What is Forensic Science? - Definition, History & Types

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  • 0:03 What Is Forensic Science?
  • 1:30 History of Forensic Science
  • 3:57 Types of Forensic Science
  • 5:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dan Grossi

Dan is a retired police sergeant and has taught criminal justice and legal studies for 8 years. He has a Master's degree in Criminal Justice and is pursuing his PhD.

The popularity of forensic science has increased in recent years. Various popular television shows have highlighted the use of science to investigate and solve a variety of crimes. This lesson will define forensic science and explore the history of this essential investigative field.

What Is Forensic Science?

While investigating a homicide, Mike carefully dusts a window for fingerprints. As the black powder is spread across the glass, a faint fingerprint begins to appear. Mike carefully lifts the print and takes it back to the lab. When the fingerprint is entered into the computer, a possible match is identified, and the suspect is picked up for questioning. When the suspect is asked how his fingerprints could have ended up at the crime scene, he confesses to the murder. This is an example of using forensic science to solve a crime.

The simplest definition of forensic science is any science used within the criminal justice system. While this definition may be simple, the field of forensic science is anything but simple. Crime scene investigators and lab technicians use specialized skills and tools to collect, analyze, and present evidence in order to solve a crime or successfully convict the offender. The increased use of scientific methods to collect and examine evidence has led to the closure of many criminal cases that could not be solved through old-fashioned detective work alone. New testing methods are even being applied to cold cases, or cases from many years ago that remain unsolved.

Forensic science can be used to:

  • Prove elements of a crime
  • Verify or discredit victim or suspect statements
  • Identify decedents or suspects
  • Establish a connection to a crime or crime scene

History of Forensic Science

Medical exams to determine cause of death have been used for centuries, but the use of science to investigate crimes and identify criminals began in the mid to late 1800s. The first attempt to document the identity of offenders was called anthropometry, which consisted of measuring and documenting the offender's body. By keeping these records, repeat offenders could be identified, even if they gave a false name. It was soon discovered that due to similar characteristics and measurement errors, this method was not as reliable as was hoped. This method was replaced by dactylography, or the use of fingerprints for identification. Because everyone has different fingerprints, this method has been extremely successful and is still in use today.

The next major advancement in forensic science did not occur until the 1980s when scientists were able to decode human deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). This allowed for the identification of a suspect through hair, skin cells, saliva, blood, and semen. DNA has become a reliable way to connect a suspect with a crime scene and to identify human remains. As this science progresses, new collection and testing methods have allowed investigators to get useful DNA samples from very small or degraded specimens.

Forensic science is not only used to identify people but also to locate or recreate a crime scene. Chemicals such as luminol and Hemident have been developed to identify blood in a crime scene, even if it has been cleaned.

Once the blood is located, blood spatter analysis can be conducted to recreate the scene. Based on the size and shape of a drop of blood, investigators can determine which direction the droplets were traveling or how far the drops fell before hitting the floor. Information from several drops of blood can be used to locate where the victim or suspect was standing when the blood hit the floor.

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