Forensic Cultures in Modern Europe

Willemijn Ruberg, Lara Bergers, Pauline Dirven and Sara Serrano Martínez

Omslag boek Forensic cultures in modern Europe

The influence of expert witnesses in the courtroom does not only depend on the available scientific knowledge or technology. International, comparative research shows that the role of experts is strongly determined by the type of judicial system, the specific crime, and the cultural and political contexts. The Utrecht University-based researchers from the FORCE team (Associate Professor Willemijn Ruberg and PhD candidates Lara Bergers, Pauline Dirven and Sara Serrano Martínez) present this finding in Forensic Cultures in Modern Europe, an international edited volume on forensic practices in modern Europe.

Different legal systems

Since DNA has come to be applied in court cases since ca. 1990, new technology has been seen to be hugely impactful on courts of justice. Particularly the twentieth century witnessed the rise of modern technologies such as fingerprints and hair analysis. However, viewing the role of forensic scientific expertise through a cultural-historical lens shows the variability in the roles of expert witnesses in different European countries.

Their influence also depended on the type of legal system: in accusatorial systems, such as in England, experts had to take the jury into account. But, in addition, every European country knew rules, anchored in procedural law, on the admissibility of evidence. In her chapter on the prosecution of sexual violence, Lara Bergers describes the great value attached to witness statements as evidence in the Dutch legal system, even during a period in which internationally trace evidence (the so-called ‘silent witnesses’) was increasingly preferred over human witness statements.

Willemijn Ruberg
Dr. Willemijn Ruberg

The cultural and political contexts

The political and cultural contexts influenced the role and influence of forensic experts such as doctors and psychiatrists as well. Pauline Dirven, for instance, highlights how British pathologists presented themselves as ‘objective’ experts in the courtroom by wearing a dark-coloured lounge suit (instead of a white coat or a more formal suit), in order to portray themselves as bourgeois men who were impartial and did not take the side of either the prosecution or the defence. Sara Serrano Martínez demonstrates that Spanish forensic doctors under the Franco-regime were partial in cases of infanticide, and adapted their reports to the politically desirable outcome, even in a seemingly purely-scientific debate on the question whether a baby could bleed to death when the umbilical cord had not been tied.


Cultural ideas about gender impacted images of victims, perpetrators, and experts. Alison Adam discusses a civil case revolving around a paternity claim in Scotland in 1957-1958, particularly the role played by research into blood groups. The rejection of this novel type of evidence may be explained by the broader socio-cultural context, in specific public opinion on divorce, illegitimacy and the role of mothers in mid-twentieth century Britain. The mother was perceived to be an unreliable witness, falling victim to the same misogynistic stereotypes that plagued girls and women who reported sexual assault.

The ‘crime of passion’

In their chapter Volha Parfenchyk and Willemijn Ruberg address the ‘crime of passion’, an old-fashioned and euphemistic term for what is now called ‘femicide’. They compare this crime’s definition and its prosecution in practice in (Soviet) Russia and the Netherlands. The cultural discourse in both countries constructed an ‘Other’ against a national identity. Russia regarded the murder committed out of jealousy as a typical feature of capitalism, since communism did not consider the woman as a possession.

In the Netherlands, jurists, psychiatrists and journalist wrote, the ‘crime of passion’ did not dovetail with the rational and sober national character. This crime’s perpetrators were claimed to be mostly French or Italian and they were seen to commit the crime to protect their honour, which was punished mildly in Mediterranean countries. These Dutch cultural images did not always correspond with judicial practice, in which judges but also psychiatrists did work with the notion of the ‘crime of passion’.

The edited volume – including chapters on the Netherlands, England, Italy, Spain, Norway, Portugal, Scotland and Germany – thus shows the importance of analyzing the role of experts in judicial practice.

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