Forensic Science

Dr. John Patrick Ojwando
Published: May 2014

On The Trails of Evidence

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You surely don’t need somebody to tell you that if the discipline of Forensic Science did not exist, law enforcement agencies the world over, would without any shadow of doubt draw a blank in their routine criminal investigations. But believe me, things would have been worse! Assassins would rove free, fraudulent dealings would be at an all-time high, mishap fatalities would have no justifications for their claims, and worse still, innocent people would be hauled up or incarcerated for years on end for want of evidence to exonerate them.

The following instances prove why!
• In April 1935, a 14 –foot tiger shark threw up a human arm before a crowd of shocked holiday makers at a Sydney Aquarium in Australia. The arm was eventually identified as belonging to a known criminal – James Smith based on tattoos of two boxers squaring each other. Experts noticed that the arm was Caucasian – muscular and remarkably well preserved. The wife of Smith identified the arm as that of her husband and police later confirmed the same through finger prints. On closer examination, it was discovered that the arm had been severed off with a knife. The amputation had taken place after considerable amount of time after death and there was a length of rope tied around the wrist. Patrick Brady, a noted criminal soon became the chief suspect. Despite the evidence, Brady’s lawyers obtained a Supreme Court injunction to stop the inquest on the grounds that the discovery of the arm did not prove James Smith was dead. When Brady was brought to trial, the Jury decided there wasn’t enough evidence to sustain a murder charge.

• In 1989, Ted Bundy, a notorious serial killer who had perfected a modus operandi that allowed him to escape from police custody ran out of luck and was finally convicted and executed in an electric chair in Florida, USA. A master at hiding his tracks, Bundy made the mistake of biting one of his victims on the buttocks and it was these bite marks that finally nailed him.

• In the 1980s, the death of two teenage girls in central England led investigators to the doorsteps of a suspect. However, a newly developed DNA technology by the University of Leicester not only helped exonerate a young innocent man but also led the team to the real killer – Colin Pitchfork.

So what’s Forensic Science and why is it weighty? Forensic Science is the term given to investigations of crime scene using unquestionable scientific means. As a discipline, its history dates back in time. However, it was only until the recent past that it has become a true and respected discipline. Thanks to the advancements of science, most of the Forensic Science techniques in vogue form a substantial part of criminal investigation – whether they are applied in identifying the perpetrators or connecting them to a crime. These techniques assist in two ways – nailing criminals and protecting the innocent from wrongful incarceration. The parlance, Crime Scene, it should be kept in mind does not only encompasses accidents or murders but also takes into account cases of fraud, theft, illegal trades and animal poaching, amongst other crimes.

The Realm of a Forensic Scientist:

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Scenes of Crime or Accidents: Field Officers often visit the scenes of crimes to collect any physical evidence related to the crime – document, record and collect trace evidence for analysis in the labs.

Laboratory: Lab Technicians analyse and report on the evidence collected from the crime scene -Hair, Body Fluids, Glass, Paints, Drugs, amongst others.
Also, application of various techniques : DNA Profiling, Mass Spectrometry, Chromatography, amongst others.
Court of Law: Field Officers present evidence to the arbiters of its value –Judges and Jury, and respond to their queries.

One Discipline, Many Areas:

Sometimes referred to as Forensics – Forensic Science is not a distinct branch of science – in true sense, it engulfs many different fields of science including Anthropology, Biology, Chemistry, Engineering, Genetics, Medicine, Pathology, Phonetics, Psychiatry and Toxicology and melds them together in solving crimes. The multi-disciplinary areas include but are not restricted to the following:

• Physical Science: It helps in blood spatter analysis, ballistics, structural analysis, movements in car accidents, amongst others.
• Chemistry: It helps in the analysis of contact traces, fire investigations, accident reconstruction and serial number restoration.

• Biology: It helps in investigation of violent crimes since examinations revolve around entomology, fingerprinting, body fluids, hairs and clothing, DNA testing, etc.

• Drugs and Toxicology: It helps in testing for restricted drugs, examining tissue specimens, drink and drug driving samples, as well as investigation of deaths due to overdoses, poisons and drugs.

Scope and Specialisations:

Because Forensic Science cuts across all disciplines and nearly every area of science related to it has potential of having some bearing on the law, its specialisations include:

(a) Forensic Ballistics

Identifies firearm usage in crimes and involves analysis of bullets and bullet impacts to determine the type or location of weapon through its shell casings, bullets, and wound entrances.

(b) Forensic Pathology

The branch of medicine used for legal purposes and concerned with determining cause of death, examination of injuries due to crime and negligence, and examination of tissue samples relevant to crimes.

(c) Forensic Blood Splatter Analyst

A blood spatter analyst works on crime scenes using the tools within their command to determine how a crime was committed and any other details that law enforcers might find useful to solve a crime or gain a conviction.

(d) Forensic DNA Analyst

Forensic analysts work within the justice system providing key evidence to criminal investigations – classifying and performing tests on pieces of evidence taken from a crime scene.

(e) Forensic Anthropology

They deal with application of the science of anthropology in a legal setting —where the victim’s remains are in the advanced stages of decomposition. These professionals work in conjunction with Forensic Pathologists, Odontologists, and homicide investigators.

(f) Wildlife Forensic Science

This field deals specifically with crimes against animals – poaching, animal abuse, illegal trade or the harming of animals due to pollution or oil spills.

(g) Forensic Psychology

This field deals with the application of psychology to legal issues.

(h) Forensic Odontologists (aka Forensic Dentists)

These highly experienced, specially trained dentists use their expertise to help identify human remains that cannot be identified using fingerprints or other means, bodies in mass fatalities, or determine the source of bite mark injuries, in cases of assault or suspected abuse and also estimate the age of skeletal remains.

(i) Forensic Entomology

Forensic entomology is a field of science which uses insects to gather information about a crime scene.

(j) Forensic Engineering

Forensic engineers typically work with civil cases involving products which have failed to perform as expected and may also be called upon to investigate patent disputes and other legal issues.

(k) Forensic Accountancy (aka Investigative Accounting)

The field involves the application of accounting concepts and techniques to legal problems and professionals here also provide litigation support to attorneys and law enforcement agencies investigating financial wrongdoing.

(l) Criminalistics

A Criminalist deals with the detection of crime and the apprehension of criminals by examining, making comparisons, identifying and interpreting physical evidence at the crime scenes such as fingerprints, tire tracks, shoe prints, amongst others.

(m) Forensic Toxicologist

These professionals deal with the use of toxicology and other disciplines such as analytical chemistry, pharmacology and clinical chemistry to aid medical or legal investigation of death, poisoning, and drug use.

(n) Forensic Nursing

Relatively new in the field of healthcare, these professionals bridge the gap between law enforcement and healthcare.

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Requisite Skills

  • Great patience and concentration: Mostly, the work is painstaking, detailed, and at times, routine. Nothing close to what is shown on TV!
  • Excellent observation and analytical skills, attention to detail, able to discover things untrained eye might give a miss. It may be that one trifling detail that leads to an accused being pronounced, either guilty or innocent.
  • A Curious, Inquisitive and Open Mind.
  • Ability to work well in a team, and independently.
  • Proficiency in Computers, Science and Mathematics, disciplines considered to be its backbone.
  • It helps to have sound business and technical skills.
  • A strong stomach, sometimes the details can be gruesome and distressing.

FORENSIC SCIENCE :

THE COURSE

Are you interested in studying Forensic Science? If so, then you could follow in the footsteps of Ms. Annaise Akingoga, a student from Kigali, Rwanda and pursue your degree from the Department of Forensic Science of Jain University.

So, briefly, tell us about yourself and the Forensic Science course offered at Jain University…
“I am a currently pursuing my M.Sc. degree in Forensic Science. If your interest is to work in any criminal justice or law enforcement fields, studying Forensic Science at Jain University will help you gain theoretical and practical skills necessary to help break into the fast emerging field of science. The course examines the subjects from all dimensions, covers the principles as well as real life practices of the numerous disciplines that come together in Forensic Science.”

So how did you – with your sights set elsewhere get in?
“After taking A –levels: Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Geography, I studied Genetics, Microbiology and Chemistry at the university. After graduating, I was poised to do a master’s degree in Genetics but steered away once I discovered that Forensic Science offered just about everything I wanted to do by studying science. This was after I spoke to my mentor, Dr. Leon Mutesa back in my home country.”

Describe a typical day.
“It all depends but on a routine day, I go for a light workout in the neighborhood gym and follow it up with breakfast at home. At campus, I have course work and lab work that is mostly slotted in the afternoons.”

What do you enjoy most about your classes?
“There is never a dull moment in class. The lecturers always make learning interesting through presentations, videos, and demos.”

And the least?
“Nothing as yet…”

Any advice to those keen to venture into this career?
“Forensic Science is still niche area – not easy to break into because of the sensitive and restricted nature of work – supporting law enforcement agencies in their tasks. But it is satisfying if you get your feet rooted on the ground.”

Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?
“Working… May be with the Government of Rwanda, a private firm, or even better, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), my dream organisation. And yes, I would love to have a family with kids!”

 

Eligibility:

For most positions in Forensic Science, a bachelor’s degree is required to secure placement in a Crime Lab. At Jain University the eligibility for pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Forensic Science is a pass in the 10+2 examination in Science from PUC / ISC / CBSE or equivalent board with Physics, Chemistry and Biology as core subjects. And, for Master’s Degree a candidate should hold a Bachelor’s Degree in Forensic Science or Basic Science or Psychology from a recognized University and he or she must have studied Physics, Chemistry and Biology at the PUC or equivalent level.

Employment:

Forensic Scientists usually work in a Crime Lab. Most of the entrants begin in an assistant’s role and gradually entrench themselves as Reporting Officers who can be relied upon to give testimony in court or lend support to evidence produced before the courts. Forensic Scientists are primarily employed in federal, state or local government. Here, they work with law enforcements agencies such as the police, legal system and investigative organs such as Intelligence Bureau (IB) or Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) as in the case of India. Others work in morgues, crime laboratories or private agencies. Aside criminal investigation, there are other attractive options. Such of these include crime reporting, crime photography or teaching opportunities for Forensic professionals.

Remunerations:

Earnings of Forensic Scientists depend on the experience (years of work), qualifications (academic credentials), the employers (government or private firms) and the nature of work. In the government, salaries follow a set structure or pay scheme. The pay may be low for entrants but as they move up the ranks, the pay checks begin to fatten. Pay wise, private laboratories or international firms offer better pay and perks. However, there is security of tenure in government service.

The Downside:

Forensic Scientists typically graduate with a bachelor’s degree. In some cases, a master’s is the minimum requirement to gain a foothold while others earn their doctorate or undertake additional courses and training.

Whatever be your qualifications, the discipline is not for the faint hearted because of the following:

  • Crime Scenes, often gruesome and distressing for instance murders or accidents
  • Cases, vary and hence not easy to keep a check on the work load
  • Nature of work, the ultimate test of patience –visits to crime scene, reporting to courts to testify, answering queries from Judges, Jury, etc.
  • Odd hours of work, criminals or catastrophes strike without warning.