By Joar Kvamsås
Serial, The Jinx, Making a Murderer. The last few years has seen an upsurge of documentary serials that deal with the complexities of figuring out what and who perpetuated crimes. And how easily eyewitness evidence can be forged, falsified, twisted and in general unreliable. Oftentimes, the question of guilt comes down to the opposing stories of a witness and the accused. What do we do in cases where the crime is too serious to ignore, but the truth about it is hidden from us?
The modern day response is to hope that forensic science can give us the answer. Prosecutors havealready for a few years lamented the supposed»CSI-effect», claiming that shows such as CSI:Crime Scene Investigations have shaped the public imagination and made jurors expect widelyavailable and technically advanced forensicevidence in order to convict. With its fingerprints, ballistics identification and DNA evidence, the sterile and futuristic forensics lab can apparently provide the objectivity and accuracy that eyewitness testimony lacks.
The problem of whether to trust testimony is not a new one, and neither is the impulse to seek the truth by some impersonal and objective force. Perhaps the most infamous of these was the medieval practice of Trial by Ordeal, in which the accused were put through some kind of painful and wounding treatment, such as walking across red-hot ploughshares, or walking a number of steps while holding a red-hot iron. Interestingly, the ability of the accused to withstand this torturous treatment was rarely the factor deciding guilt or innocence. Rather, these trials functioned more like empirical experiments; one common practice was to bandage the burn wounds, and guilt was determined by inspecting them three days later to see whether healed healthily, or were infected.
In his book Strange Histories the British historian Darren Oldridge emphasises how medieval belief systems were not, contrary to common perception, dominated by irrationality and hysteria. Rather, he claims, people of the medieval period were both moral and reasonable – the difference lies in the baseline axioms that made their world view so different from ours. The first axiom entailed that truth could be found by the authority of ancient texts, the most prominent being the scriptures of the Bible. Secondly, it was assumed that the world was inhabited by a mass of invisible forces, including spirits, demons, witchcraft and curses. In a magic-induced universe ruled by an omniscient and interventionist God, trial by ordeal was not an unreasonable practice.
Trial by ordeal was usually a last-case solution where no other testimony or evidence was available than that of the accused or the accuser, such as sexual infidelity or heresy. It was not uncommon for the accused themselves to request trial by ordeal, in order to prove their piety and innocence. While trial by ordeal is nowadays most often associated with witch trials, they were actually rarely used in these cases. Instead, confessions were usually obtained through torture. Ironically, those accused of witchcraft would probably have had better chances of acquittal had they undergone trial by ordeal instead. Interestingly, the practice of trial by ordeal was not ended because of a changing understanding of truth and reality in the medieval period. Rather, its outlawing was based on the axioms that inspired it: Holy scriptures did not actually sanction judicial ordeal, and the church declared that no court could demand a miraculous result from God. What then about the axioms that leads us to increasingly rely on forensic science in modern court rooms? The chemistry sets and apparatuses of the forensics lab hold the promise of being everything that human testimony is not: Objective, unbiased, not open to interpretation. In recent years, many of the most used forensic techniques have come under scientific scrutiny, including fingerprint matching, the practice of matching bullets to firearms, and burn patterns in fire investigations. A 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences in the US claimed that among the most common techniques in forensic science, the only methods that have passed the standards of modern scientific scrutiny are those that have been recently developed, such as DNA testing and drug screenings.
Much like the medieval condemnation of trial by ordeal, modern criticisms of forensic techniques is not brought on by a paradigm shift in how we think about truth and judgment. Like the medieval Christians, we do not reject our source of truth and its nature – rather, we acknowledge that our power to reveal the truth by manipulating the world is a lot more limited than we would like.