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In the 21st century, the term forensic science has become widely known in Western society. In the broadest sense, the term means science applied to the investigation of both criminal and civil cases. Being described in popular TV shows, movies, and various works of literature, forensic science is capturing the minds of those fascinated by crime solutions. The guards of law and order have been practicing the use of a scientific approach during criminal investigations for thousands of years.
Nowadays, criminology is on the rise thanks to the development of new methods of evidence collection and analysis that were introduced since the late 1800s. This essay is intended to explain the meaning of forensic science in the criminal justice system and to explore the evolution of methods introduced by such figures as Sir Francis Galton and Dr. Edmond Locard.
The Concept of Forensic Science
The representation of forensic science in mass media can sometimes blur the modern understanding of the term. People often confuse forensic science with Criminal Scene Investigation (CSI) or with particular scientific areas, such as Pathology or Anthropology. However, forensic science is, in fact, a collective term for all branches of science that have some application to justice (Siegel & Mirakovits, 2015). These may include sociology, psychology, math, chemistry, or any other sciences. Siegel and Mirakovits (2015) note that the term forensic science is used in some cases as a synonym to criminalistics, although the latter mostly refers to evidence that can be discovered during the CSI, such as blood, hair, bullets, and much more.
Forensic sciences are irreplaceable in the course of criminal investigations. According to Siegel and Mirakovits (2015), forensics can be used for studying and systematizing large amounts of data, assisting with psychological crime reconstruction, determining the cause and time of death, and much more. At the same time, the true value of forensics lies within the domain of identification. Such methods as DNA analysis and fingerprinting are commonly used nowadays, allowing the investigators to provide courts with undeniable evidence of a person’s involvement in a crime. The implementation of reliable scientific methods of identification can drastically improve crime-solving rates.
Anthropometry and the Will West Affair
Anthropometry seemed to be one of the promising methods of identification in the late 19th century. Siegel and Mirakovits (2015) define anthropometry as “a method of measurement of human body characteristics used to show variation or to differentiate between two individuals” (p. 216). Forensic anthropology is a study of the human skeleton. According to Siegel and Mirakovits (2015), the anthropologists of the 19th century believed that “after the age of about 18, the human skeleton stops growing” (p. 219). The criminal application of anthropometry was initially supported by the premise that each skeleton was unique, and it resulted in the differences in body measurements of adults.
Alphonse Bertillon, a police officer and biometrics researcher from France, was the author of the first systematic method of personal identification based on anthropometric data. His system consisted of a detailed description of a person’s appearance, precise measurements of the body, and carefully constructed sets of photographs (Siegel & Mirakovits, 2015). His system, called Bertillionage, was considered reliable until the beginning of the 20th century.
In 1903, the Will West affair proved the inconsistency of Bertillon’s system (Siegel & Mirakovits, 2015). Will West, convicted of a minor felony, was sent to Leavenworth, Kansas, to serve his sentence. Upon arrival, he was measured according to the Bertillionage system. Later on, a file with the name William West was discovered within the Federal Penitentiary archives. Although it was Will West’s first time in prison, it was a proven fact that a person named William West had already been serving a life sentence at that time (Siegel & Mirakovits, 2015). The two unrelated individuals turned out to be almost identical twins.
This case showed that the Bertillionage system could not be used effectively to identify individuals under a criminal investigation. Meanwhile, Sir Francis Galton was developing his guidelines for identifying and comparing fingerprints (“Francis Galton and fingerprints,” 2019). During the case, it was also discovered that the fingerprints of Will West and William West were utterly different (Siegel & Miracovits, 2015). This fact made the police officials see dactyloscopy as the most reliable method.
Francis Galton’s Impact on Forensic Science
Sir Francis Galton was an English scientist of the Victorian era, well-known for his numerous works in anthropology, eugenics, psychometrics, and other areas. In relation to forensic science, he played a major role as the father of dactyloscopy. Although the idea of using fingerprints for identification purposes was not new, Galton was the first to develop an organized scientific system, which proved to be useful in criminal cases (“Francis Galton and fingerprints,” 2019).
He conducted scientific research and experiments, such as trying to alter his own fingerprints, in order to convince skeptics that the patterns could be used effectively for identification (Siegel & Mirakovits, 2015). He successfully collected and studied a massive sample of over 8,000 print sets (“Francis Galton and fingerprints,” 2019). This research made him the first anthropologist to provide the well-grounded foundation for the dactyloscopy, based on the mathematical proof of the uniqueness of individual fingerprints.
In 1892 Galton published his first major study in this field called Finger Prints (“Francis Galton and fingerprints,” 2019). He also published a large number of papers, articles, and interviews on the subject of fingerprints, as well as an essential guide to the decipherment of blurred prints. His classification system was adopted by police forces for use during the crime investigations. As stated by Siegel and Mirakovits (2015), Galton divided all fingerprints into three categories: loops, arches, and whorls (p. 219). This classification is still in use up to this day.
Edmond Locard – the Sherlock Holmes of France
Dr. Edmond Locard was another pioneer in forensic science who also made a significant contribution to the study of fingerprints. After forming the first forensic laboratory in Lyon in 1910, Locard proceeded to develop poroscopy, the study of fingerprint pores (“The Forensic Library,” 2019). He was advocating for the idea of 12-point identification, meaning that if twelve identical points were found between two fingerprints, it would mean that they belonged to the same person.
Dr. Edmond Locard was the author of the famous Locard’s exchange principle, which follows as “Every contact leaves a trace” and is commonly considered the basic principle of forensic science (“The Forensic Library,” 2019). Locard believed that, when a crime is committed, fragments of various types of material are left at (or taken from) the crime scene. Locard’s exchange principle proves the importance of trace evidence for a criminal investigation.
Forensic science is an integral part of criminal investigations. The importance of forensics is indisputable in the field of identification of suspects. The methods of identification have improved over the centuries, and a breakthrough in their development occurred with the introduction of dactyloscopy (fingerprinting) in the late 19th – early 20th centuries. Other methods, such as the use of anthropometric data, were considered unreliable due to incidents involving suspects with identical body measurements. Dactyloscopy originates in the research of forensic scientists such as Francis Galton and Edmond Lokard and is recognized as the most advanced method of identification. Law enforcement agencies use the system described by the aforenamed scientists to this day.
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The Forensic Library – Edmond Locard. (2019). Web.
Francis Galton and fingerprints. (2019). Web.
Siegel, J. A., & Mirakovits, K. (2015). Forensic science: the basics. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.