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A murder mystery, an unidentified body, stab wounds to the chest, a pool of blood in a high end street in New York, photographers, police, investigators rush in to begin their course of work to solve the mystery of the dead body, to solve the puzzle, to tell the world the story of the dead body, to make sure the life they lived didn’t just vanish with their death in a split second. It may seem like a season premiere of the latest CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) season, within one hour you are presented with the murderer and how it occurred and why.
But is it always that simple? Is it always that crystal clear? Forensic Science has never been under the eye of the public as it is right now. But the perception of what Forensics is to the public is not really what it seems to be in TV shows. Forensic Science is a much more vast collection of studies that helps put murderers and criminals behind bars.
It has been present since a long time ago and its evolution from that time to now, has helped solve many infamous crimes that have shocked the world. It has become one of the most crucial elements in any trial to verify the accuracy of the evidence and to grant justice to the innocent and send the guilty behind bars.
Forensic Science is known as the science of gathering evidence and establishing facts that can be taken as evidence in a court of law.
(Rankin, 2013). The first use of Forensics has not been clearly mentioned, but it is evident that Forensics was used to solve cases even from long time ago. One of the most famous cases reported was the story of Archimedes, where he used his theory of buoyancy to prove whether the gold smith who built the royal crown for the king used 100% gold as he said or whether he mixed silver to it. (Rankin, 2013). From the old age, Forensics has been developing with time. Even before the invention of the microscope, people managed to link evidence and solve crimes. A few such cases include the matching of a torn piece of paper in a pocket to a gun used in a homicide, developing the finger print system to verify and identify individuals and distinguishing the different blood categories which were some of the most basic techniques used in the early ages to distinguish evidence. (Rankin, 2013) With the development of technology, Forensic Science has blossomed immensely.
From the use of fingerprint analysis to DNA testing, the advancement of this science has helped to solve many crimes and put criminals behind bars. It has also introduced various aspects of Forensic Science which gives importance to individual specialties and not as a whole, a few common aspects are: Pathology, Entomology, Toxicology and Anthropology. For the CSI fans, Dr. Al Robbins needs no introduction, to the others, he was the Medical Examiner in the series, a doctor who did autopsies and figured out the cause of death of the deceased. This is exactly what a pathologist does in real life even though not as sugar coated as on TV. Pathology is the study of diagnosis and disease and determining the cause of death. It involves gathering evidence from the crime scene and establishing a time of death, cause of death and identifying the body. In almost all cases, Pathology is used, as it is the factor that determines the cause of death. One case as such involves a 16 year old girl named Leanne Tiernan. She mysteriously disappeared in November 2000 and sadly, her body was found in august 2001. According to evidence found around the crime scene- a dog collar, twine and a cable, they were easily linked back to the murderer John Taylor. But the main piece of evidence was strands of Leanne’s pink sweater which was found at John’s house which provided the final piece of evidence to link him to the murder.
John was arrested in November 2001 and sentenced to life imprisonment. (Suzanne Elvidge BSc (hons), 2013) Even though Pathology is one of the main factors being exercised at a crime scene the other factors are equally essential to find out many other details about the crime. Another rather interesting method used by forensic scientist is Entomology which uses information from insects to establish the time of death and location. Naturally after death, the body goes through various stages of decay which attracts many insects in succession, scientists are then able to establish a pattern in which insects arrive at which stage; therefore, making it easy to establish a time of death. Some insects are unique to a certain region, which helps in distinguishing a location if they are found in places where they are not commonly found. Some insects suck out blood which helps in analyzing if any toxics were involved in the death. Even though the toxicology report is a job for the toxicologist, the sample is taken out from the insect by the Entomologist. A case which used Entomology to a very high standard in the summer of 1997 was the case of Kevin Neal. A stepfather killed both his step children in an act of revenge. The Kevin Neal murder case used Entomology to great lengths. The children, 11 years and 4 years old, were both murdered by unidentified homicidal evidence, but with the help of the vast amounts of insects which gathered in the two bodies where they lay for weeks in a hot summer land, the entomologists were able to establish a rough time period of death and the cause of death to some manner of asphyxia.
The fact that 3 different types of insects weren’t found to be acting in the same manner as they would on a normal body made them suspect the day which they first thought the children were murdered. Then a few weed seeds which were attached to Neal’s pants from the site, were found at his house linked him to the crime scene and after years of trial, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. (Gribben, n.d.) This also shows us how a simple factor such as insect succession which helped in determining the time of death which helped in forensics to form a timeline to figure the whereabouts of Neal at the time of death and link it to the murder of the children. Toxicology is the study of the adverse effects on the human body caused by toxics. It is mostly used to identify any chemicals present in the body after death to rule out foul play or suicide. Not only poisons toxicology is used to identify any foreign material that may have been become toxic while in the body. (Toxicology, 2013) The first use of toxicology occurred in 1751 where a woman named Mary together with her husband in need of her father’s estate gave him Arsenic in small dosages until he died. However the maid caring for Mary’s father realized what Mary did and she was accused of murdering her father.
The autopsy done by 4 notable doctors at that time revealed that the cause of death was indeed arsenic poisoning and from the powder saved by the maid they conducted a very poor method of burning the powder and smelling it which confirmed it was arsenic. This was reported to be the first toxicology experiment conducted to convict a criminal. Even though the test conducted was purely vague, this incident made them develop more accurate tests to identify compounds and to make them pay attention to forensic toxicology. (Ramsland, n.d.) If you have watched the hit TV series ‘Bones’ you probably understand what Forensic Anthropology is. The SWAGANTH (Scientific Working Group for Anthropology) defines forensic anthropology as “The application of anthropological methods and theory – particularly those relating to the recovery of analysis of human remains to resolve legal matters.” (Scientific Working group for Forensic Anthropology, 2013) Anthropology, just as the other sectors of Forensics, is a mystery itself. All human skeletal remains are very similar; therefore, identifying its owner can be a cumbersome task and not as easy as it looks on TV. From gathering bones to creating a three dimensional image of the individual, anthropologists have to first gather the bones, analyze it and then identify its origin. There’s a certain protocol which they follow to study their evidence and present it. The protocol is as such:
Are the remains human?
Do they represent one person or more?
When did the death occur?
How old was the descendant?
What was the sex of the descendant?
What was the race of the descendant?
What was the descendant’s stature? Body weight? Physique?
Does the skeleton present physical anomalies, signs of old disease and injuries or other characteristics which could give a positive identification? What was the cause of death?
What was the manner of death? (natural, accident, suicide, murder or unknown) (Snow, Forensic Anthropology, 1982)
This method was introduced after a high profile murder case which took place in the 1850’s at Harvard University. The case was called, The Parkman Murder after the murder of Dr. George Parkman. A Harvard alumnus, Parkman donated the land in which the Harvard medical school was built. Professor John Webster was a chemistry professor at the medical school his friend Parkman established. But due to hundreds of dollars Webster was indebted to Parkman, their friendship was heading downhill. Webster was a man with expensive taste that couldn’t suffice with the $4000 a year pay check he received, so he has taken many loans over the couple of years when Webster and Parkman were friends. Parkman, let the debt go on until he found out that Webster was trying to sell off a valuable mineral collection which he put up as collateral on the loan. This made Parkman denounce Webster in public which may have been the cause for his dismissal from Harvard. Webster under false pretences then had requested Parkman to arrive at his laboratory to allegedly make a substantial payment of his debt, but little did Dr. Parkman know that, that it would be his final journey in life.
Dr. Parkman was murdered that night and his body was burnt in a furnace to make him unrecognizable and if that was not gruesome enough, his body, or what was remaining, was thrown into the Charles River. The body was beyond recognition and a highly educated set of pathologists, anthropologists, odontologists who works in Harvard got together and distinguished it to be Dr. Parkman. In the following week, Webster was caught by bone fragments which were found at his home furnace. This case would go down in history as the first case to be solved down through Anthropology and a guiding stone to what Forensic Anthropology is today. (Snow, 1982) Most murder cases such as the Parkman Murder, Leanne Tiernan , are only a one time scenario. You have the murderer, the victim, the police, and the investigation. Some end up well, some end up bad, but either way, when the guilty party is charged, and the deceased family componsated, the story ends. But there are stories that don’t end that easily. Stories which go on for years, with many people involved, many casualties that would terrorize whole nations in the matter of days and some to not be solved even after a century’s time - Serial Killings.
These are killings that are premeditated and are carried out in a series over a period of time. (Jenkins, 2013) What triggers human beings to suddenly be as impulsive as to kill and mutilate their own beings, we don’t know. But fortunately Forensics has been a driving force behind bringing these notorius criminals to justice. Theodore Robert Cowell, notoriously known as Ted Bundy was one of the most gruesome and frightened serial killers in the USA. He used to pretend to have a broken arm and lured young women into his vehicle and horridly mutilated, raped and killed them. Known to be a handsome man, Bundy had no problems with making small talk to make young women comfortable around him, until he made his move. He is known to have murdered over 30 women and to date, the exact amount is unknown. A known case, somewhat believed to be Bundy’s first, was the brutal rape of 18 year old Joni Lenz, she was found in her own basement with a bed rod savagely rammed into her genitals fortunately or unfortunately she was one of the very few people to have escaped the death sentence from Bundy’s terror.
Bundy was not arrested for suspicion for murder, he was arrested for not stopping at a police blockade and after being stopped, the police were found suspicious items such as a ski mask, rope, crowbar and handcuffs in his car which lead to the initial suspicions. This lead to him being recorded and under surveillance for some time and after many times he was released due to lack of evidence. But due to his sadistic fantasies of biting his victims, it was Odontology that helped put Bundy away, Odontologists were able to associate his teeth marks with the bite marks of some of the victims, at the same time a few strands of hair found in his car linked him to the murders that lead to the final conviction of this mass murderer in 1989 January with his life ending in the electric chair. (Bell, 2012) The story of Richard Ramirez is quite intriguing. He was known as the Night Stalker due to his modus operandi which followed, jumping into houses and killing people inside the house. The method of his killings were gruesome. He would mutilate his victims by gouging their eyes out and mutilating their corpses. He was known to perform sexual activities with dead corpses as well. He was a self aclaimed satanist who had no remorse for the crimes he commited. His capture was with the help of fingerprinting techonology which was making quite a stir at that time.
Ramirez’s fingerprint caught in a car was linked to him and his mugshot was sent to the police, in one weeks time, he was captured and sent to prison on the account of 13 murders. (Reporter, 2013) John Wayne Gacy Jr., a name that still sends chills down anyone’s spine was a serial killer who preyed on young boys. He would perform sexual acts on the boys who he caught and eventually murder them. Gacy was a man loved by everyone. He was a hard worker who was just trying to catch a break which he did, but would end up tarnishing his image due to his sadistic homosexual needs. Married twice, he would be no more different to your own friendly neighbor, as his close friends stated in court during his hearing. He would go on to murder more than 30 young teenage boys who he would perform sexual acts on and burying them in his own backyard. After going through the second divorce he started his own business where he undertook work such painting, refurbishing and maintaining. He hired young men under him to apparently lower the costs, but it was apparent that, that was a cover up to hide Gacy’s fantasies. One by one, the men at his workplace kept disappearing and after being questioned for suspicion of the disappearance of the men he hired to work for him, the sheriff in charge did a background check on Gacy and got to know about his previous acts of sodomy. He then got a search warrant to investigate his house when Gacy wasn’t in, he then went on to find many links that connected Gacy to many of the missing men and at that point he confessed to one of the murders thinking they would not dig the grave yard in his crawl space at that point.
However the unbearable stench coming from Gacy’s crawl space would lead the police to dig up his backyard that would reveal the grave yard of the missing men, more than 30 bodies and of which, 7 have not been recognized up to date. Anthropology played a massive role in separating all the bone fragments gathered from his backyard and identifying their owners as well as determining their cause of death. When the final tally came up Gacy would only be second to Ted Bundy with the death toll. Even though it was one factor in forensics which helped in catching these murderers be it pathology, anthropology or odontology, all of the other factors help in verifying the data you gather. Therefore, it is not quite clear cut as to say that only one aspect of Forensics played the whole part in solving a murder. This is the reason as to the Medical Examiner is the head of the Forensic department.
All the data is gathered by him and he makes the final judgment as to what the evidence shows. In forensics, the evidence is the bits and pieces of a story that is scattered around. The forensic examiner merely interprets what the evidence means to his area of expertise and delivers it to the Medical Examiner – the author. Here, the Medical Examiner gathers all the little stories scattered around and builds up the story that will be given out to the police – the publisher. In the same case, these results may turn out to not be what you expected. Sometimes, these results may interpret inconclusive results that would alter the final decision of the respected official therefore it is not always correct. Recently many scientific communities have been debating about the validity of Forensic Evidence in court due to various inconsistencies in the results that has been produced in labs. Not only scientists, many people are now questioning the science of forensic evidence as at current, the evidence is taken for granted. With hit TV shows like CSI, Body of Proof, Bones, people are easily manipulated into believing the circumstantial evidence provided to judge a case, now called the CIS effect where people judgments are subconsciously questioned by TV shows than what is provided as evidence.
Some juries who are fans of CIS have gone on to acquit obviously guilty criminals just because the investigators failed to test evidence “the CSI way”. (Cole & Diosso-Villa, 2009) These jurors are now known to rely on superficial evidence CSI has provided rather than the evidence provided. The most frightnening factor in this case is the evidence itself. Regardless of the jurors verdict, the results that have provided in some cases are now known to be inconclusive. A recent research found out that ‘identifications on the same fingerprint can change solely by presenting the print in a different context’. Called ‘conceptual biasing’ the report showed how previously identified finger print results of the samples changed when details about their arrest were told which is called conceptual biasing. (Jr. & B., 2009, 36-38p) Another case which was under the spotlight was th case of Brandan Mayfield. He was arrested with charges of being a material witness based on his fingerprints found in a bag where the detonation device of the terrorist bombing which occurred in Madrid, Spain which killed 191 people and injured thousands. The fingerprint of Mayfield was analyzed by an outside source by a different individual.
The Spanish police then alerted the FBI regarding doubts with the findings of Mayfield and released him after 18 days with $2 million componsation. (Jr. & B., 2009) Many scholars have begun to question the accuracy of the evidence used in a court. The highly controversial Amanda Knox case was recently brought back to lime light with the Forensic Scientist in charge of the murder trial requested to retest the blood which was on the knife which was used to kill Meredith Kercher; however, the appeal judge thought the evidence was unreliable and hence dismissed the suggestion. This would have been a major point to rule out whether it was Kercher’s blood in the knife as statistically, if the testing was done more than 5 times, the results would have been more accurate with regard to whether the blood was actually from Kercher and would have either verified the unreliable evidence or dismissed it which would make a firm case for Knox’s release (Alexander, 2013) At points like these the evidence is just put aside where it would have been of great resource. Since the inception of forensics, it has managed to send many criminals behind bars, as to whether the law decides if it is true or not is up for debate, but scientist today are trying to make the evidence they gather more reliable so that no such cases will arise in the future.
The advancement of technology has helped to create many new methods of tests for the use of Forensics. A recently discovered method of finger printing was found in Australia at Curtin University using henna. The usual method of identifying invisible fingerprints were said to be by using nin-hydrin a volatile chemical, now they have been able to use henna to identify the finger prints which is not harmful at all and is available at ease. (Renee Jelly, Chris Lennard, Limc, & Almogd, 2008) Other findings include gunshot residual identification. The technology to identify minute residual materials on suspects is being developed. Earlier use, included the use of paraffin to make cast over the suspects hand and when sprayed with a reagent would turn into a specific colour, but due to cigarettes and urine also giving the same results, this method was dropped in the 1950’s, therefore this new method would be a new beginning for Gun Shot Residual identification. (Pilant, 2000) The hour of a purely fictional TV episode ends. What has is it done to you? What has it made you believe? If only forensics was as crystal clear as in TV, the police would have caught all the criminals and serial killers of the world if so, but unfortunately it is not.
We have to slap ourselves back to reality and realize the situation at hand. Forensic Science has helped to imprison the demons in human form that have made you want to doubt if you will ever see your loved ones after they leave the comfort of your house. It might soon overcome the point where innocent children such as Madeleine McCann, Edward and Austin Bryant (Sampson, 2011) can be found by the use of new technology and reopen these cases and analyze the evidence recorded and stored. It would give peace to many parents who are mourning the disappearance of their loved ones not knowing whether they’re alive or not. Forensics has turned out to be a scientific breakthrough in the industry of crime. With the media attention it is getting, Forensics is at a point where it’s growing at a steady rate. It has brought a whole new era in to the cycle of forensics and what we will expect in the future will definitely be unimaginable and till then we will
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Bell, R. (2012). Ted Bundy. Retrieved 2013, from Crime Library : http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/serial_killers/notorious/bundy/index_1.html
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Pilant, L. (2000). Forensic Science: Bringing New Technology.
Ramsland, K. (n.d.). Crime Library; criminla minds and methods. Retrieved 2013, from Crime Library: http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/criminal_mind/forensics/toxicology/2.html
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Reporter, A. P. (2013). Mail Online. Retrieved 2013, from Daily Mail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2343661/California-serial-killer-self-confessed-Satanist-Richard-Ramirez-died-cancer.html
Sampson, J. (2011, 07). 10 Tragic cases of lost children. Retrieved 2013, from Listverse: http://listverse.com/2011/07/11/10-tragic-cases-of-missing-children/
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