By C. J. Oakes
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.