You may have seen skeletal remains being examined on the hit TV show Bones, or Dexter analyzing bloodshed patterns, with both characters stating their area of forensic expertise. Although most “science” elements in TV shows are fictitious, the fact remains that there are multiple kinds of forensic science.

Still, before moving on to that, we must first answer: “What is forensic science?” If you are interested in learning more, keep on reading. This article is an overview of everything you need to know about forensic science.

Defining Forensic Science

Let’s first explain the meaning of forensic science. Generally speaking, the term refers to the gathering and analysis of forensic evidence during a criminal investigation or archeological exploration.

In terms of etymology, the term forensic is derived from the Latin word forensis, which can be translated to "of a forum." That’s because, in Rome, criminal trials were held in the open-air Forum.

The word first entered the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 1959. The dictionary defines forensic as “relating to or dealing with the application of scientific knowledge to legal problems.”

So, what is the goal of forensics? The aim is to discover facts by analyzing various pieces of evidence to help a criminal investigation. To do this, forensic scientists use their vast scientific knowledge and logic. In forensic science, facts are the main focus, but some guesswork is involved in the form of estimates, where specific data is missing.

The History of Forensic Science

As is the case with most fields, forensic science has evolved over time. In this section, we will look at the origins and first examples of the application of different areas of forensic science, including autopsies, fingerprinting, and DNA analysis.

The First Autopsy

The first known autopsy took place in 44 B.C. A physician named Antistius examined Julius Caesar’s body to determine which stab wound was fatal. Out of the 23 stab wounds Caesar suffered, the doctor concluded that the one to his chest killed him, as it punctured his aorta.

The First Instances of Using Fingerprints as Evidence

Although fingerprints would take a while to be widely used as evidence, fingerprinting has its origins in Chinese culture, as early as 221 B.C. They sealed documents using clay with the author’s fingerprint to ensure the document reached the person it was meant for untampered.

Major breakthroughs happened when a series of forensic research papers on the uniqueness of fingerprints was published in the 19th century. The most notable example is the 1880 article titled Nature by Henry Faulds, as he was the first to mention the value of fingerprints for identification.

When it comes to criminal trials, the earliest recorded example of someone being convicted of homicide based on fingerprints in a court of law is in an Argentina trial for a murder that occurred in 1892.

Two children were murdered, and their mother, Francisca Rojas, had a cut on her throat. The authorities suspected she was the culprit and inflicted the wound herself, even though she claimed it had been an act of revenge by a man named Velasquez.

The police tried to elicit a confession using excessive force, but that didn’t work. They resorted to employing the inspector Eduardo Alvarez. As he was trained to examine fingerprints, he conducted a forensic investigation, compared the bloody fingerprint found at the crime scene door to Rojas’ prints, and determined that they matched. This led to the woman’s confession and subsequent conviction.

The United States saw the first conviction based on a fingerprint analysis in 1910 in a murder case. Clarence Hiller heard his wife and daughter screaming, and rushed to help them. He was then shot and killed by an intruder.

As it turned out, the suspect was a serial burglar, Thomas Jennings. Despite the blood on his coat, and the revolver in his hand, when he was confronted by the police the same night, the focal point of the prosecution’s case were fingerprints.

The downfall of Mr. Jennings happened due to a freshly painted porch railing. While leaving the Hillers’ premises, he touched the fence and left his fingerprints. During the trial, the judge allowed that to be used as evidence, despite the objection of Jennings' lawyer. His client was convicted and received the death penalty.

The First Conviction Based on DNA Evidence

The first case in the US that involved using DNA as evidence was a Florida rape trial in 1986. This case pushed forensic biotechnology forward.

The victim didn’t get the chance to see her attacker's face clearly, as he made sure to conceal it, which lowered the chances of the perpetrator being identified. Additionally, the culprit was careful not to leave any fingerprints.

A series of assaults that shared many similarities with that case followed. The prosecution caught a break when the investigators found two fingerprints on a window in one of the cases. After that, a man called Tommie Lee Andrews was reported for lurking. His prints turned out to be a match for the ones found at the crime scene. More importantly, a serology test also showed a match. However, this was still not enough for unequivocal proof.

The prosecution was then approached by the assistant attorney, Jeffrey Ashton, who got an idea after reading about paternity testing through DNA analysis. He wondered if it could be applied to criminal investigations. After the testimony of an independent DNA expert who explained why DNA analysis should be considered valid evidence, the judge allowed it to be presented in court. The DNA was a match, and the suspect was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

Areas of Forensic Science

Forensic science is a broad field; here is a classification of the types of forensic science:

1. Criminalistics

Criminalistics is a branch of forensic science that involves analyzing evidence by employing natural sciences and critical thinking. It’s a broad discipline that includes forensic ballistics, bloodstain pattern analysis, and crime scene reconstruction.

a) Forensic Ballistics

Ballistics entails the analysis of firearms used to carry out a crime. Whenever a gun is fired, markings remain on the bullet and cartridge. This can link a suspect’s firearm to the bullet found at the crime scene.

b) Bloodstain Pattern Analysis

Analyzing bloodstains is another forensic science discipline that can be a part of a criminal investigation. Bloodshed analysts can determine things like the level of force used to inflict a wound, the direction of motion, and whether a murder victim’s body was moved after the fact. These clues can be helpful in crime scene reconstruction.

c) Crime Scene Reconstruction

Forensic crime scene reconstruction attempts to uncover the sequence of events before, during, and after the crime. It includes the examination of patterns, the location of the physical evidence, and the lab analysis of the evidence. 

2. Fingerprinting

Fingerprint analysis is a crucial element in the pursuit of justice. While it used to be a painstaking process, as everything had to be compared manually, computers can now automatically compare a fingerprint to a country-wide database.

Naturally, this makes the process much more effective, because, in the former case, experts needed to select the fingerprints to compare their sample to. This meant that not all prints they had could be used in the process.

3) Forensic Biology

As its name suggests, forensic biology examines evidence by applying biological knowledge to substances found at crime scenes. According to what is analyzed, this discipline can be divided into the following subtypes: Forensic entomology, forensic pathology, forensic anthropology, forensic botany, and DNA analysis.

a) Forensic Entomology

Forensic entomology applies the science of studying insects in combination with forensics. This forensic science application to entomology involves using the knowledge of insects to identify the time and place of death, via insect presence and onset time.

The time of death is crucial for investigators to be able to check the suspects’ alibies. Determining where the murder occurred is another vital aspect, as the perpetrator may have moved the body, and finding the actual crime scene can lead to more evidence.

b) Forensic Pathology

Forensic pathology is the science of determining the manner of death. To reach a conclusion, forensic pathologists perform the following tasks:

  • Analyze witness testimonies
  • Look at the deceased's medical history
  • Conduct an autopsy

The cause of death can be a homicide, natural causes, accident, or suicide. In some cases, when the pathologist cannot uncover what happened, it remains undetermined.

c) Forensic Anthropology 

Forensic Anthropology refers to the discipline of examining the skeletal parts of human remains. It’s complementary to pathology, which tries to determine the cause of death by analyzing human tissue, bodily fluids, and internal organs.

d) Forensic Botany 

Botany is the study of plants, so forensic botany involves applying this knowledge to investigate a crime scene. A forensic botanist analyzes parts of plants such as pollen, leaves, and seeds, most often to get a better read on the victim’s locations as they relate to the crime.

For example, a perpetrator may have a leaf stuck to their shoe. By carefully examining this leaf, the forensic scientist may determine that the leaf comes from a specific tree found at the crime scene.

e) DNA Analysis

What is DNA analysis in forensic science? DNA analysis is used to identify offenders or determine the parents of a child. For example, if a criminal gets hurt at the crime scene, and leaves some blood, that can be used to analyze their DNA and compare it to the database of recorded samples.

Since everyone has unique DNA, with the exception of identical twins, this method is used quite frequently. However, in some cases, it doesn’t prove that the suspect committed the crime; rather, it only places them at the crime scene. For that reason, DNA is often used alongside other evidence.

4. Forensic Toxicology

This area of expertise focuses on finding different substances, including alcohol, drugs, and poisons in biological samples. For example, a toxicology report may indicate that a person died due to poisoning rather than natural causes, which calls for a criminal investigation. 

5. Questioned Documents Analysis

Questioned documents analysis involves examining documents to solve a case. These documents can be testaments, letters, bank checks, etc. For example, the document in question may be a handwritten death threat. The expert will then compare the handwriting of the suspect to the note.

6. Explosives

Forensic science also has its application in determining whether a fire or explosion was accidental or intentional. They look for signs of a break-in, explosive residues, parts of a bomb, igniters, and other indicators that a crime such as arson or bomb-planting had been committed.

7. Digital Forensics

Digital forensics refers to analyzing digital evidence. This involves anything that can be found on digital devices, such as computers and phones, that can lead to solving a crime. 

Forensic Science Jobs

The person working in forensic science is referred to as a forensic scientist, or a forensic science technician. This refers to any person whose job is to gather and analyze physical evidence from a crime scene.

As we’ve seen, there are various kinds of forensic scientists based on the kind of evidence they work with, including evidence technicians, fingerprint analysts, forensic investigators, forensic psychologists, and forensic pathologists.

If you’re looking to start a career as a criminal investigator, you wouldn’t technically fall under the forensic scientist label, but you would deal with forensic evidence.

Conclusion: Why Is Forensic Science Important?

Forensic science plays a crucial role in solving crimes. Each area of this discipline contributes to building criminal cases based on evidence that is difficult to dispute. Forensic science is also used in other legal proceedings, such as family law. The work that forensic scientists do helps secure convictions and keep our communities safe. It takes a lot of skill and training to be an excellent forensic scientist, and the work can be very challenging. But it’s also rewarding, knowing that you are helping to bring justice to victims of crime and their families.