The role of forensic medical evidence in the prosecution of adult sexual assault
Obtaining forensic medical evidence from victim/survivors is often a central part of investigative and case-building efforts in sexual assault prosecution. Developments in the collection, analysis and interpretation of forensic medical evidence have significantly expanded the role and influence of such evidence in the criminal justice system. Despite the expectation that forensic medical evidence will have some role to play in a case progressing through the justice system, it is not clear how this type of evidence results in actual convictions, either via a plea, or finding of guilt at trial.
On the basis on the available evidence, this paper considers whether forensic medical evidence is associated with positive legal outcomes and the role of forensic medical evidence at key decision points in the justice process. Although the progression of cases may be enabled by forensic evidence, the legal requirements to prove the offence of rape and the customs of an adversarial justice system can undermine the probative value of forensic medical evidence in many contested cases (i.e., those that go to trial).
National and international research presents a mixed picture of the association between forensic medical evidence and legal outcomes. Overall, forensic medical evidence was just as often associated with a positive legal outcome as not.
The research on how forensic medical evidence is used in legal decision-making suggests that criminal justice actors - police, prosecutors, juries - use forensic evidence in a variety of ways to achieve justice and organisational outcomes, including to make assessments about the "strength" of sexual assault cases and possibility of a conviction.
Little research specifically examines the role of forensic medical evidence in sexual assault trial settings. Given current debates about the interface between law and science, and ongoing debate about improving criminal justice outcomes for sexual assault matters, particularly where consent is the contested issue, this is a significant gap.
This paper presents several implications for sexual assault prosecution, including:
- whether there are mismatched expectations among the different criminal justice actors about forensic medical evidence;
- whether there is an over-reliance on forensic medical evidence by investigators and prosecutors at the expense of other forms evidence; and
- whether the availability of forensic medical evidence is a threshold issue for progressing with a case.
Authors and Acknowledgements
Antonia Quadara is the Manager of ACSSA and Bianca Fileborn is Research Officer with ACSSA. At the time of writing, Deb Parkinson was a Senior Research Officer with ACSSA.
Many people provided their professional insights and expertise during the drafting of this paper. We would like to particularly acknowledge Angela Williams, Jo Spangarro, Alistair Ross, Gregor Urbas and Roberta Julian for sharing this with us.
Quadara, A., Fileborn, B., & Parkinson, D. (2013). The role of forensic medical evidence in the prosecution of adult sexual assault (ACSSA Issues No. 15). Melbourne: Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault, Australian Institute of Family Studies.
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