Now and then – Forensic Sciences

Compare modern-day forensic techniques with was in use in the Jack The Ripper years (1888-1891) may seem absurd, at the limit of parodistic.  Even for those who are less than competent about this matter, the technological comparison is totally unequal. 130 years of progress are a lot, but it would be profoundly wrong to assimilate the late nineteenth century to a kind of stone age, where the criminal investigation took place only based on the intuition of the investigators and the testimonies. Similarly, it would be wrong to think that current technology is the necessary and sufficient condition to solve any crime, including serial killings. Just read a newspaper to realize it.

The end of the nineteenth century is a seminal moment for modern forensic sciences. Henry Goddard laid the foundations for the comparison of bullets as early as 1835 in England, Alphonse Bertillon from 1880 experiments anthropometry in France (and many other methods), Sir William Herschel starts working on fingerprints since the middle of the century (many others will follow his path, both in Europe and in other continents). At the same time, we see the start of pioneering tests on blood, on the traces of gunpowder, on the relief of traces from crime scenes. From all this comes a systematic approach to the search for evidence and a choral impulse towards systems that make it possible to compare these elements with others to identify the perpetrators of crimes.

This new approach, which had also been many precursors, finds another outlet in popular culture. Authors such as Poe and Conan Doyle (to name only the best known) propose to the public rigorous and brilliant figures of investigators, characters able to use the smallest trace together with an inexorable deductive method until the inevitable punishment of the criminal. This is not the place to analyze the impact on the popular imagination of this narrative development, the point is rather to notice how the basics were somehow transmitted to the public.

The Ripper story can be seen as one of the first cases in which forensic efforts become the subject of controversy in investigations and, later, of public debate. The conditions in which the victims are found, the elements collected in the searches and in the examination of the crime scenes, the assumptions on the weapons of the crime and on how Jack moved in London enter the common imaginary. At the same time, it is interesting to note how the Ripper has been the object of an attempt to profiling by the investigators, to make hypotheses about mental disorders and the level of education of the criminal. This is also part of the forensic disciplines.

How these sciences have evolved, or how we have moved from empirical to more purely scientific approaches, is not easy to explain. The turning point is the industrial one, that is the mass production of all the same tools and kits, able to provide the same result in the presence of different operators and/or repetition of the same test. This made the result of the forensic test reliable, giving a credible scientific basis to investigations. However, I would like to emphasize some aspects that are fundamental to me.

The first is the spread of forensic techniques; we have moved from a framework in which every police force did on its own, often not aware of the progress of others even within the same nation, to one in which the basic findings are practiced everywhere in the world. Think of fingerprints, looking for DNA samples, collecting fibers and debris. The necessary technologies and training are accessible with limited costs, making the survey work much more standardized.

The second is the sharing of information; on a national basis it is a present and important factor, on an international basis it can and still needs to be improved. In any case, it allows to go back to similar information within a few days (no, the times of the TV series are still science fiction) and the number of false positives has drastically reduced in recent decades. The information can also be digitized, a very important step made since the 80s of the last century, with all that follows.

The third aspect is related to the comparative analysis; knowing crimes similar to those investigated may be important in the course of the investigation, having the possibility of comparing the information compiled by experts of different fields raises this factor to the nth degree. Disciplines such as criminology and all the studies on behavioral aspects would have been impossible without the possibility of setting up this type of information.

The fourth (and last) is much more recent, it is the possibility of tracing individuals; we have not yet reached the peak of this development but the symptoms are already evident. The combined systems of camera shooting, the traceability of smartphones and other IT-related devices, the growing diffusion of “smart” systems that react to the user’s presence, the control systems of public transport and vehicles, make it clear how you are going toward a situation in which every person can be traced 24/7, with the obvious consequences of criminal investigations.

Last consideration, linked to the use of forensic sciences. As they evolve, change and speed up, they can never replace the investigator’s work. The common mechanism at the base of every crime remains the human psyche, a factor that cannot be measured by any type of known examination.

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