THE SCOPE OF FORENSIC SCIENCE



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THE SCOPE OF FORENSIC SCIENCE



If forensic science means science applied to criminal and civil law, we may wonder which of the sciences are forensic sciences. The answer may surprise you. Any science can be a forensic science if it has some application to justice. The most common areas of science that have forensic applica­tions are described below. This will give you an idea of the "big tent" that is forensic science.

Criminalistics

Criminalistics is an old term first coined by Paul Kirk, the father of forensic science in the United States. In some quar­ters, criminalistics is synonymous with forensic science. The term can be used to describe the comparative forensic sci­ences such as fingerprints, questioned documents, firearms, and tool marks. Most commonly, however, criminalistics refers to the myriad of types of physical evidence generated by crime scenes. This includes illicit drugs, blood and DNA, fire and explosive residues, hairs and fibers, glass and soil particles, paints and plastics, fingerprints, bullets, and much more.

Pathology

When some people think of forensic science, they envision dead bodies, autopsies, and blood everywhere. Not all of forensic science is like this, but forensic pathology is. The forensic pathologist is a medical doctor who has special­ized in pathology and then in forensic pathology. Forensic pathologists determine the cause and manner of death in cases where someone dies under suspicious or other circum­stances as prescribed by state law. Many people are also confused by the terms cause of death and manner of death. The cause of death is the event that directly caused death. It could be, for example, a heart attack or bleeding to death from a knife wound to a major artery. There can be many causes of death. The manner of death is the type of death. There can be only four of these: homicide, natural, acciden­tal, and suicide.

 

Anthropology

Forensic anthropologists work with skeletal remains. They identify bones as being human or animal. If animal, they determine the species. If human, they determine from what part of the body the bone originated. If they have the right bones, gender can be determined. Sometimes age can be approximated, and racial characteristics determined; even socioeconomic status may be estimated. If there is an injury to a skeleton or major bones, the anthropologist can help determine the cause of the injury or even death.

Forensic anthropologists do other things besides iden­tifying bones. They also work closely with skulls. It is pos­sible to literally build a face onto a skull, using clay and wooden or plastic pegs of various sizes. Using charts that give average tissue depth figures for various parts of a face, an anthropologist constructs a face and then makes judg­ments as to eye, nose, and mouth characteristics. Facial reconstruction can be useful in helping to identify a missing person from the face built up on the recovered skull.

 

Engineering

Forensic engineers can be valuable in cases where some­thing has gone wrong with a mechanical or structural entity or in cases of automobile crashes. A few years ago, a bal­cony collapsed in the lobby of a hotel in Kansas City. Many people were on the balcony at the time, watching a rock concert going on in the lobby several stories below. Ques­tions arose about why the balcony collapsed. Forensic engi­neers were called in to examine the structural remains of the balcony and the concrete that fell. They concluded that the construction of the balcony was faulty and contributed to its failure. Failure analysis is one of the major contribu­tions that forensic engineers make to the justice system.

The majority of the work of forensic engineers is in the investigation of traffic crashes. Accident reconstruction is used to determine speeds, directions of impact, and who was driving the vehicle at the time of the crash. Insurance companies and police departments use forensic engineers quite extensively in traffic incident investigation.

 

Entomology

When a person dies and the body is exposed to the ele­ments, who gets there first? Not witnesses or detectives: it is flies, usually blowflies. During the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City (Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh were convicted of the bombing), bod­ies were buried in the tons of rubble from the collapsed building. Investigators literally followed the flies into the rubble and were able to locate some bodies this way. Flies and other insects lay their eggs in decaying flesh. Differ­ent insects do this at different times. Other insects such as beetles and wasps will attack and feed off the insects and the eggs. Depending upon temperature and other envi­ronmental factors, this parade of visitors takes place at surprisingly consistent time intervals. By inspecting the corpse, forensic entomologists can give a pretty good esti­mate of the postmortem interval, that is, whether the body has been there for many hours or several days.

 

2. Read the text and complete the lists of terms describing each area of science that has forensic applica­tions:

1. Criminalistics - fingerprints, questioned documents,__________________________

__________________________________________________________________

 

2. Pathology - dead bodies, autopsies,_________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________

 

3. Anthropology -skeletal remains, ___________________________________________

_____________________________________________________________________

 

4. Engineering - a mechanical or structural entity, _______________________________

______________________________________________________________________

 

5. Entomology - flies, blowflies, ______________________________________________

______________________________________________________________________

 

 



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