Max Folsom – Author of the Baker Somerset series of mysteries

The History of Forensics

The burst of interest in forensics, for most people, happened with the O. J. Simpson trial. Millions of people, both in the U.S. and around the world spent nine months glued to their television sets and argued in pubs about the evidence being put forth and whether or not it was reliable. Following the Simpson case, television series began to feature forensics and both CSI and NCIS have had long running series as watchers became enamored with the details that helped detectives capture criminals.

I became engrossed in the history of forensics when I read American Sherlock : Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI by Kate Winkler Dawson. That led me into looking at the history of forensics as a whole, not just in America. In this article we’ll look at a loose time-line of the history of forensics. In a following article we’ll discuss a few notable scientists and then in a third article we’ll look at some well known cases that furthered the acceptance of forensic science in the courtroom.

Forensics is usually defined as ‘the use of scientific date and procedures specifically for the legal system.’ It includes fingerprints, DNA, bones, autopsies, blood, x-rays, CAT scans, plus, plus, plus. Like many readers I first became aware of the small pieces of evidence that make up what we call forensics through the stories of Sherlock Holmes:

“Holmes was seated at his side-table clad in his dressing-gown, and working hard over a      chemical investigation. A large curved retort was boiling furiously in the bluish flame of a

            Bunsen burner and the distilled drops were condensing into a two litre measure.” –     Arthur Conan Doyle, The Naval Treaty, 1893.

But what we now call forensics is far older than Holmes. The Roman Republic in 82 B.C. enacted the first law against poisoning. Forensics is even older than Aristotle who lived from 384 to 322 BC. He began to organize concepts of the physical world. In fact, the word itself comes from the days (and death) of Julius Caesar. When Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 BC the physician, Antistius, performed an autopsy and announced his results (that a single stab wound from among more than twenty wounds had penetrated the heart and was the cause of death) before the forum, the arena that provides the basis for the word, forensic.

Earlier than Caesar and Antistius, during Imhotep’s reign in Egypt in 2980 B.C., physicians performed autopsies. Four thousand years ago, fingerprints were used for identification both in Egypt and in China. In 535 B.C. the Greek physician, Alemaeon of Croton studied human cadavers.

More recently, the office of coroner began in England in 925 A.D. The coroner would hold inquests and issue orders for arrests. In 1247 A.D. a Chinese lawyer, Sung Tz’u wrote a comprehensive handbook for autopsy procedures. In Hsi yüan chi hu he described how death by different causes alters the appearance of the body in different ways.

In 1533, the French king Charles V decreed that courts use autopsy evidence, authorized funds for training, and paid physicians for applying medical science in courts of law.

In 1806 the German scientist Dr. Valentine Rose showed how arsenic could be detected in human organs, during the trial of a serial killer. The University of Edinburgh established the first formal chair in 1807 by establishing the Forensic Science Institute. And 1812 saw the Sûreté made a national police force in France, headed by Francois Vidocq who insisted on meticulous record keeping of crime sites and criminals. A year later, Mathiew Orfila, a Spanish professor of medicinal/forensic chemistry at University of Paris, published a comprehensive paper on poisons and is considered the father of modern toxicology. He was also the first to attempt the use of a microscope in the assessment of blood and semen stains. In 1835 Henry Goddard matched bullets to the gun that fired them.

From this point on, developments came quickly: methods for detecting arsenic, dental records used to identify victims, use of bone fragment, forensic geology, blood type identification.

German physicist Gustav Kirchhoff and chemist Robet Bunsen (of the Bunsen burner fame) developed spectroscopy in 1859, and in 1876 Arthur Conan Doyle entered the University of Edinburgh to study medicine. His mentor was Dr. Joseph Bell who insisted on his students learning to observe and understand minutia and its role in diagnosis. When Doyle began writing he gave his detective Bell’s skill at observation. He gave Holmes his own interest in cutting-edge technology and often had Holmes use inventions that had not yet entered been created in the real world.

In 1885, another doctor in France, Dr. Lacassagne at the University of Lyon, also used Bell’s method of close observation to see the whole picture. He made contributions to understanding the many variables that went into determining the time of death.

In 1891 Hans Gross, a lawyer in Austria, published Criminal Investigation, a comprehensive look at evidence and how it needed to be handled and examined. He said that body parts, or fluids, needed to be put into separate containers, and that before anything was touched it needed to be described, sketched or photographed. Bell, Lacassagne, and Gross all made strides in teaching detectives how to observe and handle evidence.

In 1892, English anthropologist Sir Francis Galton showed that no two fingerprints are exactly alike. This established fingerprints as a major piece of evidence in a court case and was rarely challenged until 2009 when the National Academy of Science in the United States claimed that techniques of fingerprinting were not established and the quality of the print as well as the lack of training in the person evaluating the print could lead to wrongful convictions and called for overhaul of crime labs across the country and the standardization of technique and training.

In spite of all these advances, during the late 1800’s and early 1900s, forensic evidence often had a difficult time being accepted in criminal cases in the courts. Many doctors and scientists gave way to the temptation of providing junk science in court as a way to gain money or professional recognition, or both. As well, many times good science was not given its due in court because of the expert’s poor presentation of the science.

In 1900, Paul Uhlenhulth, a German biologist, learned how to differentiate human blood from animal blood. This was helpful to law enforcement officers who were often confronted with suspects claiming that blood on their clothing was from an animal.

Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes showed how bullets could be matched to the weapons that fired them, in 1902.

In 1905, American President Theodore Roosevelt established the FBI, fingerprints convicted a murderer in England, and the New York State Prison System began to use fingerprints to identify inmates. In 1910 an appeals court determined that the use of fingerprints had a scientific basis. In 1921 fingerprint files were moved from Leavenworth prison to Washington, D.C., and in 1924 Congress put the national disposition of fingerprint files under the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s care.

In 1910 the first crime lab was established in Lyons, France and was headed by Edmund Locard who developed the principle that every contact leaves a trace. An investigator would both leave something at a crime scene, as well as take something away. That year also saw Oscar Heinrich open the first crime lab in the United States, in Tacoma, Washington. Dawson’s book narrates the career of Edward Oscar Henrich (1881 – 1953) who left behind a massive collection of forensic evidence from thousands of cases he had worked on. Trained as a chemist, with a background in physics, he shaped the way criminal forensic scientists would go about their work.

A big step forward began in January 1949 with the founding of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. The members had a two-fold goal. One was to standardise the techniques involved in the gathering and reporting of evidence, and the second was to encourage discussion between the different branches of scientific fields.  The next year the Academy met in Chicago, which was to become its home base.

Another ground-breaking event occurred in 1953 when Crick & Watson presented their work on the structure of DNA, although its benefits would not appear applicable to the forensic community for another thirty years. In 1986, in England, the first person was convicted of murder by genetic profiling and the case became the basis of Joseph Wambaugh’s book, The Blooding. However, in 1989, the technology was challenged, successfully, in court and by 1990 the courts had leaned toward allowing DNA evidence to exclude suspects from a crime but not to claim that the suspect’s DNA matching the sample. Technicians had to work harder to develop higher standards in collecting DNA for evidence.

In the 1960s, airlines were being threatened, by telephone, with bomb attacks. The FBI requested the help of Bell Labs and Lawrence Kersta, who had developed voiceprints in 1941, was assigned the task of finding a way to identify the callers. It took him more than two years. During this time the FBI also had begun “profiling”.

The 1970s  saw Fuseo Matsumur of the Japanese National Police find a method of raising latent fingerprints from smooth surfaces using Superglue fumes. And in 1975 the FBI established the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), and Scotland Yard followed suit the next year, establishing their system, Videofile.

From 1970 to 1990 there were both rapid improvements and setbacks in the area of DNA evidence. Standards had to be upgraded and met, and a death-row prisoner challenged his sentence after reading Wambaugh’s book. By 1993 so many death row criminals had been cleared due to DNA testing that the Governor of Illinois placed a moratorium on the death penalty.   In 1991, the FBI set up Drugfire. It was a system like AFIS to compare markings on spent bullets.

Then, in 1995, forensics became the star of the show. Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman were attacked and stabbed to death, and Nicole’s ex-husband, O. J. Simpson was charged with their murder.

This is not a comprehensive list by any stretch of the imagination.

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