Forensic science

"Forensics" redirects here. For the fields of speech and debate, see Public speaking and Debate.
For the German jazz saxophone album by Ingrid Laubrock, see Forensic (album).

Forensic science is the application of science to criminal and civil laws, mainly—on the criminal side—during criminal investigation, as governed by the legal standards of admissible evidence and criminal procedure.

Forensic scientists collect, preserve, and analyze scientific evidence during the course of an investigation. While some forensic scientists travel to the scene to collect the evidence themselves, others occupy a laboratory role, performing analysis on objects brought to them by other individuals.[1]

In addition to their laboratory role, forensic scientists testify as expert witnesses in both criminal and civil cases and can work for either the prosecution or the defense. While any field could technically be forensic, certain sections have developed over time to encompass the majority of forensically related cases.[2]


The word forensic comes from the Latin term forensis, meaning "of or before the forum."[3] The history of the term originates from Roman times, during which a criminal charge meant presenting the case before a group of public individuals in the forum. Both the person accused of the crime and the accuser would give speeches based on their sides of the story. The case would be decided in favor of the individual with the best argument and delivery. This origin is the source of the two modern usages of the word forensic – as a form of legal evidence and as a category of public presentation. In modern use, the term forensics in the place of forensic science can be considered correct, as the term forensic is effectively a synonym for legal or related to courts. However, the term is now so closely associated with the scientific field that many dictionaries include the meaning that equates the word forensics with forensic science.


Early methods

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.[4]

The first written account of using medicine and entomology to solve criminal cases is attributed to the book of Xi Yuan Lu (translated as Washing Away of Wrongs[5][6]), written in China by Song Ci (宋慈, 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.

Methods from around the world involved saliva and examination of the mouth and tongue to determine innocence or guilt, as a precursor to the Polygraph test. In ancient India,[7] some suspects were made to fill their mouths with dried rice and spit it back out. Similarly, in Ancient China, those accused of a crime would have rice powder placed in their mouths.[8] In ancient middle-eastern cultures, the accused were made to lick hot metal rods briefly. It is thought that these tests had some validity since a guilty person would produce less saliva and thus have a drier mouth; the accused would be considered guilty if rice was sticking to their mouths in abundance or if their tongues were severely burned due to lack of shielding from saliva.

Origins of forensic science

Ambroise Paré's surgical work laid the groundwork for the development of forensic techniques in the following centuries.

In 16th-century Europe, medical practitioners in army and university settings began to gather information on the cause and manner of death. Ambroise Paré, a French army surgeon, systematically studied the effects of violent death on internal organs.[9][10] Two Italian surgeons, Fortunato Fidelis and Paolo Zacchia, laid the foundation of modern pathology by studying changes that occurred in the structure of the body as the result of disease.[11] In the late 18th century, writings on these topics began to appear. These included A Treatise on Forensic Medicine and Public Health by the French physician Francois Immanuele Fodéré[12] and The Complete System of Police Medicine by the German medical expert Johann Peter Frank.[13]

As the rational values of the Enlightenment era increasingly permeated society in the 18th century, criminal investigation became a more evidence-based, rational procedure − the use of torture to force confessions was curtailed, and belief in witchcraft and other powers of the occult largely ceased to influence the court's decisions. Two examples of English forensic science in individual legal proceedings demonstrate the increasing use of logic and procedure in criminal investigations at the time. In 1784, in Lancaster, 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's pocket, leading to the conviction.[14]

In Warwick in 1816, a farm labourer 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 labourer who had been threshing wheat nearby were examined and corresponded exactly to the impression in the earth near the pool.[15]

Toxicology and ballistics

A method for detecting arsenious oxide, simple arsenic, in corpses was devised in 1773 by the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele.[16] His work was expanded, in 1806, by German chemist Valentin Ross, who learned to detect the poison in the walls of a victim's stomach.

Apparatus for the arsenic test, devised by James Marsh.

James Marsh was the first to apply this new science to the art of forensics. He was called by the prosecution in a murder trial to give evidence as a chemist in 1832. The defendant, John Bodle, was accused of poisoning his grandfather with arsenic-laced coffee. Marsh performed the standard test by mixing a suspected sample with hydrogen sulfide and hydrochloric acid. While he was able to detect arsenic as yellow arsenic trisulfide, when it was shown to the jury it had deteriorated, allowing the suspect to be acquitted due to reasonable doubt.[17]

Annoyed by that, Marsh developed a much better test. He combined a sample containing arsenic with sulfuric acid and arsenic-free zinc, resulting in arsine gas. The gas was ignited, and it decomposed to pure metallic arsenic, which, when passed to a cold surface, would appear as a silvery-black deposit.[18] So sensitive was the test, known formally as the Marsh test, that it could detect as little as one-fiftieth of a milligram of arsenic. He first described this test in The Edinburgh Philosophical Journal in 1836.[19]

Henry Goddard at Scotland Yard pioneered the use of bullet comparison in 1835. He noticed a flaw in the bullet that killed the victim and was able to trace this back to the mold that was used in the manufacturing process.[20]


Frontispiece from Bertillon's Identification anthropométrique (1893), demonstrating the measurements needed for his anthropometric identification system.

The French police officer Alphonse Bertillon was the first to apply the anthropological technique of anthropometry to law enforcement, thereby creating an identification system based on physical measurements. Before that time, criminals could only be identified by name or photograph.[21][22] Dissatisfied with the ad hoc methods used to identify captured criminals in France in the 1870s, he began his work on developing a reliable system of anthropometrics for human classification.[23]

Bertillon created many other forensics techniques, including forensic document examination, the use of galvanoplastic compounds to preserve footprints, ballistics, and the dynamometer, used to determine the degree of force used in breaking and entering. Although his central methods were soon to be supplanted by fingerprinting, "his other contributions like the mug shot and the systematization of crime-scene photography remain in place to this day."[22]


Sir William Herschel was one of the first to advocate the use of fingerprinting in the identification of criminal suspects. While working for the Indian Civil Service, he began to use thumbprints on documents as a security measure to prevent the then-rampant repudiation of signatures in 1858.[24]

Fingerprints taken by William Herschel 1859/60.

In 1877 at Hooghly (near Calcutta), Herschel instituted the use of fingerprints on contracts and deeds, and he registered government pensioners' fingerprints to prevent the collection of money by relatives after a pensioner's death.[25]

In 1880, Dr. Henry Faulds, a Scottish surgeon in a Tokyo hospital, published his first paper on the subject in the scientific journal Nature, discussing the usefulness of fingerprints for identification and proposing a method to record them with printing ink. He established their first classification and was also the first to identify fingerprints left on a vial.[26] Returning to the UK in 1886, he offered the concept to the Metropolitan Police in London, but it was dismissed at that time.[27]

Faulds wrote to Charles Darwin with a description of his method, but, too old and ill to work on it, Darwin gave the information to his cousin, Francis Galton, who was interested in anthropology. Having been thus inspired to study fingerprints for ten years, Galton published a detailed statistical model of fingerprint analysis and identification and encouraged its use in forensic science in his book Finger Prints. He had calculated that the chance of a "false positive" (two different individuals having the same fingerprints) was about 1 in 64 billion.[28]

Women clerical employees of the LA Police Department getting fingerprinted and photographed in 1928.

Juan Vucetich, an Argentine chief police officer, created the first method of recording the fingerprints of individuals on file. In 1892, after studying Galton's pattern types, Vucetich set up the world's first fingerprint bureau. In that same year, Francisca Rojas of Necochea was found in a house with neck injuries whilst her two sons were found dead with their throats cut. Rojas accused a neighbour, but despite brutal interrogation, this neighbour would not confess to the crimes. Inspector Alvarez, a colleague of Vucetich, went to the scene and found a bloody thumb mark on a door. When it was compared with Rojas' prints, it was found to be identical with her right thumb. She then confessed to the murder of her sons.

A Fingerprint Bureau was established in Calcutta (Kolkata), India, in 1897, after the Council of the Governor General approved a committee report that fingerprints should be used for the classification of criminal records. Working in the Calcutta Anthropometric Bureau, before it became the Fingerprint Bureau, were Azizul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose. Haque and Bose were Indian fingerprint experts who have been credited with the primary development of a fingerprint classification system eventually named after their supervisor, Sir Edward Richard Henry.[29][30] The Henry Classification System, co-devised by Haque and Bose, was accepted in England and Wales when the first United Kingdom Fingerprint Bureau was founded in Scotland Yard, the Metropolitan Police headquarters, London, in 1901. Sir Edward Richard Henry subsequently achieved improvements in dactyloscopy.

In the United States, Dr. Henry P. DeForrest used fingerprinting in the New York Civil Service in 1902, and by December 1905, New York City Police Department Deputy Commissioner Joseph A. Faurot, an expert in the Bertillon system and a fingerprint advocate at Police Headquarters, introduced the fingerprinting of criminals to the United States.[31]

Uhlenhuth test

The Uhlenhuth test, or the antigen–antibody precipitin test for species, was invented by Paul Uhlenhuth in 1901 and could distinguish human blood from animal blood, based on the discovery that the blood of different species had one or more characteristic proteins. The test represented a major breakthrough and came to have tremendous importance in forensic science.[32] The test was further refined for forensic use by the Swiss chemist Maurice Müller in the 1960s.[33]


DNA fingerprinting was first used in 1984. It was discovered by Sir Alec Jefferys who realized that variation in the genetic code could be used to identify individuals and to tell individuals apart from one another. The first application of DNA profiles was used by Jefferys in a double murder mystery in a small England town called Narborough, Leicestershire in 1985. A 15-year-old school girl by the name of Lynda Mann was raped and murdered in Carlton Hayes psychiatric hospital. The police did not find a suspect but were able to obtain a semen sample.

In 1986, Dawn Ashworth, 15 years old, was also raped and strangled in a nearby village of Enderby. Forensic evidence showed that both killers had the same blood type. Richard Buckland became the suspect because he worked at Carlton Hayes psychiatric hospital, had been spotted near Dawn Ashworth's murder scene and knew unreleased details about the body. He later confessed to Dawn's murder but not Lynda's. Sir Alec Jefferys was brought into case to analyze the semen samples. He concluded that there was no match between the samples and Buckland, who became the first person to be exonerated using DNA. Jefferys confirmed that the DNA profiles were identical for the two murder semen samples. To find the perpetrator, DNA from entire male population, more than 4,000 aged from 17 to 34, in town was collected. They all were compared to semen samples from the crime.

A friend of Colin Pitchfork was heard saying that he had given his sample to the police claiming to be Colin. Colin Pitchfork was arrested in 1987 and it was found that his DNA profile matched the semen samples from the murder.

Because of this case, DNA databases came into being. There is the national (FBI) and international databases as well as the European countries (ENFSI : European Network of Forensic Science Institutes). These searchable databases are used to match crime scene DNA profiles to those already in database.[34]


Cartoon of a man holding a bloody knife looking contemptuously at a display of half-a-dozen supposed and dissimilar likenesses
Police brought to bear the latest techniques of forensic science in their attempts to identify and capture the serial killer Jack the Ripper.

By the turn of the 20th century, the science of forensics had become largely established in the sphere of criminal investigation. Scientific and surgical investigation was widely employed by the Metropolitan Police during their pursuit of the mysterious Jack the Ripper, who had killed a number of prostitutes in the 1880s. This case is a watershed in the application of forensic science. Large teams of policemen conducted house-to-house inquiries throughout Whitechapel. Forensic material was collected and examined. Suspects were identified, traced and either examined more closely or eliminated from the inquiry. Police work follows the same pattern today.[35] Over 2000 people were interviewed, "upwards of 300" people were investigated, and 80 people were detained.[36]

The investigation was initially conducted by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), headed by Detective Inspector Edmund Reid. Later, Detective Inspectors Frederick Abberline, Henry Moore, and Walter Andrews were sent from Central Office at Scotland Yard to assist. Initially, butchers, surgeons and physicians were suspected because of the manner of the mutilations. The alibis of local butchers and slaughterers were investigated, with the result that they were eliminated from the inquiry.[37] Some contemporary figures thought the pattern of the murders indicated that the culprit was a butcher or cattle drover on one of the cattle boats that plied between London and mainland Europe. Whitechapel was close to the London Docks,[38] and usually such boats docked on Thursday or Friday and departed on Saturday or Sunday.[39] The cattle boats were examined, but the dates of the murders did not coincide with a single boat's movements, and the transfer of a crewman between boats was also ruled out.[40]

At the end of October, Robert Anderson asked police surgeon Thomas Bond to give his opinion on the extent of the murderer's surgical skill and knowledge.[41] The opinion offered by Bond on the character of the "Whitechapel murderer" is the earliest surviving offender profile.[42] Bond's assessment was based on his own examination of the most extensively mutilated victim and the post mortem notes from the four previous canonical murders.[43] In his opinion the killer must have been a man of solitary habits, subject to "periodical attacks of homicidal and erotic mania", with the character of the mutilations possibly indicating "satyriasis".[43] Bond also stated that "the homicidal impulse may have developed from a revengeful or brooding condition of the mind, or that religious mania may have been the original disease but I do not think either hypothesis is likely".[43]

The popular fictional character Sherlock Holmes was in many ways ahead of his time in his use of forensic analysis.

Handbook for Coroners, police officials, military policemen was written by the Austrian criminal jurist Hans Gross in 1893, and is generally acknowledged as the birth of the field of criminalistics. The work combined in one system fields of knowledge that had not been previously integrated, such as psychology and physical science, and which could be successfully used against crime. Gross adapted some fields to the needs of criminal investigation, such as crime scene photography. He went on to found the Institute of Criminalistics in 1912, as part of the University of Graz' Law School. This Institute was followed by many similar institutes all over the world.[44]

In 1909, Archibald Reiss founded the Institut de police scientifique of the University of Lausanne (UNIL), the first school of forensic science in the world. Dr. Edmond Locard, became known as the "Sherlock Holmes of France". He formulated the basic principle of forensic science: "Every contact leaves a trace", which became known as Locard's exchange principle. In 1910, he founded what may have been the first criminal laboratory in the world, after persuading the Police Department of Lyon (France) to give him two attic rooms and two assistants.[45]

Symbolic of the new found prestige of forensics and the use of reasoning in detective work was the popularity of the fictional character Sherlock Holmes, written by Arthur Conan Doyle in the late 19th century. He remains a great inspiration for forensic science, especially for the way his acute study of a crime scene yielded small clues as to the precise sequence of events. He made great use of trace evidence such as shoe and tire impressions, as well as fingerprints, ballistics and handwriting analysis, now known as questioned document examination.[46] Such evidence is used to test theories conceived by the police, for example, or by the investigator himself.[47] All of the techniques advocated by Holmes later became reality, but were generally in their infancy at the time Conan Doyle was writing. In many of his reported cases, Holmes frequently complains of the way the crime scene has been contaminated by others, especially by the police, emphasising the critical importance of maintaining its integrity, a now well-known feature of crime scene examination. He used analytical chemistry for blood residue analysis as well as toxicology examination and determination for poisons. He used ballistics by measuring bullet calibres and matching them with a suspected murder weapon.[48]

Late 19th–early 20th centuries figures

Hans Gross applied scientific methods to crime scenes and was responsible for the birth of criminalistics.

Edmond Locard expanded on Gross' work with Locard's Exchange Principle which stated "whenever two objects come into contact with one another, materials are exchanged between them". This means that every contact by a criminal leaves a trace. Locard was also known as the "Sherlock Holmes of France".

Alexander Lacassagne, who taught Locard, produced autopsy standards on actual forensic cases.

Alphonse Bertillon was a French criminologist and founder of Anthropometry (scientific study of measurements and proportions of the human body). He used anthropometry for identification, saying each individual is unique and by measuring aspect of physical difference, there could be a personal identification system. He created the Bertillon System around 1879, which was a way to identify criminals and citizens by measuring 20 parts of the body. In 1884, there was over 240 repeat offenders caught through the Bertillon system. Fingerprinting became more reliable than the Bertillon system.

20th century

Alec Jeffreys invented the DNA profiling technique in 1984.

Later in the 20th century several British pathologists, Mikey Rochman, Francis Camps, Sydney Smith and Keith Simpson pioneered new forensic science methods. Alec Jeffreys pioneered the use of DNA profiling in forensic science in 1984. He 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 police detective work, and it has also proved useful in resolving paternity and immigration disputes.[49] DNA fingerprinting was first used as a police forensic test to identify the rapist and killer of two teenagers, Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth, who were both murdered in Narborough, Leicestershire, in 1983 and 1986 respectively. Colin Pitchfork was identified and convicted of murder after samples taken from him matched semen samples taken from the two dead girls.

Forensic science has been fostered by a number of national forensic science learned bodies including the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences,[50] (founded in 1959), then known as the Forensic Science Society, publisher of Science & Justice;.[51] American Academy of Forensic Sciences (founded 1948), publishers of the Journal of Forensic Sciences;[52] the Canadian Society of Forensic Science (founded 1953), publishers of the Journal of the Canadian Society of Forensic Science; the British Academy of Forensic Sciences[53] (founded 1960), publishers of Medicine, science and the law,[54] and the Australian Academy of Forensic Sciences (founded 1967), publishers of the Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences.[55]


Agents of the United States Army Criminal Investigation Division investigate a crime scene
Police forensic investigation in Ashton-under-Lyne, England, using a tent to protect the crime scene

Questionable techniques

Some forensic techniques, believed to be scientifically sound at the time they were used, have turned out later to have much less scientific merit or none.[61] Some such techniques include:

Litigation science

Litigation science describes analysis or data developed or produced expressly for use in a trial versus those produced in the course of independent research. This distinction was made by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals when evaluating the admissibility of experts.[67]

This uses demonstrative evidence, which is evidence created in preparation of trial by attorneys or paralegals.

International demographics

In the United States there over 14,500 forensic science technicians, as of 2014.[68]

Joseph Bell

The Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges claims that the police novel genre is inaugurated with Edgar Allan Poe's short story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue". But it was Sherlock Holmes, the fictional character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in works produced from 1887 to 1915, who first 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.

Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, in books, films, and television series, use similar methods.

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.

In comic books published by DC Comics, Barry Allen (alter ego of The Flash) is a forensic scientist for the Central City police department.

Defense attorney Perry Mason occasionally used forensic techniques, both in the novels and television series.

One of the earliest television series to focus on the scientific analysis of evidence was Quincy, M.E. (1976–83, and based loosely on an even earlier Canadian series titled Wojeck), with the title character, a medical examiner working in Los Angeles solving crimes through careful study. The opening theme of each episode featured a clip of the title character, played by Jack Klugman, beginning a lecture to a group of police officers with "Gentlemen, you are about to enter the most fascinating sphere of police work, the world of forensic medicine." Later series with similar premises include Dexter, The Mentalist, CSI, Hawaii Five-0, Cold Case, Bones, Law & Order, Body of Proof, NCIS, Criminal Minds, Silent Witness, Detective Conan, Midsomer Murders and Waking the Dead, depict glamorized versions of the activities of 21st-century forensic scientists. Some claim these TV shows have changed individuals' expectations of forensic science, an influence termed the "CSI effect".[69]

Non-fiction TV shows such as Forensic Files, The New Detectives, American Justice, and Dayle Hinman's Body of Evidence have also popularized forensic science.

The Ace Attorney series features forensic science, mainly in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney and the DS-only case in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.


Questions about certain areas of forensic science, such as fingerprint evidence and the assumptions behind these disciplines have been brought to light in some publications[70][71] including the New York Post.[72] The article stated that "No one has proved even the basic assumption: That everyone's fingerprint is unique."[72] The article also stated that "Now such assumptions are being questioned - and with it may come a radical change in how forensic science is used by police departments and prosecutors."[72] Law professor Jessica Gabel said on NOVA that forensic science "lacks the rigors, the standards, the quality controls and procedures that we find, usually, in science."[73]

In America, on 25 June 2009, the Supreme Court issued a 5-to-4 decision in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts stating that crime laboratory reports may not be used against criminal defendants at trial unless the analysts responsible for creating them give testimony and subject themselves to cross-examination. The Supreme Court cited the National Academies report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States[74] in their decision. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia referred to the National Research Council report in his assertion that "Forensic evidence is not uniquely immune from the risk of manipulation."

In 2009, scientists indicated that it is possible to fabricate DNA evidence, therefore suggesting it is possible to falsely accuse or acquit a person or persons using forged evidence.[66]

In America, another area of forensic science that has come under question in recent years is the lack of laws requiring the accreditation of forensic labs. Some states require accreditation, but some states do not. Because of this, many labs have been caught performing very poor work resulting in false convictions or acquittals. For example, it was discovered after an audit of the Houston Police Department in 2002 that the lab had fabricated evidence which led George Rodriguez being convicted of raping a fourteen-year-old girl.[75] The former director of the lab, when asked, said that the total number of cases that could have been contaminated by improper work could be in the range of 5,000 to 10,000.[75] This could have been avoided if the lab had been accredited by organizations such as ASCLD/Lab, which require crime labs to undergo rigorous assessments to show that they are able to perform multiple tests accurately. Once they become accredited, they are periodically re-evaluated to ensure that the lab is still functioning at its best.[76] Periodic evaluations of a lab's performance by an independent organization will help to prevent scandals from occurring in forensic science laboratories.

Although forensic science has greatly enhanced the investigator's ability to solve crimes, it has limitations and must be scrutinized in and out of the courtroom to avoid the occurrence of wrongful convictions.[77]

Forensic science and humanitarian work

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) uses forensic science for humanitarian purposes to clarify the fate of missing persons after armed conflict, disasters or migration,[78] and is one of the services related to Restoring Family Links and Missing Persons. Knowing what has happened to a missing relative can often make it easier to proceed with the grieving process and move on with life for families of missing persons.

Forensic science is used by various other organizations to clarify the fate and whereabouts of persons who have gone missing. Examples include the NGO Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, working to clarify the fate of people who disappeared during the period of the 1976–1983 military dictatorship. The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) uses forensic science to find missing persons,[79] for example after the conflicts in the Balkans.[80]

See also



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