An overview of Forensic Science
The word forensic comes from the Latin word forensis: public; to the forum or public discussion; argumentative; rhetorical; belonging to debate or discussion. (McDowell, 2007) The modern definition of forensic has a similar meaning. Forensic science is used in public, in a court of law or the justice system.
A forensic scientist is before anything a scientist. (McDowell, 2007) When he applies his scientific knowledge to assist juries, attorneys, and judges in understanding science he is a forensic scientist. Criminalistics is also defined as forensic science. (McDowell, 2007)
“Wherever he steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as silent evidence against him. Not only his fingerprints or his footprints, but his hair, the fibers from his clothes, the glass he breaks, the tool mark he leaves, the paint he scratches, the blood or semen that he deposits or collects – all these and more bear mute witness against him. This is evidence that does not forget. It is not confused by the excitement of the moment. It is not absent because human witnesses are. It is factual evidence. Physical evidence cannot be wrong; it cannot perjure itself; it cannot be wholly absent. Only its interpretation can err. Only human failure to find it, study and understand it can diminish its value.”
Paul L. Kirk, PhD (McDowell, 2007)
When evidence is found it is taken to the crime laboratory, which is known as a forensic science laboratory. The laboratory technicians, often called forensic scientists, then identify the evidence. The main job of a criminalist is to examine physical evidence. (All Criminal, 2007) In using analytical skills and practical experience then he or she can determine the difference between evidence that is important to the evidence that has no value. (All Criminal, 2007)
The forensic labs have two primary functions: to identify the evidence and to linking the suspect, victim and the crime scene. Evidence can be anything from fibers to smudges to bullet casings. Forensics scientists can also have blood, fingerprints, drugs, imprints, tool marks, dust, dirt, glass, paint, flammable fluids, semen stains, wood, documents, feces, vomit and urine as evidence. (McDowell, 2007)
Weapons such as firearms and knives can be identified. Firearms, for example, can be identified by the bullets, shells, or even the cartridge cases, the distance at which the gun was fired at, the shooter’s position at the time of firing, the owners trace, and the serial number in the firearm, fingerprints, impressions, or the transfer of evidence. Also if the firearm was used in another crime it can be recognized. Knives and bludgeons can be acknowledged by the description of the cutting, stabbing, or striking surfaces, comparison with wounds, ownership trace, imprints, impressions, or transfer evidence, and if it was used in other crimes. The direction of the force, assailant’s position and the identity of the assailant; sex, strength, and in which hand the weapon was held in can also be known.
Drugs and poisons can be evaluated by an analysis test depending on the drug or poison, determination of the quantity of the fatal dose, origin; purchase, manufacturer, and growth, and if it was used in other crimes. Imprints and impressions can lead to the suspect by the nature of the object making the imprint or impression, the manufacturer, individual identity, such as fingerprints or footprints, the direction of movement and transfer evidence. Tool marks can also lead to the suspect by the nature of the tool, identity of the manufacturer, origin, transfer of evidence and if it was used in other crimes.
The traces of identity, blood, determination of human or animal, direction of force, assailant’s position, if the same blood was found at other crime scenes, and transfer evidence can lead to the suspect responsible. The blood can also be tested for alcohol and the degree of intoxication. Hair and fibers can lead to the suspect by origin; human, head, body, pubic; animal or clothing, identity; sex, and race, pet hair; the suspects pet at the crime scene. Semen stains can be tested by the identity of the semen stain, location and the extent of the semen, or origin; sex.
Dust, dirt, and debris are evidence that can useful by origin; where it could be located, identity, and transfer evidence. Flammable fluids can be identified by physical properties, origin; purchase and manufacturer, direction of fore; flow, and if it was used in other crimes. Glass can be identified by comparisons, direction of force, transfer evidence, and similar damage at other crime scenes. Paint and wood can be recognized by origin and transfer evidence.
Documents can give anything away by authenticity of the document or signature or even both, authorship; handwriting, typewriter and form, spelling, vocabulary, age; the date written, copy traces, transfer evidence, dating of ink and paper and if used in other crimes. Feces is a comparison with samples taken from other crimes scenes; undigested food residues possible and informative. Vomit; when suspect is located, comparison of vomit at crime scene with traces on suspect’s clothing; in suspected poison cases, analysis for content and identification of poison, if present. Urine; Analysis of submitted specimens, and analysis in suspected poisoning cases.
When a forensic scientist is working a crime and it has gone to court, the scientist has to make sure and not to take sides, but to find the truth in the evidence. The evidence is the most important thing because unlike a testimony or a witness the evidence leads to the truth. The rule of the law is based on that the belief that the legal system results in justice, lately this has under some question in some recent years. The forensic scientist can contribute to restoring the faith by finding the truth in civil, criminal and regulatory matters. He or she has to make sure that he or she has gone over the test correctly and thoroughly. The written report is correct and that it is understood by a non-scientist, and that the testimony is complete and truthful.
The forensic scientist is responsible for his work and his work only. He or she is the only one that can write the report or testify in court. Of course, they do not have to solve the crimes alone; it is teamwork and his or her colleagues can help. Usually they require a lot of help form the police officers, sheriff’s deputies, prosecuting and defense attorneys, DEA, CIA, and FBI agents, immigration workers, and crime scene investigators.
The chain-of-custody documentation is very important; it is a strong requirement that it is kept accurate, also record keeping, stringent quality control and data management. The chain-of-custody guarantees that the integrity of evidence is maintained at all times. The time, date, location and signature are required anytime a piece of evidence is being transported within the laboratory or to an outside facility.
The forensic scientist if called as a witness will be classified as an expert witness. He or she must be able to explain the work that they do, the working scientific instruments that they use and medical conditions that not only they understand but that a regular person would be able to understand as well. The scientist must be impartial and unbiased. He or she must tell the truth the “whole truth’ no matter what it is or who it hurts or helps. An expert opinion can only be offered if there are scientific facts to base it on. In court, the work of the forensic scientist will be examined to see if there is any flaws, whether the test were performed, the interpretation of the results, or the science in which opinion is based. Whether he or she is hired by the prosecution or the defense, the opposing attorney will try to undermine or discredit the testimony which is against his client.
“If the law has made you a witness, remain a man of science. You have no victim to avenge, no guilty or innocent person to convict or save – you must bear testimony within the limits of science.”
Dr. P.C.H Brouardel (McDowell, 2007)
There are many ways that a person can get an education in forensic science these days. There are universities, technical schools, and online schools. Sam Houston State University requires four years for the undergrad program. These are the classes required: in year one it is advised to take General Chemistry for eight hours, English Composition for six hours, Calculus I for four hours, U.S. History for six hours, Introductory Biology for eight hours and Fitness for Living for one hour. (Bachelor, 2007) In year two: Organic Chemistry for eight hours, Calculus II for four hours, General Physics for eight hours, Electives for three hours, Introduction to Computing for four hours, English Literature for three hours, Introduction to Criminal Justice for three hours. (Bachelor, 2007) Year three: Introductory Biochemistry for four hours, Physical Chemistry for four hours, Introductory Genetics for four hours, Fundamentals of Criminal Law for three hours, Cultural Studies for three hours, Criminology for three hours, American Public Policy for three hours, Visual and Performing Arts for three hours, Electives for three hours, and Professionalism and Ethics in Criminal Justice. (Bachelor, 2007) In year four: Chemical Literature for one hour, Instrumental Analytical Chemistry for three hours, Forensic Chemistry for three hours, Technical Writing for three hours, Introduction to Methods of Research for three hours, Social and Behavioral Sciences for three hours, Understanding Human Behavior for three hours, American Government for three hours and Electives for six hours.
As of May 2004 the hourly wage for forensic science technician is $21.16. It all depends upon on your degree, your actual job, and how many hours you work. (Science Technicians, 2006) Forensic scientist work different hours, depending on what they do. Some work in forensic laboratories and work 40 hours a week, Monday through Friday. Others work out in the field and work different hours. Still others are “on call”, even after they have worked 12 hour shifts. (Science Technicians, 2006)
In federal police agencies, there are two that standout above all, that is the FBI and ATF. This is considered because the crime labs are at the top and model for elsewhere. The FBI crime lab has four sections. The first section is, scientific analysis; DNA, firearms, tool marks, hairs and fibers, materials analysis, chemistry and toxicology and questioned documents. Section two is, special projects; film, photography, composites, art and computer design. Section three; fingerprinting; some over 200 million records. Finally section 4 is; investigative operations and support; grew out of questioned documents unit and includes lie detection of various sorts. The FBI lab only handles violent crimes, it works exclusively for the prosecution, and it is considered the world’s largest crime lab. (Introduction to, 2004) The ATF lab has five sections. Section one is, explosives, bombs, and arsons. Section two is, trace evidence and deciphering firearms ownership and usage. Section three is, disaster response teams. Section four is, field support. Lastly, section five is, gang intelligence record keeping. (Introduction to, 2004)
Forensic science is one of the most interesting fields in the criminal justice system. It provides many career opportunities; it allows you to advance in life. Also it helps your country out in finding out the truth through science.
McDowell, J. D. (2007). So You Want to Be a Forensic Scientist. Retrieved November 18, 2007, from So You Want to Be a Forensic Scientist Web site: http://aafs.org/default.asp?section_id=resources&page_id=choosing_a_career
(2007). The Bachelor of Science In Forensic Chemistry. Retrieved November 17, 2007, from The Bachelor of Science In Forensic Chemistry Web site: http://www.shsu.edu/~chemistry/catalog/forensicbrochure.pdf
(2007). All Criminal Justice Schools. Retrieved November 18, 2007, from Become a Criminalist Web site: http://www.allcriminaljusticeschools.com/faqs/criminalist.php
(2004,01,06). An Introduction To Criminalistics and Physical Evidence. Retrieved November 26, 2007, from An Introduction To Criminalistics and Physical Evidence Web site: http://faculty.ncwc.edu/TOCONNOR/315/315lect02.htm
(2006, 08, 04). Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Retrieved November 26, 2007, from Science Technicians Web site: http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos115.htm#earnings