The Side of Forensic Science You Don’t See on TV
Most of us got our first introduction to forensic science through shows like Law and Order, CSI, NCIS, Dexter, and Forensic Files. These shows actually inspired me to pursue forensics as a career. As someone who was looking to help people with science, forensics was both fascinating and convenient (considering the bill for medical school and residency!). I’m currently in my final year of my undergraduate degree, as well as my first year of the graduate program. I’ve learned a lot about the field in a short period of time, and I can personally attest to the vast differences between reality and what you see on TV.
Throughout my first semester in the graduate program, I’ve been able to work with different kinds of evidence that are oftentimes present in crime shows. We’ve done work with blood/bodily fluids and various drugs. The class has also worked on crime scene creation in order to test our understanding of different crime scene components. While many shows depict these tests as fairly easy and straightforward, not everything goes as smoothly. Sometimes, forensic scientists are faced with false negative and positive results, potentially skewing their testimony in court and the fate of the suspect.
Drug analysis can be a lengthy and tedious process, and oftentimes the results you receive are fraught with background interference from unknown compounds. Identifying these drugs becomes infinitely more complex when testing biological samples; thus far, we’ve mainly worked with very pure and simple solutions. Staging mock crime scenes are fascinating and there are a surprising number of factors to take into account, like the placement of blood spatter, footprints, and fingerprints. With blood, you have to account for the direction of the pattern, based on the weapon’s arc. You also need to think of how the blood can be found in other places in trace amounts. For instance, a killer may get blood on their hands, and they may leave behind stray fingerprints during clean up. You may even find minute traces of blood on their shoes, depending on where they stood in the crime scene.
As for footprints, the deposition of material, whether it be dirt or blood, can vary based on the movement pattern. If someone is backing away, there will most likely be heavier deposition on the heel compared to the toe. Fingerprints can be found in unique places: for example, if there was a burglary, fingerprints may be found under a window sill as the perpetrator pulls themselves into the room or on a discarded towel after crime scene clean up. Such minor details can alter one’s understanding of the crime scene, and it’s amazing how professionals have determined efficient ways to analyze different types of evidence.
As for the criminal law end of things, strict statutes apply to drug possession and use, with specific amounts and types of drugs associated with certain criminal sentences. It falls to the forensic scientist to ensure that their drug analysis is correct, and that they did not misrepresent the amount of drugs in a suspect’s system. This emphasis on accuracy and integrity is something that is not often discussed in the media, as many shows focus upon a successful arrest leading to a guilty sentence.
Furthermore, with new drugs regularly being created, many laws are falling behind. By making a slight alteration to a drug’s structure, statutes involving that drug won’t apply. Laws often describe a drug’s structure down to the T, so if there is a slight deviation from that description, the drug is no longer “illegal.” The specificity in laws are what allow this loophole to be easily exploited, and people can essentially walk away with little to no consequences.
Many facets of the forensic field are not reflected in crime shows, which are mainly for entertainment instead of reality. The truth of forensics is often sobering, but the field is still a very fulfilling and rich one to learn about.