Forensic sciences

Posted: December 2nd, 2013





How the portrayal of forensic science in media (CSI, for example) has influenced the court system

Forensic sciences

            Forensic science refers to the usage of a broad range of sciences to give answers to questions of concern in legal systems and scientific studies. The term forensics and forensic science are used interchangeably to mean the scientific investigation that serves to give evidence to a question from the courts. The science involves the application of biology, physics, chemistry and other branches to come up with unique evidence that eliminates other possibilities and explicitly identifies an individual. The use of forensic science knowledge has been exploited by three main bodies: law enforcement agencies, the media and perpetrators of criminal activities.

In criminal history, it proved difficult to prove that suspected criminals were guilty beyond doubt. Court proceedings depended on the confessions that were sometimes coerced and corrupted as well as testimonies from witnesses. Elements of forensics began developing in Ancient China where the Song Dynasty solved many crimes using answers that were biological in nature. Modern forensics developed around the 16th century in Europe where French and Italian army doctors came up with various categories of how soldiers died for instance strangulation, drowning and poisoning. These developments were recorded in documents such as A Treatise on Forensic Medicine and Public Health and The Complete System of Police Medicine (Ramsland 27).

Toward the end of the 19th century, forensics began developing more and even subdivided into more branches that specialized on specific aspects of forensics. Some of the major areas in forensic science include criminalistics, digital forensics, forensic anthropology, forensic DNA analysis and mobile device forensics among other subfields. These subdivisions and manifestations of forensic science have greatly improved the quality and efficiency of the legal system since it is now easier to prove that an individual is innocent or guilty of a crime. Scholars who have been influential in the development of forensic science over the years include Alphonse Bertillon, Alexandre Lacassagne and Wilton M. Krogman.

The reasons behind looking to science to aid in improving the quality of services of the legal system revolve around changes in crime and law enforcement techniques. First, there are increasing incidences of crimes happening within the neighborhoods and the city centers. These crimes range from petty offenders such as pickpockets to organized gang robbery. There are also changes in the constitution and other relevant legal documents, such as the penal code, that have forced law enforcers to turn to science for assistance. The advent of new crimes and weapons such as terrorism using biological and digital weapons necessitated the scientific intervention to reduce such attacks. The media have been crucial in disseminating information on forensic science through the various movies, TV shows, documentaries and news sections (Newton 128).

Some of the notable TV series that became famous for their inclusion of forensic techniques include Sherlock Holmes, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, who used forensic science in his investigation of criminal methods. Agatha Christie also employed forensic qualities in her publications such as Hercule Poirot. More recent television series include The Mentalist and CSI Miami. The development of the plot of most television dramas has closely followed the changes in the legal system and the law enforcement. To this extent, the media has been hugely influential in changing the perceptions that people have about forensic science in crime solving. In this section, the influence of the media on the legal system will be the main subject of discussion.

Forensics science specifically fingerprint evidence was not popular within legal systems until the 1980s when it was first experimented with at the Illinois Supreme Court. Clarence Hiller had been murdered in his home. Thomas Jennings was the main suspect who was caught in the possession of a revolver and unused bullets from the Hiller’s home. Four fingerprints belonging to Jennings were also found on the crime scene that helped the jury to convict him. Since then, fingerprint evidence was embraced as a valid source of evidence and could be used as enough material to convict a suspect.

Bernard Knight, a chief pathologist for the British government commented that television crime programs have done a lot of damage in raising the expectations of jurors and judges within the legal system. Most television series such as CSI Miami exaggerate the collection of evidence, the presentation of cases and the decision of juries to an extent that has influenced the attitudes, standards and decisions of jury panels. The current generations of jurors have come to demand more resounding proof than forensic science can deliver. The wide berth between fiction and reality makes it even more difficult to rectify the situation.

Terming it as a “CSI effect”, the pathologist defined the phenomenon as that of jurors having impractical prospects of forensic evidence and investigation methods and having an increased concentration in the discipline of forensic science. These sentiments were echoed by Evan Durnal, an employee at the Criminal Justice Department in the University of Central Missouri. He also argued that increased prevalence of investigative television series have transformed how the American legal system conducted its trials. One of the most obvious assumptions made was that jurors thought they had a detailed understanding of forensic science after viewing such programs on TV (Newman 34).

In reality, they do not. The process of selecting juries has also been lengthened in order to ensure that potential jurors did not use television standards to judge scientific evidence. Courtrooms have been converted into debate areas where prosecutors and lawyers attempt to school juries on why certain pieces of evidence can or cannot be considered relevant in the court. This has led to new development such as negative evidence witnesses whose function is to clarify that investigators may at some point fall short of finding evidence at crime scenes. This has diluted and corrupted the real purpose of the courtroom as a place where trials are heard and judgment passed.

Defense lawyers are equally affected by the CSI effect since they can benefit from misguided ideas that science offers jurors. Using this argument, defense lawyers can then argue that there lacks incriminating scientific evidence, which will constitute reasonable doubt. This can provide grounds for acquittal of a suspect. However, the CSI effect can also produce negative consequences for defense lawyers. This happens when they are summoned to explain the close similarity between a television drama’s devices, such as fingerprint or DNA matching, and the fingerprint database at a local police department computer. In such cases, their client could end up being found guilty thanks to the jurors’ inquisitiveness and pre-knowledge of television programs (Kiely 27).

The problem with prioritizing scientific techniques as the main standard in determining a person’s guilt or innocence is that forensic evidence is based on complex probabilities. Take the case of fingerprint evidence, where an expert categorically comments that his method has a 90% chance of finding the owner of the print, and an infinity chance is someone else who was not related to the case left the prints. DNA evidence has proved to be more accurate, but experts in this field still claim to work with probabilities and not certainties. Jailing an innocent man or setting free a perpetrator of wrong deeds based on probabilities distorts the whole concept of justice.

Conversely, the media and production houses strive to produce reality drama shows that include sophisticated police equipment and applying the real laws from the constitution. While this makes for quality drama, criminals also watch these shows and slowly refine their techniques to use these loopholes and get away with law breaking activities. More murderers now use bleach to kill any DNA on the crime scene. They also wear gloves and prefer to tape shut any envelopes than licking them. This gives investigators more trouble, as they have to cover crime scenes with a fine toothcomb that may sometimes yield no evidence. This develops into a trend where more and more unsolved cases are shelved for future reference creating a backlog of cases at the courts.

As much as the use of forensic evidence can be said to be changing the way in which justice is meted out, it has greatly refined the quality of court trials. In one relevant case, jurors inquired whether a certain piece of evidence had been tested for possible DNA matches. It had been tested but had not been entered as part of the evidence. The inclusion of the negative DNA results ultimately exonerated the defendant, and he was acquitted. To that extent, both Evan Durnal and Bernard knight acknowledge that the makers of television shows are not to blame for the effect that they have had on the justice system. It remains the responsibility of the lawyers, judges and other stakeholders in the legal system to determine when to consider forensic evidence as valid and useful (Embar-Seddon et al 56).

`           As was mentioned above, crime-solving television drams have significantly increased public awareness on the position that science holds in gathering evidence and solving crimes. However, some key differences set aside real crime investigation and television dramas. Television shows have professionals who are armed, making interrogations and arrests, as well. These television stars normally receive their DNA and fingerprints results almost instantly. In real life investigation, pathologists and scientists are not equipped with guns and body armor. They also lack the authority to make interrogations and arrests, as it is a job left for the area police. Real forensic results also take exceptionally long before they can be gotten and used. In fact, the fastest

There has been much criticism leveled at the increased influence of the media on the legal systems in most countries. Of particular importance, is the focus on the forensic methods used to determine whether a person’s DNA or fingerprints were found at the scene or on the victim. Since the adoption of forensic methods in courts, over half of the convictions passed on suspects, were based on invalidated or inappropriate forensic science presented by professionals. First, forensic scientists have been elevated to the level of a juror or a judge in that their recommendations will eventually convict or acquit a person.

Forensic scientists are always summoned after all the evidence has been presented by the defendant’s lawyer or state that brings out the perception that these scientists hold the key that turns the tide of the case. Coupled with the “CSI effect” bias that was mentioned earlier, jurors are manipulated to depend on science to determine the fate of suspects. The problem is that this number of unfair convictions could even be larger (Begley 12). This is because no studies have been done to determine if different human DNA samples may be similar in structure and might unwittingly link to the wrong person. To that extent, invalid forensic results might have helped to convict the wrong people. The best attempt at forensic science that can be depended upon would be fingerprinting which is better than studying handwritings, dental formulas and shoe sizes.

On their part, most legal professionals have lost their own skills and resorted to science. Jurors have been given the wrong impression television programs like by CSI, Bones, and the notion that science will always prevail. Many members of the jury, panels of judges and the bar agree that they need to step up their modus operandi and their reliability on forensic techniques. Groups up against the overindulgence in forensic science such as National Organization of Criminal Defense Lawyers have made campaigns that call for the reforms of the sector. They argue that, over a decade, crime lab investigations have shown that forensic evidence brought before the court is often bogus and is based on speculations, poor quality control, and subjective understanding.

A case study of the extent of misuse of forensic science can be the Maguire Seven case where the convictions were quashed, and the forensic scientists exonerated because of the forensic results that were tampered with. The family members were convicted based on the forensic results that revealed traces of nitroglycerine on their hands. On these grounds alone, the whole family was thrown into jail. However, their acquittal was later considered because the forensic tests themselves were too flawed to be reliable. The case of Fred Zain from West Virginia is also relevant in questioning the role forensic science plays in law (Adler et al 34).

In the Fred Zain case, he was entrusted with giving valuable information on forensics that was used to convict many people. Unfortunately, he had clinched the position on false credentials that meant that his recommendations were not qualified and accurate. These two examples are a clear indication of the extent to which the media has integrated low-level, superficial science into the minds of decision makers such as juries and pathologists who determine the fate of an individual.

Work cited

Adler, Joanna R, and Jacqueline M. Gray. Forensic Psychology: Concepts, Debates and Practice. Abingdon: Willan, 2010. Accessed on 24 October 2012. Retrieved from

Begley S. But it works on TV! The Daily Beast Accessed on 24 October 2012. Retrieved from

Embar-Seddon, Ayn, and Allan D. Pass. Forensic Science. Pasadena, Calif: Salem Press, 2009. Print.

Kiely, Terrence F. Forensic Evidence: Science and the Criminal Law. Boca Raton, Fla: CRC Press, 2001. Print

Newman, Robert C. Computer Forensics: Evidence Collection and Management. Boca Raton, FL: Auerbach Publications, 2007. Print.

Newton, David E. DNA Evidence and Forensic Science. New York: Facts on File, 2008. Print

Ramsland K. CSI: Without a clue, a new report forces police and judges to rethink forensic science. New York Post. Accessed on 24 October 2012. Retrieved from;jsessionid=184810DD4B5E16D37B74096588931092


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