My experience with crime and forensic evidence comes from two sources: watching NCIS with my parents, and swooning over Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock. As you can imagine, I don't necessarily get a ton of practical knowledge from either of these shows. Because I'm neither a sociopathic genius, nor a sassy government employee, I tend to watch both programs with confusion and a little awe at the way the characters are able to catch a killer by the make of his shoes or by finding a bit of her skin under a victim's nail.
Usually, by the end of an episode, I'm half convinced that all of the characters are secretly wizards, because there's no way anything but magic could solve some of those crimes. For a very long time I was more than willing to believe that forensic science was something otherworldly and beyond the understanding of a mere mortal like myself. This witchcraft would just always be a mystery to me.
But then I picked up Val McDermid's book, Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, and More Tell Us About Crime. At first, I was a bit nervous to read it, convinced that it would be full of terminology I didn't understand and examples I wouldn't be able to follow. (I am, and always have been, very enthusiastic about the idea of science, but really terrible at understanding it. I feel very, very badly for my high school science teachers who had to deal with me in class.) I'm used to reading books about dead authors, mythical lands, and feminist theory. Would I really be able to follow a book about forensics?
Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, And More Tell Us About Crime by Val McDermid, $10.71, Amazon
Yes, I would, thanks to McDermid's ability to break down the concepts of forensic science, give readers real cases solved by the use of forensic evidence, and even throw in a little historical background for us history nerds. Did you know that the world's first crime investigation laboratory opened in Lyon, France in 1910, and that the man who opened it, Edmond Locard, was influenced by Sherlock Holmes stories? Well, now you do, thanks to McDermid.
In fact, the entire book is full of cool facts like that. And for someone like me, who had very little knowledge of the topic before I gave the book a read, it was amazing to see how forensic scientists could use things like DNA, maggots, and fires to solve crimes that left other investigators baffled. I repeat: There are people who study maggots and use them to solve crimes. This is weird and gross and awesome.
We all know that DNA and fingerprints play a role in snagging a criminal, but some of the other branches of forensic science are slightly less well-known but equally cool. Here are some of my personal favorite ways scientists solve crimes.
Fire Scene Investigation
For a force of nature that's pretty destructive, the clues that fires leave behind can help solve their own cause. Fire scene investigators examine the scene of a fire and look for smoke patterns on buildings, what ignited the fire, what sustained damage, and other clues to help them solve the puzzle.
Of course, some cases are easier to solve than others: a serial arsonist in the '80s was caught when not only were his fingerprints found at the scene of the crime, but he published a novel about an arsonist that seemed suspiciously similar to the actual string of fires. Nice one, buddy.
Here come those maggots! The first case of insects being used to solve crimes may have been in 1247 in China. A man was killed with a sickle, and the murderer was identified when flies swarmed to his weapon, attracted by the scent of washed-off blood (44). Bugs can help solves crimes in less obvious ways as well. Entomologists can also examine the flies found a victim's dead body, estimate what stage of life the insects are at, and get a rough estimate of when the victim was killed, or at least disposed of.
Apparently anthropology can be used for more than just fulfilling one of your college gen-ed requirements. Forensic anthropologists have the unhappy task of examining the bones and bodies of victims to hopefully ID them to their grieving loved ones or discover the causes of their death. When a Syrian defector leaked photos of men who had been allegedly killed and tortured, a forensic anthropologist was asked to examine photos of the bodies and state whether they showed signs of systematic abuse. That same anthropologist in a later case was able to identify a bone fragment as a crucial piece of the skull, implying that the victim was almost definitely dead.
Not all of the cool parts of forensic science happens in the lab. Internet sleuthing can also be a big part of the job. Note to readers: be careful what you Google, especially if you plan on committing a horrendous crime. In multiple cases involving horrific sex crimes, killers have been caught because forensic scientists have been able to track what pornographic sites they've frequented around the time of the murders. So, if you're going to choke someone to death, here are two tips: 1) Don't do it, obviously, and 2) Don't spend the months prior to it watching violent asphyxia porn.
Sometimes psychologists can look at a crime and come up with a profile that they would expect the killer to fit. The profiles can be general (a murder with a sexual element to it was probably committed by a killer with a history of abusing their partners, etc.), and sometimes they can be absurdly specific.
Dr. James Brussel said of the "Mad Bomber of New York" that he would be clean shaven, live with an older female relative, and be wearing a buttoned-up double-breasted suit when arrested, among other things. And, weirdly enough, he was right.
So, forensics are pretty cool, right? It's not to late for a career change... to forensics. Not crime. Come on.
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