What is Forensic Science?
Forensic science (often shortened to forensics) is the application of a broad
spectrum of sciences to answer questions of interest to the legal system. This
may be in relation to a crime or to a civil action. The use of the term
"forensics" in place of "forensic science" could be considered incorrect; the
term "forensic" is effectively a synonym for "legal" or "related to courts"
(from Latin, it means "before the forum"). However, it is now so closely
associated with the scientific field that many dictionaries include the meaning
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, shoeprints, and tire tracks),
controlled substances, firearms, and other evidence in criminal investigations.
Some of the forensic science disciplines are:
Forensic odontology is the study of the uniqueness of dentition.
Forensic toxicology is the study of the effect of drugs and poisons on the human
Forensic engineering studies the causes of failure of devices and structures.
Forensic accounting is the study and interpretation of accounting evidence.
Forensic economics is the study and interpretation of economic damage evidence
to include present day calculations of lost earnings and benefits, the lost
value of a business, lost business profits, lost value of household service,
replacement labor costs and future medical care costs.
Forensic psychology and forensic psychiatry deal with the legal aspects of human
Forensic anthropology is the application of physical anthropology in a legal
setting, usually for the recovery and identification of skeletonized human
Forensic entomology deals with the examination of insects in, on, and around
human remains to assist in determination of time or location of death.
Forensic evidence deals with scientific evidence from a crime scene.
Questioned document examination is the study and interpretation of evidence that
takes the form of document.
History of forensics
The "Eureka" legend of Archimedes (287-212 BC) can be considered an early
account of the use of forensic science. In this case, by examining the
principles of water displacement, Archimedes was able to prove that a crown was
not made of gold (as it was fraudulently claimed) by its density and buoyancy.
The earliest account of fingerprint use to establish identity was during the 7th
century. According to Soleiman, an Arabic merchant, a debtor's fingerprints were
affixed to a bill, which would then be given to the lender. This bill was
legally recognized as proof of the validity of the debt.
The first written account of using medicine and entomology to solve (separate)
criminal cases is attributed to the book Xi Yuan Ji Lu (洗冤集錄, translated as
"Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified"), written in 1248 China by Song Ci (宋慈,
1186-1249). 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 their
sickles to one location. 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).
In sixteenth century Europe, medical practitioners in army and university
settings began to gather information on cause and manner of death. Ambrose 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 which occurred in the
structure of the body as the result of disease. In the late 1700s, 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 1775, 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, England, 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, England, in 1816, a farm laborer
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 laborer who had been threshing wheat nearby were examined
and corresponded exactly to the impression in the earth near the pool.
Forensic science in the media
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.
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. Popular television series focusing on
crime detection, including CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami, and CSI:
NY, depict glamorized versions of the activities of 21st Century forensic
scientists. These related TV shows have changed individuals' expectations of
forensic science, an influence termed the "CSI effect".
Mobile laboratory for forensic investigation
Ongoing project on History of Forensic Sciences
History of the finger-print system
ForensicsWiki, the wiki for digital forensics
DNA and the Criminal Justice System is a Harvard University based research
List of Forensic Labs in the US
Anil Aggrawal's Forensic Websites
Zeno's Forensic Site
Baden, Michael, M.D, former New York City Medical Examiner, and Roach, Marion.
"Dead Reckoning: The New Science of Catching Killers". Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Kind, Stuart and Overman, Michael. "Science Against Crime". Doubleday and
Company, Inc., New York, 1972. ISBN 0-385-09249-0.
Nickell, Joe and Fischer, John F. "Crime Science: Methods of Forensic
Detection". University Press of Kentucky, 1999. ISBN 0813120918.
Wolfson, Seth, forensic sculptor and make-up FX artist, "Forensic Sculpting:
Step--Step in Photos." Realsculpt Press, 2005. http://www.forensicsculpting.com/
Anil Aggrawal's Internet Journal of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology. http://www.geradts.com/anil/ij/indexpapers.html
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