One of the most fascinating elements of law enforcement for many, if not most, students of criminal justice is forensics. However, forensics is not entirely new. Since the days of Sherlock Holmes, people have been interested in understanding how to solve crimes using science.
“relating to the use of scientific knowledge or methods in solving crimes
“relating to, used in, or suitable to a court of law.”
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary “Forensics”
Fingerprinting dates to eight Century China. Fingerprints were used as identifying marks on sculptures and important documents. However, during the time period in which the fictional Holmes lived, the science of forensics began to take root in modern society as a means of exposing criminals.
Early Forensic Science
Early Forensic Science was rudimentary and inaccurate by today’s standards. Still, the early years of forensics paved the way for the advanced forensics science of today. By the 1800’s, a variety of tests and organized procedures were developed to standardize the gathering and testing of evidence.
Arsenic, which was a popular poison for “silent” killing at the time, provided the first toxicology test used in a court room. The test was developed by James Marsh…hence, the Marsh Test. Marsh, a chemist by trade, would later play a major role in the development of numerous important military applications.
Fingerprints and bullet comparisons would eventually be made thanks largely to advancements in the microscope. Tests for determining the presence of blood were eventually developed. And with the advent of the camera, crime scenes could be photographed for later, providing investigators with the ability to better examine the area of a crime long after cleanup.
However, as with most sciences during the 1800’s, forensic scientists were self-taught. They developed and tested techniques, dropping those which did not work while improving on those which did. It was not until the 1930’s in fact, that formal training in the field of forensics finally developed.
Spearheading forensics in the United States was the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Leading that organization was the infamous J. Edgar Hoover. An unusual man, Hoover was highly intelligent and wisely understood that science could play a pivotal role in law enforcement. Thanks largely to his efforts, forensic science plays a key role in police investigatory practices.
Naturally, we tend to take these early developments for granted. The truth is, however, that the science of forensics is really still in its infancy.
Forensic Science Today
Recent years have seen far too many scandals involving forensic crime labs. From tainted evidence to the mishandling of evidence, malfeasance involving crime labs is common. In February 2014, the case of Florida chemist Joseph Graves is one example. His resignation amid an investigation involving theft of prescription pills replaced by over-the-counter meds made headlines. Graves had apparently been stealing the prescription pills and his actions have compromised a minimum of 81 cases, according to prosecutors. Sadly, this is only one case; there have been others.
This example demonstrates a simple fact that anyone interested in law enforcement and criminal justice needs to remember: people are imperfect. As long as the system hires imperfect people, there will be problems. No matter how good we get at the science of forensics, we are going to have problems from time to time. It is that simple. It is human nature.
Still, forensic science continues to advance. Many of the techniques shown in popular TV shows like CSI are actually in use. Some of the more fanciful forensic techniques are under development.
Of course, the basic techniques of fingerprinting continue to be used. Even after several hundred years, the fingerprinting technique continues to be sound. Computers and high-speed processors have taken the science of fingerprinting to new levels, but as a rule, fingerprints continue to be one of the best tools in the modern forensics arsenal.
Add to this DNA mapping, which is truly in its infancy, and there seems to be no end to the ability of modern criminal investigators to uncover the facts of a case.
Exploring Forensic Science
Because forensic science is so fascinating and such an integral part of criminal justice procedures today, this section will continue to explore this field in greater detail over time. If any readers have suggestions for this section of the website, we are open to hearing about them.
Nothing in criminal justice has quite the romantic appeal as forensic science. Millions have discovered forensics via CSI, Bones, Forensics Files; others, through early police mysteries such as Sherlock Holmes and Ellery Queen; all share a fascination with the marriage of science and justice.
In this set of pages, we will explore a variety of topics related to forensic science. These will be a combination of scholarly essays and general reference articles–all are designed with students in mind. Coming soon are pages detailing the following elements of modern police forensics:
- Automated Fingerprint Identification System: Also known as AFIS, this system currently houses more than 100 million prints.
- Ballistics: The science of matching projectiles (bullets) with weapons is one of the most interesting segments of forensics.
- Bloodstain pattern analysis: If you can spend hours looking at psychological ink blot tests (Rorschach), this may the specialization for you.
- CSI Effect: A look at how television shows such as CSI impact public perception of crime, forensics, and justice.
- Computer forensics: Just as a biological entity has a specific DNA, each computer has a unique identifier.
- Crime scenes: A key element in police science is securing the crime scene and preventing contamination of evidence.
- DNA analysis: Even before the human genome mapping was complete, the use of DNA in police investigation was proving invaluable.
- Falsification: A growing number of crime labs in the United States are in the national spotlight for falsification of results with a view to helping prosecutors obtain convictions. In this section, we will continue to examine this issue along with solutions.
- Fingerprinting: Who pioneered fingerprinting? Sir William James Herschel or Henry Faulds?
- Fire investigation: Arson is a serious crime and some pretty serious science goes into determining whether a fire was set intentionally or was an accident.
- Forensic accounting: If someone is cooking the books, our friendly forensic bean-counter is sure to find out.
- Forensic anthropology: We’ve all seen recreations of faces from bare skulls found decades after a murder.
- Forensic Databases: As the science continues to grow and develop new disciplines, the need for storing and creating modes of access to data likewise grows.
- Forensic engineering: Most often working with product liability issues, these engineers examine products to determine whether they operate properly and if not, why.
- Forensic entomology: For those with an interest in insects, this field may hold a special charm.
- Forensic genetics: Brother John hasn’t visited his now deceased sister in a decade? Not according to the evidence.
- Forensic odontology: From dental records for identification to the examination of bite marks, no two are alike.
- Forensic palynology: Pollen from a rare breed of orchid was found on his sleeve and matched to the crime scene by a palynologist.
- Forensic pathology: Interested in a career as a Medical Examiner (Coroner)? This would be the way to go.
- Forensic psychiatry/psychology: Psychological profiling is a fancy way of saying educated guess. Regardless, at times that is all police need to find the right suspect.
- Forensic toxicology: Especially when poison or drugs were involved in a death, the toxicologist can be invaluable.
- Information (cyber) forensics: Similar to computer forensics, this field specializes in helping police investigators with Internet crimes.
- National DNA database: In the United States, CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) is operated by the FBI with the cooperation of the several states to form the National DNA Index System (NDIS).
- Questioned document examination: QDE is a discipline related to verification or identification of legitimate and falsified documents as they relate to criminal and civil investigations.
- Serology: The study of blood especially as it pertains to immunology, pathogens, and foreign material within.
- Taphonomy: The study of after-death conditions on organisms including rigor mortis, decomposition, transportation, disposal, and more.
- Vehicular accident reconstruction: When motor vehicles are involved in an investigation, velocities, direction of travel, stopping distances, and any other factors which may impact the case are handled by a forensic specialist.
- Trace evidence: One of the best-known forensic terms, thanks to television shows like CSI, trace evidence is all the small details such as hair, carpet fibers, pollen, dust, and such which are analyzed by a team to determine elements of a crime.
In addition, we will soon add a listing of all forensics/crime labs in the United States.
For information related to employment as a forensic scientist, visit our careers section here.
For a listing of Universities in the United States offering curriculum related to the field, click here.
And visit the CriminalJusticeLaw.org store for cool forensics kits both real and play (that is, for big kids and small). Oh, and this is an Amazon store. We have found the cool things and added them, but we don’t make the sales. We do, however, get a small commission for each sale so when you do make a purchase, you help support your favorite website. We thank you in advance.