Forensic science

Forensic science

Forensic science (often shortened to forensics) is the application of a broad spectrum of sciences to answer questions of interest to a legal system. This may be in relation to a crime or a civil action. The word forensic comes from the Latin forēnsis, meaning "of or before the forum."[1] In Roman times, a criminal charge meant presenting the case before a group of public individuals in the forum. Both the person accused of the crime and the accuser would give speeches based on their sides of the story. The individual with the best argument and delivery would determine the outcome of the case. This origin is the source of the two modern usages of the word forensic – as a form of legal evidence and as a category of public presentation.

In modern use, the term "forensics" in the place of "forensic science" can be considered correct as the term "forensic" is effectively a synonym for "legal" or "related to courts". However the term is now so closely associated with the scientific field that many dictionaries include the meaning that equates the word "forensics" with "forensic science".



Antiquity and the Middle Age

The ancient world lacked standardized forensic practices, which aided criminals in escaping punishment. Criminal investigations and trials relied on forced confessions and witness testimony. However ancient sources contain several accounts of techniques that foreshadow the concepts of forensic science that is developed centuries later, such as the "Eureka" legend told of Archimedes (287–212 BC).[2] The account about Archimedes tells of how he invented a method for determining the volume of an object with an irregular shape. According to Vitruvius, a votive crown for a temple had been made for King Hiero II, who had supplied the pure gold to be used, and Archimedes was asked to determine whether some silver had been substituted by the dishonest goldsmith.[3] Archimedes had to solve the problem without damaging the crown, so he could not melt it down into a regularly shaped body in order to calculate its density.

While taking a bath, he noticed that the level of the water in the tub rose as he got in, and realized that this effect could be used to determine the volume of the crown. For practical purposes water is incompressible,[4] so the submerged crown would displace an amount of water equal to its own volume. By dividing the mass of the crown by the volume of water displaced, the density of the crown could be obtained. This density would be lower than that of gold if cheaper and less dense metals had been added. Archimedes then took to the streets naked, so excited by his discovery that he had forgotten to dress, crying "Eureka!" (Greek: "εὕρηκα!," meaning "I have found it!"). The test was conducted successfully, proving that silver had indeed been mixed in.[5]

The first written account of using medicine and entomology to solve (separate) criminal cases is attributed to the book of Xi Yuan Lu (translated as "Washing Away of Wrongs"[6][7]), written in Song Dynasty China by Song Ci (宋慈, 1186–1249) in 1248. In one of the accounts, the case of a person murdered with a sickle was solved by a death investigator who instructed everyone to bring his sickle to one location. (He realized it was a sickle by testing various blades on an animal carcass and comparing the wound.) Flies, attracted by the smell of blood, eventually gathered on a single sickle. In light of this, the murderer confessed. The book also offered advice on how to distinguish between a drowning (water in the lungs) and strangulation (broken neck cartilage), along with other evidence from examining corpses on determining if a death was caused by murder, suicide or an accident.

Modern history

In the 16th-century Europe medical practitioners in army and university settings began to gather information on cause and manner of death. Ambroise Paré, a French army surgeon, systematically studied the effects of violent death on internal organs. Two Italian surgeons, Fortunato Fidelis and Paolo Zacchia, laid the foundation of modern pathology by studying changes that occurred in the structure of the body as the result of disease. In the late 18th century, writings on these topics began to appear. These included A Treatise on Forensic Medicine and Public Health by the French physician Fodéré and The Complete System of Police Medicine by the German medical expert Johann Peter Franck.

In 1773 a Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele devised a way of detecting arsenous oxide, simple arsenic, in corpses, although only in large quantities. This investigation was expanded, in 1806, by German chemist Valentin Ross, who learned to detect the poison in the walls of a victim's stomach, and by English chemist James Marsh, who used chemical processes to confirm arsenic as the cause of death in an 1836 murder trial.

Two early examples of English forensic science in individual legal proceedings demonstrate the increasing use of logic and procedure in criminal investigations. In 1784, in Lancaster, John Toms was tried and convicted for murdering Edward Culshaw with a pistol. When the dead body of Culshaw was examined, a pistol wad (crushed paper used to secure powder and balls in the muzzle) found in his head wound matched perfectly with a torn newspaper found in Toms' pocket. In Warwick in 1816, a farm labourer was tried and convicted of the murder of a young maidservant. She had been drowned in a shallow pool and bore the marks of violent assault. The police found footprints and an impression from corduroy cloth with a sewn patch in the damp earth near the pool. There were also scattered grains of wheat and chaff. The breeches of a farm labourer who had been threshing wheat nearby were examined and corresponded exactly to the impression in the earth near the pool.[8] Police started using fingerprints for evidence when Juan Vucetich solved a murder case in Argentina by cutting off a piece of door with a bloody fingerprint on it.[9] Later in the 20th century several British pathologists, Bernard Spilsbury, Francis Camps, Sydney Smith and Keith Simpson pioneered new forensic science methods in Britain. In 1909 Rodolphe Archibald Reiss founded the first school of forensic science in the world: the "Institut de police scientifique" at the University of Lausanne (UNIL).

Forensic science has been fostered by a number of national forensic science learned bodies including the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (founded 1948; publishers of the Journal of Forensic Sciences), the Canadian Society of Forensic Science (founded 1953; publishers of the Journal of the Canadian Society of Forensic Science), The British Academy of Forensic Sciences (founded 1960; publishers of Medicine,science and the law (journal)), and the Australian Academy of Forensic Sciences (founded 1967; publishers of the Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences).


Agents of the United States Army Criminal Investigation Division investigate a crime scene
Police forensic investigation in Ashton under Lyne (Greater Manchester, England), using a tent to protect the crime scene
  • Computational forensics concerns the development of algorithms and software to assist forensic examination.
  • Criminalistics is the application of various sciences to answer questions relating to examination and comparison of biological evidence, trace evidence, impression evidence (such as fingerprints, footwear impressions, and tire tracks), controlled substances, ballistics, firearm and toolmark examination, and other evidence in criminal investigations. In typical circumstances evidence is processed in a Crime lab.
  • Digital forensics is the application of proven scientific methods and techniques in order to recover data from electronic / digital media. Digital Forensic specialists work in the field as well as in the lab.
  • Forensic accounting is the study and interpretation of accounting evidence
  • Forensic aerial photography is the study and interpretation of aerial photographic evidence
  • Forensic anthropology is the application of physical anthropology in a legal setting, usually for the recovery and identification of skeletonized human remains.
  • Forensic archaeology is the application of a combination of archaeological techniques and forensic science, typically in law enforcement.
  • Forensic astronomy uses methods from astronomy to determine past celestial constellations for forensic purposes.
  • Forensic botany is the study of plant life in order to gain information regarding possible crimes.
  • Forensic chemistry is the study of detection and identification of illicit drugs, accelerants used in arson cases, explosive and gunshot residue.
  • Forensic dactyloscopy is the study of fingerprints.
  • Forensic document examination or questioned document examination answers questions about a disputed document using a variety of scientific processes and methods. Many examinations involve a comparison of the questioned document, or components of the document, with a set of known standards. The most common type of examination involves handwriting, whereby the examiner tries to address concerns about potential authorship.
  • Forensic DNA analysis takes advantage of the uniqueness of an individual's DNA to answer forensic questions such as paternity/maternity testing and placing a suspect at a crime scene, e.g. in a rape investigation.
  • Forensic engineering is the scientific examination and analysis of structures and products relating to their failure or cause of damage.
  • Forensic entomology deals with the examination of insects in, on and around human remains to assist in determination of time or location of death. It is also possible to determine if the body was moved after death.
  • Forensic geology deals with trace evidence in the form of soils, minerals and petroleum.
  • Forensic geophysics is the application of geophysical techniques such as radar for detecting objects hidden underground or underwater. [10]
  • Forensic intelligence process starts with the collection of data and ends with the integration of results within into the analysis of crimes under investigation[11]
  • Forensic Interviews are conducted using the science of professionally using expertise to conduct a variety of investigative interviews with victims, witnesses, suspects or other sources to determine the facts regarding suspicions, allegations or specific incidents in either public or private sector settings.
  • Forensic limnology is the analysis of evidence collected from crime scenes in or around fresh-water sources. Examination of biological organisms, in particular diatoms, can be useful in connecting suspects with victims.
  • Forensic linguistics deals with issues in the legal system that requires linguistic expertise.
  • Forensic meteorology is a site-specific analysis of past weather conditions for a point of loss.
  • Forensic odontology is the study of the uniqueness of dentition, better known as the study of teeth.
  • Forensic optometry is the study of glasses and other eye wear relating to crime scenes and criminal investigations
  • Forensic pathology is a field in which the principles of medicine and pathology are applied to determine a cause of death or injury in the context of a legal inquiry.
  • Forensic podiatry is an application of the study of feet footprint or footwear and their traces to analyze scene of crime and to establish personal identity in forensic examinations.
  • Forensic psychiatry is a specialised branch of psychiatry as applied to and based on scientific criminology.
  • Forensic psychology is the study of the mind of an individual, using forensic methods. Usually it determines the circumstances behind a criminal's behavior.
  • Forensic seismology is the study of techniques to distinguish the seismic signals generated by underground nuclear explosions from those generated by earthquakes.
  • Forensic serology is the study of the body fluids.[12]
  • Forensic toxicology is the study of the effect of drugs and poisons on/in the human body.
  • Forensic video analysis is the scientific examination, comparison and evaluation of video in legal matters.
  • Mobile device forensics is the scientific examination and evaluation of evidence found in mobile phones, e.g. Call History and Deleted SMS, and includes SIM Card Forensics
  • Trace evidence analysis is the analysis and comparison of trace evidence including glass, paint, fibres and hair.

Notable forensic scientists

Questionable techniques

Some forensic techniques, believed to be scientifically sound at the time they were used, have turned out later to have much less scientific merit or none.[13] Some such techniques include:

  • Comparative bullet-lead analysis was used by the FBI for over four decades, starting with the John F. Kennedy assassination in 1963. The theory was that each batch of ammunition possessed a chemical makeup so distinct that a bullet could be traced back to a particular batch or even a specific box. Internal studies and an outside study by the National Academy of Sciences found that the technique was unreliable, and the FBI abandoned the test in 2005.[14]
  • Forensic dentistry has come under fire: in at least two cases bite-mark evidence has been used to convict people of murder who were later freed by DNA evidence. A 1999 study by a member of the American Board of Forensic Odontology found a 63 percent rate of false identifications and is commonly referenced within online news stories and conspiracy websites.[15][16] The study was based on an informal workshop during an ABFO meeting, which many members did not consider a valid scientific setting.[17]

Litigation science

Litigation science describes analysis or data developed or produced expressly for use in a trial versus those produced in the course of independent research. This distinction was made by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals when evaluating the admissibility of experts.[18]

This uses demonstrative evidence, which is evidence created in preparation of trial by attorneys or paralegals.

Examples in popular culture

Sherlock Holmes, the fictional character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in works produced from 1887 to 1915, used forensic science as one of his investigating methods. Conan Doyle credited the inspiration for Holmes on his teacher at the medical school of the University of Edinburgh, the gifted surgeon and forensic detective Joseph Bell. Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple books and television series were also a big hit worldwide.

Decades later the comic strip Dick Tracy also featured a detective using a considerable number of forensic methods, although sometimes the methods were more fanciful than actually possible.

Barry Allen (alter ego of The Flash) is a forensic scientist for the Central City police department.

Defence attorney Perry Mason occasionally used forensic techniques, both in the novels and television series.

One of the earliest television series to focus on the scientific analysis of evidence was Quincy, M.E. (1976-83, and based loosely on an even earlier Canadian series titled Wojeck), with the title character, a medical examiner working in Los Angeles solving crimes through careful study. The opening theme of each episode featured a clip of the title character, played by Jack Klugman, beginning a lecture to a group of police officers with "Gentlemen, you are about to enter the fascinating sphere of police work, the world of forensic medicine." Later series with similar premises include Dexter, The Mentalist, CSI, Cold Case, Bones, Law & Order, NCIS, Criminal Minds, Silent Witness, Case Closed, Monk, Midsomer Murders and Waking the Dead, depict glamorized versions of the activities of 21st-century forensic scientists. Some claim these TV shows have changed individuals' expectations of forensic science, an influence termed the "CSI effect".[19]

Non-fiction TV shows such as Forensic Files, The New Detectives, American Justice, and Dayle Hinman's Body of Evidence have also popularized forensic science.

The Ace Attorney series features forensic science, mainly in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney and the DS-only game in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.


Questions about forensic science, fingerprint evidence and the assumption behind these disciplines have been brought to light in some publications,[20][21] the latest being an article in the New York Post.[22] The article stated that "No one has proved even the basic assumption: That everyone's fingerprint is unique."[22] The article also stated that "Now such assumptions are being questioned - and with it may come a radical change in how forensic science is used by police departments and prosecutors."[22]

On 25 June 2009 the Supreme Court issued a 5-to-4 decision in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts stating that crime laboratory reports may not be used against criminal defendants at trial unless the analysts responsible for creating them give testimony and subject themselves to cross-examination. The Supreme Court cited the National Academies report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States[23] in their decision. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia referred to the National Research Council report in his assertion that "Forensic evidence is not uniquely immune from the risk of manipulation."

See also


  1. ^ Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (6th ed.), Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 978-0-19-920687-2 
  2. ^ Schafer, Elizabeth D. (2008). "Ancient science and forensics". In Ayn Embar-seddon, Allan D. Pass (eds.). Forensic Science. Salem Press. p. 40. ISBN 978-1587654237. 
  3. ^ Vitruvius. "De Architectura, Book IX, paragraphs 9–12, text in English and Latin". University of Chicago.*.html. Retrieved 2007-08-30. 
  4. ^ "Incompressibility of Water". Harvard University. Retrieved 2008-02-27. 
  5. ^ HyperPhysics. "Buoyancy". Georgia State University. Retrieved 2007-07-23. 
  6. ^ Forensics Timeline
  7. ^ A Brief Background of Forensic Science
  8. ^ Kind S, Overman M (1972). Science Against Crime. New York: Doubleday. pp. 12–13. ISBN 0-385-09249-0. 
  9. ^ "Juan Vucetich". 1925-01-25. Retrieved 2010-06-08. 
  10. ^ CSI: Geophysics,
  11. ^ p.611 Jahankhani,Hamid; Watson, David Lilburn; Me, Gianluigi Handbook of Electronic Security and Digital Forensics World Scientific, 2009
  12. ^ "Forensic serology". Retrieved 2010-06-08. 
  13. ^ Saks, Michael J.; Faigman, David L. (2008). "Failed forensics: how forensic science lost its way and how it might yet find it". Annual Review of Law and Social Science 4: 149–171. doi:10.1146/annurev.lawsocsci.4.110707.172303. 
  14. ^ Solomon, John (2007-11-18). "FBI's Forensic Test Full of Holes". The Washington Post: p. A1. Retrieved 2008-03-05. 
  15. ^ Santos, Fernanda (2007-01-28). "Evidence From Bite Marks, It Turns Out, Is Not So Elementary". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-03-05. 
  16. ^ McRoberts, Flynn (2004-11-29). "Bite-mark verdict faces new scrutiny". Chicago Tribune.,1,2796064.story. Retrieved 2008-03-05. [dead link]
  17. ^ McRoberts, Flynn (2004-10-19). "From the start, a faulty science". Chicago Tribune.,0,4915311.story?page=6. Retrieved 2008-07-13. [dead link]
  18. ^ Raloff, Janet (2008-01-19). "Judging Science". Science News: pp. 42 (Vol. 173, No. 3). Archived from the original on 2008-02-28. Retrieved 2008-03-05. 
  19. ^ Holmgren, Janne A.; Fordham, Judith (January 2011). "The CSI Effect and the Canadian and the Australian Jury". Journal of Forensic Sciences 56 (S1): S63–S71. doi:10.1111/j.1556-4029.2010.01621.x 
  20. ^ "'Badly Fragmented' Forensic Science System Needs Overhaul". The National Academies. February 18, 2009. Retrieved 2009-03-09. 
  21. ^ "National Academy of Sciences Finds 'Serious Deficiencies' in Nation's Crime Labs". National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. February 18, 2009. Retrieved 2009-03-07. 
  22. ^ a b c Katherine Ramsland (Sunday, March 6, 2009). "CSI: Without a clue; A new report forces Police and Judges to rethink forensic science". The New York Post, PostScript. Retrieved 2009-03-07. 
  23. ^ "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward". Retrieved 2010-06-08. 

Further reading

External links

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