a body has to be identified using forensic science, but a lot of the work we do is now in the identification of the living,“ Professor Black said.
“You might have somebody that comes into Heathrow on a false passport and they will claim they are 17 because the international rights of the child state that if you claim to be a child we have to house you, we have to educate you, we have to ensure you are safe, that you are fed. Our job then becomes to determine ‘are you a child?’ And that has huge importance in terms of international crime and trafficking across borders. Trafficking is not a new crime but it is certainly one that is on the increase.”
Identification of the living saw Professor Black and her team given a commendation last week by Great Manchester Police for identification of a sick sex offender.
“We are getting a police commendation from Greater Manchester Police, and that is about identification of perpetrators from images of individuals that are involved in child sexual abuse,“ she sighed.
“This guy in Manchester has gone down for 15 years for the rape of a two-year-old girl. He videoed it and drugged the child so that she would be compliant. It’s horrendous. Up until that point he had said ‘no comment no comment no comment’, but when our report came in identifying him from his anatomy in the video, it was ‘ok then, change of plea’. That change of plea is incredibly important because you save a shed-load of money in the court room which is important for the public purse, but much more important it means that little girl and her family aren’t having to give evidence in court.”
*‘International Crime’ takes place at the Dalhousie Building, Dundee University, on Saturday March 5 at 6pm. Free tickets for this event are available by visiting www.dundee.ac.uk/sels, emailing email@example.com, calling 01382 385108 or from the university’s Tower Building Reception. Overflow theatres may be in use and the Main Lecture Theatre is filled on a first come, first seated basis.