Forensic science (often shortened to forensics) is the application of a broad spectrum of sciences — from anthropology to toxicology — to answer questions of interest to a legal system. During the course of an investigation, forensic scientists collect, preserve, and analyze scientific evidence using a variety of special laboratory equipment and special techniques for such interests. In addition to their laboratory role, the forensic scientists may also testify as an expert witness in both criminal and civil cases and can work for either the prosecution or the defense.
Through the seventeenth century
The ancient world lacked standardized forensic practices, which aided criminals in escaping punishment. Criminal investigations and trials heavily relied on forced confessions and witness testimony. However, ancient sources do contain several accounts of techniques that foreshadow concepts in forensic science that were developed centuries later. One of the first genuine precursors to forensic science was what we'd today call "forensic medicine," the determination of cause of death by examining a corpse. Historians have documented that around 400 BC, Greek physician Hippocrates of Kos provided some of the first discussion of the lethality of wounds, and in 44 BC the physician Antistius opined that of the 23 stab wounds suffered on Julius Ceasar, only one of them was fatal. This physician-made determination of a lethal or non-lethal wound would later in the sixth century AD be recognized in a legal context as something to be professionally determined and opined by a physician, begetting the expert witness.
The first written account of using forensic medicine (as well as forensic entomology) to solve criminal cases is attributed to the book Xi Yuan Lu (translated as Washing Away of Wrongs), written in China by Ci Song (??, 1186–1249) in 1248, during the Song Dynasty. In one of the accounts, the case of a person murdered with a sickle was solved by an investigator who instructed everyone to bring his sickle to one location. (He realized it was a sickle by testing various blades on an animal carcass and comparing the wound.) 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), along with other evidence from examining corpses on determining if a death was caused by murder, suicide or an accident.
Forensic medicine was further tied to the legal system in 1507, when at the direction of the Prince-Bishop of Bamberg Georg Schenk von Limpurg, episcopal court judge Baron Johann of Schwarzenberg drew up the Bambergische Halsgerichtsordnung (Procedure for the judgment of capital crimes) of Bamberg (also known as the Bambergensis). It was based on the humanistic school of Roman law, and it was in turn the basis for the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, drafted in 1530 and ratified in 1532. The documents "defined the scope and nature of the offenses, provided standards for arrest and establishing evidence, and issued formulas for judicial proceedings themselves."
One of the first documented practitioners of forensic medicine and the use of forensic evidence in legal context — and cited by some historians as a forefather of forensic science — is Amrbose Paré, a French barber surgeon from the mid- to late sixteenth century. Paré was also knowledgeable in chemistry and wound ballistics, wrote a treatise in 1575 on medicolegal reporting, and was notable for being associated with the first documented case of scientific inquiry being used in a court of law. Following in Paré's footsteps, other medico-legal texts were being produced at the end of the sixteenth century and into the seventeenth century, including Andreas Libavius' De Unguento Armario; et de Cruentatione Cadaverum, G. Battista Codronchi's Methodus testificandi, and Paolo Zacchia's Quaestiones medico-legales (which has also led some experts to label Zacchia as a forefather of forensic medicine). With Zacchia and his predecessors' work becoming more influential, the floodgates were open, with universities like the University of Leipzig leading the charge, providing some of the first known lectures on forensic science and medicine in 1642.
Eighteenth century to modern
Germany continued its trend of influencing the development of forensic science into the eighteenth century, with works by Valentini, Teichmeyer, and Albertus supplementing those of Zacchia. Additionally, the first known academic journal (1782) on medical jurisprudence appeared there. However, the French began to significantly develop forensic science at the turn of the nineteenth century, taking many cues from Germany and its rich body of literature. In a paper written for the International Medical Congress in Philadelphia in 1876, medical doctor Stanford Emerson Chaillé commented on this change, as well as the resulting infiltration of forensic science to Great Britain and United States:
Since 1790, no nation has surpassed France in the culture of medical science; in addition, the judges appoint medical experts, who, since 1803, must be graduates in medicine, and must have attended one course of lectures, and have passed an examination on Legal Medicine, professional chairs of which were established by the state in 1794. However, French authorities denounce their didactic instruction as insufficient for the education of experts, and declare the appointment of these by the judges, and the lack of skilled medico-legal officials to procure medical evidence, to be most unsatisfactory, and their whole system to be much inferior to the German. Still, France has at least a system, and meanly as this does apply the art, it has served to greatly stimulate the culture of the science, as has been notably illustrated since 1796 by French medico-legal literature. A critical appreciation of how much of this literature has been derived from Germany, and how much of medico-legal science without the art has been transported from Germany and France to Great Britain, and the United States, would, I fear, prove offensive to Gallic, and still more to Anglo-American, vanity.
The academic discussion of forensic medicine spread to Great Britain, with authors like William Hunter ("On the Uncertainty of the Signs of Murder in the Case of Bastard Children," 1783), George Male (Epitome of Juridical or Forensic Medicine, 1816), Gordon Smith (The Principles of Forensic Medicine: Systematically Arranged, 1821), and Alfred Swaine Taylor (Manual of Medical Jurisprudence, 1844) leading the charge. By 1863, the University of London had "made forensic medicine a separate subject for examination and honours for medical graduates."
In the United States, Benjamin Rush ("On the Study of Medical Jurisprudence," 1811), Theodric Romeyn Beck (Elements of Medical Jurisprudence, 1823), Isaac Ray (A Treatise on Medical Jurisprudence of Insanity, 1838), and Francis Wharton and Moreton Stille (A Treatise on Medical Jurisprudence, 1855) all made contributions to forensic medicine literature. The strong influence of medico-legal issues continued in the U.S., with the establishment of the Medico-Legal Society in New York in 1867 further cementing the link between legal law and medical knowledge. But such successes would be short-lived; after the American Civil War the science lulled. Some medical colleges dropped their medical jurisprudence courses, while others chose attorneys with little formal medical training to address the topic. Chaillé's 1876 account of the state of medical colleges in the U.S. seems to back this up, with him citing a report on 46 of the 64 medical colleges finding that only 14 had professorships in medical jurisprudence, with only five of those offering instruction from a legal professional.
It took until the mid-twentieth century for legal medicine to regain its sheen in the U.S. One of the catalysts that led to this rebound was the National Research Council, which in 1924 created a Committee on Medicolegal Problems to in part address the public perception of the coroner's physician as inept or sociopathic. Subsequent reports in 1928 and 1932 addressed the flaws of the coroner's system and pushed for educational reform. This led universities such as New York University and Harvard to put into place their own medical jurisprudence programs. The creation of the American Board of Pathology in 1936 furthered that renaissance. Development in the fields of microscopy and optics by William Nicol in Edinburgh (1828) and Giovanni Battista Amici in Italy (1840) led to the creation of the polarizing microscope and oil-immersion lens respectively, both of which today improve how forensic scientists conduct their work. The utility of fingerprints was also independently being realized in various parts of the world during this time, culminating in the late nineteenth century development of scientific classification systems for fingerprints by Sir Francis Galton and Juan Vucetich. Toxicology was also making headway, becoming a more notable specialization thanks to contributions from Sir William Wilcox, Dr. Rudolph August Witthaus, and Dr. Alexander O. Gettler in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Later in the twentieth century British pathologists/professors Francis Camps, Sydney Smith, and Keith Simpson pioneered new forensic science methods in pathology and ballistics. By the 1980s, efforts towards automated sequencing were underway. In 1984, having previously done work on paternity testing, Sir Alec Jeffreys turned his attention to rigorous methods of DNA profiling and their application to forensic science. By 1985 he had realized the scope of DNA fingerprinting, which uses variations in the genetic code to identify individuals. The method has since become important in forensic science to assist forensic detective work, and it has also proved useful in resolving paternity and immigration disputes. In 2009, a group of Israeli scientists, however, showed proof of concept that DNA evidence could be fabricated with specific techniques.
The forensic laboratory
Much of the work of forensic science is conducted in the forensic laboratory. Such a laboratory has many similarities to a traditional clinical or research lab in so much that it contains various lab instruments and several areas set aside for different tasks. However, it differs in other ways. Windows, for example, represent a point of entry into a forensic lab, which must be secure as it contains evidence to crimes. As such, a crime lab may have fewer windows. The receiving area also tends to be different due to the nature of materials being tested. Though test specimens/samples need to be traceable just like clinical and research labs, the tested materials and evidence requires more rigorous procedures to ensure chain of custody is maintained. In modern times, this process may be enhanced with the use of data management systems such as a laboratory information management system. Additionally, the evidence will go to a locked storage area to limit access to individuals who could tamper with it. Additional locked storage areas may be available to each forensic scientist for securing evidence in their custody for analysis.
- DNA analysis
- fire debris analysis
- metallurgical analysis
- vehicle fluid analysis
- trauma analysis
- skeletal identification
- body fluid identification
- evidence screening
- facial reconstruction
- audio/image enhancement
- carbon dating of remains
A forensic science laboratory may also stand out from the typical laboratory in other ways. It may, for example, contain a dedicated garage for searching and analyzing vehicles and other large structures. A ballistics section (for test-firing weapons for comparative evidence), document analysis section (with access to natural light), several chemistry sections (for toxicology, blood analysis, DNA), a controlled substance section (for drugs of abuse testing and storage), latent prints section (fingerprint analysis), and even a computer evidence section (forensic computer examination) may also make up a full-function forensic lab. These diverse departments or sections of a lab fully represent the inherently cross-disciplined nature of forensic science. At times gaps may exist in knowledge and know-how in some areas of forensic analysis, requiring a laboratory to recruit outside help for more esoteric analyses.
Laboratory accreditation in general provides benefits to everyone. It provides proof of technical competence and gives the public confidence in laboratory procedures and workflows. It also allows the accrediting organization the opportunity to help the lab identify its strengths as well as areas of improvement. Once accredited, the laboratory will periodically get re-evaluated to ensure the lab is still operating up to standard. Lab managers may also choose to have another independent organization periodically evaluate the lab's performance to prevent any future problems internally and with the public.
More specifically, forensic laboratory accreditation is important as it provides the public confidence in the legal process as it relates to evidence analysis and expert testimonies. As of February 2016, many accrediting bodies exist for forensic laboratories, each with their own intricacies:
American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB): ISO/IEC 17025 (International program)
One major difference among these accrediting bodies is if they back a set of internationally recognized standards and best practices. At the moment, the common standards used in this regard are ISO/IEC 17025 and ISO/IEC 17020. In an October 2015 piece for Forensic Magazine, forensic analyst and accreditation manager Pat Bencivenga described the difference this way:
ISO/IEC 17025 is the standard for testing and calibration laboratories and ISO/IEC 17020 is the standard for inspection agencies. Both standards have equal weight as international standards and neither one is better than the other … ISO/IEC 17025 and ISO/IEC 17020 both include very similar management system requirements based on ISO 9001:2008 (section 4 in ISO/IEC 17025 and clause 8 in ISO/IEC 17020). Beyond these ISO 9001-based requirements, the standards diverge significantly. ISO/IEC 17025 requirements are heavy with regard to measurement uncertainty, traceability, and analytical validation. ISO/IEC 17020 requirements, in contrast, focus more strongly on impartiality, independence, and confidentiality.
In the United States
In the United States in recent years, the lack of laws requiring the accreditation of forensic labs has been a serious topic of discussion. At the turn of the twenty-first century, "a majority of the forensic laboratories in the United States [were] not accredited, and [had] not made the commitment to comply with consensus quality standards." Only one accrediting body — the American Society of Criminal Laboratory Directors, Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB) — existed, membership was low (165 labs in May 2000), and 20 states didn't even have a single accredited lab. And some laboratory quality control experts such as Janine Arvizu found the technical rigor and independent nature of the ASCLD to be lacking. Questions were being asked of the legitimacy of the federal FBI crime labs as well as state-run labs such as the then new Jamaica, Queens crime lab in New York and the Houston crime lab. (Some revelations about the poor quality of FBI crime labs prior to 2000 wouldn't be revealed until 2015.)
The U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice had previously in February 1999 published a review of needs for forensic science, though it stopped short of recommending mandatory accreditation of forensic labs, only saying "[t]he profession should accredit/certify forensic academic training programs/institutions." With little reform in site, many of the major representatives of forensic science requested that Congress form a committee to again study the needs of the community and make formal recommendations. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) eventually released its report in 2009. Among its recommendations: "Laboratory accreditation and individual certification of forensic science professionals should be mandatory, and all forensic science professional should have access to a certification process." It went on to make minimum requirements for lab accreditation and professional certification, receiving support from some law enforcement officials and scientists in the community.
Today in the United States despite NAS recommendations, as of yet no national accrediting or overseeing body exists for overseeing and enforcing standard procedures. Some states require accreditation while others do not. States like Missouri, North Carolina, and Minnesota have enacted laws making accreditation mandatory, but national mandatory accreditation still doesn't exist. However, the Department of Justice and the National Institute of Standards & Technology announced plans in 2013 to finally create oversight bodies to oversee forensic science labs: the National Commission on Forensic Science (NCFS) and the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC). The NCFS adopted recommendation in 2015 for universal accreditation of "forensic science service providers," though they recognize challenges to this. For example, some research labs that offer forensic services only on rare occasion feel they don't have incentive to get accredited for forensic testing. Additionally, some accrediting bodies do not use widely accepted ISO/IEC standards. OSAC has taken a slightly different approach, announcing in October 2015 that it "would like to engage with standards developing organizations (SDOs) that are currently or are willing to support the development of standards for the forensic science industry."
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