Forensic Science and its branches – AL MICRO LAW

Forensic Science is a branch of science that is a combination of scientific investigations and law. It is formed from two Latin words- “forensis” and “science” which help in solving a crime scene and analyzing the evidence. This is a core branch of science involving a lot of precision of science and law. Using scientific methods in solving cases has been practiced since ancient times the trial was held publicly as it used to carry a strong judicial connotation. The advancement of science and technology has led the forensic field to foster. 

The things forensic science experts perform are the examination of the body also known as an autopsy, document identification, evidence examination, a search of the crime scene, collecting fingerprints, and analyzing a small sample of blood, saliva, or any other fluids for determination and identification processes. In jurisprudence, forensics involves the application of knowledge and technology from several scientific fields. Biology, pharmacy, chemistry, medicine, and so on are the examples as each of them applies in today’s more complex legal proceedings in which experts from these fields are hard to prove offenses. Forensic science is the application of medical and paramedical expertise to assist the administration of justice in solving legal matters or in the court of law. The forensic findings can be used in a court of law as a piece of evidence and thus can be useful in solving a legal matter or dispute.

Forensic Science has various branches like Forensic biology, forensic physics, computational forensic, digital forensics, forensic accounting, forensic anthropology, forensic archaeology, forensic astronomy, forensic ballistic, forensic botany, forensic chemistry, forensic dactyloscopy, forensic document examination, forensic DNA analysis, forensic entomology, forensic geology, forensic linguistics, forensic meteorology, forensic odontology, forensic pathology, forensic podiatry, forensic toxicology, forensic psychology, forensic economics, criminology and wildlife forensics. 

  • Forensic biology – Forensic Biology is the use of biological scientific principles and processes, generally in a legal setting. Forensic biologists examine plants cellular and tissue samples, as well as physiological fluids, in the course of a legal inquiry.
  • Forensic physics – Forensic physics is the use of physics for civil or criminal law objectives. Forensic physics has typically entailed the determination of density (soil and glass investigation), the refractive index of materials, and birefringence for fibre analysis. Ballistics is a sub-discipline of forensic physics.
  • Computational forensic – Computational science is being used to investigate and solve problems in several sectors of forensic research.
  • Digital forensics – It specialises in retrieving data from electronic and digital media.
  • Forensic accounting – Accounting for forensic purposes investigates and evaluates facts pertaining to accounting.
  • Forensic anthropology – Forensic anthropology is the use of anthropology and osteology to establish information about a human body in an advanced stage of decomposition.
  • Forensic archaeology – Archaeology for forensic purposes is the branch in which archaeological approaches are used
  • Forensic astronomy – Astronomy for forensic purposes is the use of celestial constellations to address legal concerns is quite uncommon. It is most commonly utilised to solve historical issues.
  • Forensic ballistic – Forensic Ballistics is the examination of any evidence pertaining to weapons (bullets, bullet marks, shell casings, gunpowder residue etc.)
  • Forensic botany – Plant leaves, seeds, pollen, and other plant life found on the crime scene, victim, or accused can give solid proof of the accused’s presence.
  • Forensic chemistry – Forensic chemistry focuses on the investigation of illegal narcotics, gunshot residue, and other chemical compounds.
  • Forensic dactyloscopy – Dactyloscopy for forensic purposes relates to the collection, preservation, and analysis of fingerprint evidence.
  • Forensic document examination – Examining forensic documents investigates, researches, and determines the facts of documents under dispute in court.
  • Forensic DNA analysis – This branch of forensic science focuses on the collecting and analysis of DNA evidence for use in court.
  • Forensic entomology – It investigates insects discovered at the scene of a crime or on the body of a victim, and it is especially useful in pinpointing the time and place of the victim’s death.
  • Forensic geology – Geology for forensic purposes entails the use of geological variables such as soil and minerals to obtain evidence for a crime.
  • Forensic linguistics – It is the study of the language used in judicial procedures. Emergency calls, voice identification, ransom demands, suicide notes, and so on are all examples.
  • Forensic meteorology –  It includes using meteorological variables to ascertain details about a crime. It is most frequently applied in instances involving insurance companies and homicides.
  • Forensic odontology –  It refers to the investigation of dental evidence.
  • Forensic pathology – This branch of forensic science is concerned with the examination of a body and identifying factors such as the cause of death.
  • Forensic podiatry – Forensic podiatry refers to the investigation of footprint evidence.
  • Forensic toxicology – A forensic toxicologist investigates toxic compounds found on or in a body, such as narcotics, e-liquid, and poisons.
  • Forensic Psychology – Forensic Psychology and Forensic Psychiatry are two branches of forensic medicine. These are concerned with the legal implications of human activity.
  • Forensic economics – This is the investigation and analysis of economic damage evidence, which includes present-day estimations of lost earnings and benefits, the lost value of a firm, lost business profits, lost value of home services, replacement labour expenses, and future medical care expenditures. 
  • Criminology – In criminal investigations, this involves the use of several disciplines to answer issues about the study and comparison of biological evidence, trace evidence, impression evidence (such as fingerprints, shoeprints, and tyre tracks), restricted drugs, and guns.
  • Wildlife forensics – This involves the investigation of crime situations involving animals, such as endangered species or animals that have been unlawfully killed or poached.

When it comes to life and death situations, objective proof is critical. In the past, significant evidence in criminal prosecutions might have come from witnesses or other subjective sources, but forensic science now provides objective evidence. That is, forensic evidence, which is based on the scientific approach, is considered more dependable than even eyewitness testimony. In a legal system that holds that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, forensic scientists’ evidence is now routinely used by both the defence and the prosecution in many court cases. While Forensic Toxicologists, for example, may work most closely with law enforcement or the courts after a crime has been committed, Forensic Psychologists (also known as Profilers) might step in even before a suspect has been identified to assist prevent future crimes.

Forensic Science is an emerging branch of science that is a combination of scientific investigations and law. It is formed from two Latin words- “forensis” and “science” which help in solving a crime scene and analyzing the evidence. This is a core branch of science involving a lot of precision of science and law. Using […]

A brief about Forensic Science and its branches — AL MICRO LAW

Some of Your Brain’s Secrets are stored in your Subconscious and Pre-Conscious via Lions Talk Science

By Victoria Vernail

In 1986, geneticist Alec Jeffreys was the first to use DNA profiling techniques in a murder investigation. The use of DNA resulted in the release of an innocent suspect and eventual identification of the culprit.1 In the coming decades, DNA would become the backbone of forensic science, serving as evidence in over half a million criminal cases. Other classical ways science has influenced the criminal justice system are through the study of ballistics, hair and fiber analysis, and toxicology (Figure 1). Forensic science has been used for thousands of years, dating back to ancient China where inked fingerprints served as a means of identification. Recently, the introduction of new scientific methods in the courtroom has involved neuroscientific analysis of brain scans or brain waves. The development of new forensic methods presents the challenge of technique validation for use by a judge and jury.

Figure 1: The breadth of forensic science. Created in BioRender.com. Adapted from National Institutes of Standards and Technology
 

A heavily debated use of forensic information is the polygraph test. The traditional polygraph identifies a lie by measuring physiological changes such as heart rate, blood pressure, pupillary activity, sweat, or saliva. Polygraph validity has been disputed from the private to Federal levels, with no consensus. Therefore, polygraph data is currently inadmissible in court. Variability among individuals makes it difficult to detect a clear lie response, so results are subjective and hard to decipher. Individual variability is also seen with neuroscientific tools appearing in courtrooms. Recently, several neuroscientific technologies including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), positron emission tomography (PET), and computed tomography (CT) scans have been used in criminal cases. Defense attorneys have submitted brain scans showing damaged regions of the brain to corroborate a ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ defense.2 The jury is left to decide how much weight such expert scientific testimony may hold- whether this brain scan evidence is enough to prove causation. Is it also possible to use neuroscience to distinguish truth from a lie? The answer to that question may be stored in our own memories.

A technology used recently in the courtroom is the Memory and Encoding Related Multifaceted Electroencephalographic Response (MERMER). This “brain fingerprinting” technique was highlighted in the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer, where creator Dr. Lawrence Farwell claims that measuring brainwaves can uncover memories of a crime. Brain activity is recorded as waves with an electroencephalogram (EEG), which are noninvasive and used clinically to diagnose brain disorders such as epilepsy or stroke (Figure 2). Brain cells have electrical properties that fire synchronously, and these brain signals are detected during EEG by metal electrodes placed on the scalp. An EEG can record from areas of the brain important for memory retrieval, such as the parietal cortex.3 Event-related brain potentials are then generated by averaging the waveform responses picked up by the electrodes to a given stimulus. A positive spike in electrical activity recorded from electrodes in the parietal cortex illustrates brain cells actively retrieving a stored memory.4 Other areas of the brain involved in information processing include the cingulate and prefrontal cortex.5 To account for the widespread activation during information processing, a multifaceted electroencephalographic response (MER) can be recorded and analyzed. The brain response specific to memory and encoding of a stimulus is therefore denoted as a MERMER.

Figure 2: Electroencephalograms (EEGs) allow for noninvasive recording of brain waves by adhering electrodes to the scalp. Created in BioRender.com.

Dr. Farwell reports that his MERMER technique can accurately compare multifaceted event-related brain potentials, such as facts about a crime, to unrelated stimuli.6 Analysis of a potential suspect’s EEG waveforms compares target information (known facts about the crime), probing information (the murder weapon), and irrelevant information. Farwell suggests that there are similar patterns between irrelevant and probing waveforms that would point towards innocence. Guilt could be depicted by a higher similarity between target and probe waves (Figure 3).7 Therefore, brain fingerprinting may provide an alternative to traditional polygraph technology if the EEG shows recognition of crime details only the perpetrator could know. It is important to note that like the polygraph test, the interpretation of these brain waves is subject to human error, which could potentially influence its use in court. Research supporting the true validity of MERMER technology is lacking.

Figure 3: Comparing EEG waveforms between individuals. Guilty persons have more similarities between target and probe waves compared to the innocent, who share similarities between probe and irrelevant waves. From Farwell and Donchin 1991.4

In 1993, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. set the precedent for using scientific evidence in a trial.8 This case concluded that judges are ultimately responsible for determining what evidence can be admitted, but frequently the experts are the only ones who truly understand the data. Therefore, there is a danger of manipulation of forensic evidence by both sides of the court to reach a favorable outcome – whether that be conviction or acquittal.

Although forms of forensic science have been used for centuries, it is important that the introduction of new technologies be scrutinized so that juries are not unduly swayed. Additionally, such advanced scientific analysis is not always readily accessible. For example, brain scans and the experts required for their interpretation can be expensive and therefore not widely used for many cases, especially involving indigent defendants. It is possible that advances in neuroscience and neurotechnology could prove useful in the criminal justice system; however, further work must be done to prove the reliability of new scientific technologies. In addition, widespread public education and law enforcement training should be implemented to minimize subjectivity in using scientific evidence.

TL:DR

  • Forensic science has been evolving since antiquity
  • Brain imaging and information can be admitted as evidence in the courtroom 
  • New forensic technologies must be validated

References

  1. Zagorski, N. Profile of Alex J. Jeffreys. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2006;103 (24) 8918-8920; doi: 10.1073/pnas.0603953103
  2. Aono, D., Yaffe, G., Kober H. Neuroscientific evidence in the courtroom: a review. Cogn Res Princ Implic. 2019; 4(1):40. doi.10.1186/s41235-019-0179-y
  3. Cabeza, R., Ciaramelli, E., Olson, I.R., Moscovitch, M. The parietal cortex and episodic memory: an attentional account. Nat Rev Neurosci 2008. 9, 613-625 https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2459
  4. Farwell, L.A. Brain fingerprinting: A comprehensive tutorial review of detection of concealed information with event-related brain potentials. Cogn Neurodyn. 2012;6(2):115-154. doi:10.1007/s11571-012-9192-2
  5. Anderson, M.C., Bunce, J.G., Barbas, H. Prefrontal-hippocampal pathways underlying inhibitory control over memory. Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2016 134:145-161. Doi:10.1016/j.nlm.2016.11.008
  6. Farwell, L.A. and Smith, S.S. Using brain MERMER testing to detect knowledge despite efforts to conceal. J Forensic Sci. 2001:46(1):135-145. PMID: 11210899
  7. Farwell, LA and Donchin, E. The truth will out: Interrogative polygraphs (“lie detection”) with event-related brain potentials. Psychophysiol. 1991;28(4):531-547. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-8986.1991.tb01990.x
  8. O’Brien, E, Daeid, N.N., Black, S., 2015. Science in the court: pitfalls, challenges, and solutions. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B3702015006220150062. doi.10.1098/rstb.2015.0062

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