Non-Manipulable Things? Maintaining a Techno-Judicial Imaginary on Sealed Biological Samples in the French Criminal Justice

  • Vololona Rabeharisoa
  • Florence Paterson


This article investigates the maintenance of sealed biological samples in the context of the French criminal justice. It extends maintenance studies to judicial objects and introduces the topic of maintenance in legal materiality studies. Our contribution to these two bodies of literature is to deepen understanding of the epistemic and material politics of maintenance in a judicial context where the issue of authenticity of objects is crucial because of their legal liability. Sealed biological samples, which are associated to a techno-judicial imaginary on cold cases, exacerbate this issue of authenticity. Once sealed, biological samples used to produce forensic DNA profiles are stored for a period of 40 years at the Central Service for the Preservation of Biological Samples – Service Central de Préservation des Prélèvements Biologiques (SCPPB), a dedicated facility, and interventions are no longer authorised on them. What then does it entail to maintain these objects which are non-manipulable, at least to some extent? What are the ‘sciences of maintenance’ mobilised and generated for this purpose, if they exist at all? This article addresses these questions, drawing on the archives of the technical committee of the Fichier National Automatisé des Empreintes Génétiques (FNAEG)—the French national forensic database used by national police—from 1998 to 2016 and on a six-hour interview with the lieutenant-colonel head of the SCPPB. It shows how sealed biological samples raise intertwined debates on their very nature and on the competences and responsibilities of genetic experts, the SCPPB and the judicial authorities on the maintenance of their technical quality and their judicial potential. It examines the knowledges and practices of maintenance of these objects, which are distributed all along the process from their manufacturing on the crime scenes to their preservation at the SCPPB. Finally, it contributes analysis of the temporality of maintenance and the objects to be maintained. By and large, this article offers reflections on the subtle ways of maintenance in the material ordering of the judicial world.


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