What Is Forensic Science?

Valorie Delp
Fingerprint on digital screen

Forensic science is an exciting field that covers a variety of disciplines. Staffordshire University notes that what makes a science forensic in nature is that it is used for the purposes of the law. This means that analytical science, used and collected as evidence, can be submitted to a court of law in any kind of case where it's required so that the court is relying on unbiased, empirical evidence.

What Do Forensic Scientists Actually Do?

Forensic science can encompass several different disciplines of science, from chemistry to biology and even entomology. Regardless of the type of forensic scientist and her discipline, there are some basic things that all forensic scientists do according to the Academy of Forensic Sciences:

  • Analyze evidence to determine its relevance
  • Conduct tests on the evidence
  • Write concise reports of the experiments performed and explain how the conclusion was obtained
  • Testify in court as an expert witness, not only giving the facts but also interpreting for the court what the facts mean

Types of Forensic Science

There are several different ways in which investigators apply their scientific knowledge to criminal cases. While television might have you believing that these careers all deal with dead bodies, forensic science actually covers a multitude of disciplines and is used in a variety of ways.

Forensic Anthropology

Forensic anthropologists analyze skeletal systems and use techniques from archaeology to help solve criminal cases. They are often called to a scene where human remains are found. By studying the remains, they can determine who died, how they died, and how long ago they died. As trained archaeologists, forensic anthropologists also help investigators excavate skeletal remains and meticulously record evidence. Notable examples of this type of forensic science include:

  • Forensic anthropologists helped figure out how John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
  • After 9/11, forensic anthropologists came in to help identify victims by analyzing skeletal remains.
DNA testing

Forensic Biology

Forensic biology applies the science of biology to forensics to help solve crimes. Forensic biology includes the subdisciplines of anthropology, entomology, pathology, and botany. While these special scientists often deal with crimes, they may also deal with public health threats by investigating environmental contamination. Most commonly, you will have heard of forensic biologists using DNA evidence to help solve cases.

  • One example is the case of the feet that kept washing up on shore. After DNA testing, investigators were able to link the feet to people who were depressed. From there, investigators deduced that these individuals committed suicide by jumping off a nearby bridge, and the severing of their feet happened as a part of the normal decomposition process.
  • DNA analysis was also used to pinpoint the Boston strangler, some 50 years after his victim, Mary Sullivan, had died.

Forensic Botany

Forensic botanists use plant science to help solve crimes. Their primary goal is to connect evidence to a particular crime scene using their knowledge of plant science, but plant science can also help establish time of death or find hidden graves. Famous cases where botany has solved a crime include:

  • During the trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who kidnapped the Lindbergh baby, a botanical expert was able to associate the wood on the ladder used in the crime to wood near, and in, Hauptmann's house by studying the ring patterns in the wood and identifying the types of wood.
  • In the Davie murder case, botanists were able to match a tree from the killer's backyard to plant material found near the victim's body parts.

Forensic Chemistry

Forensic chemists typically work in a lab to match trace evidence with known substances to help identify crime scene details. A forensic chemist may perform tests on tissues and body fluids to determine the presence of drugs or other substances at the time of death. They may also analyze organic and inorganic matter from a crime scene to try to identify substances or explain what happened during a crime. Examples of notable applications include:

  • Police may use a forensic chemist to help identify a drug, such as in the case against cocaine trafficker Rafael Munoz Talavera.
  • Working with police evidence, a forensic toxicologist was able to solve the murder of Carol Hellar, who was poisoned with antifreeze.

Forensic Odontology

Most often, a forensic dentist uses teeth to help identify people. Odontology can help identify facts using a deceased person's teeth, but more often, they identify bite marks on victims and match those bite marks to the alleged perpetrators. Examples of forensic odontology include:

  • Probably the most famous example of using bite marks to identify a criminal is that of Ted Bundy. He bit two of his victims, and prosecutors had odontologists analyze both the bite marks and Bundy's teeth to determine that he was guilty.
  • A bite mark was incriminating evidence in the case of Megan Kanka, whose case inspired Megan's Law. Odontologists were able to match a bite mark left by the victim on her killer's hand.
Larva

Forensic Entomology

Forensic entomologists are experts at analyzing how insects (and arthropods) interact with human remains. Entomological evidence can help tell investigators when a person died, whether the body has been moved, and sometimes even how a person has died. Experts have also analyzed insect remains in a vehicle to determine the path the vehicle took before crashing. A few examples of forensic entomology in action include:

  • Kevin Neal reported his children missing, and defended his innocence by saying that he couldn't have killed his children as he was in jail. However, entomologists were able to narrow down the time of death, and consequently, prove that he wasn't in jail when his children were killed.
  • Investigators suspected Vincent Brothers of killing his wife, mother-in-law and children. However, he had a solid alibi, noting that he had never traveled and therefore couldn't be present at the murder scenes. However, an entomologist analyzed dead bugs in the grill of his car, placing him in the same region as the murders.

Forensic Epidemiology

Originally a field designed to help in investigations of bioterrorism, forensic epidemiology has expanded to include a wide array of applications. Forensic epidemiologists use a systematic methodology to determine whether the use of biological or chemical agents is a criminal act. Some of the most widely known examples of forensic epidemiology include:

  • Alexander Litvenenko arrived at a hospital complaining of stomach issues. His suggestion that someone was trying to assassinate him went largely ignored. However, as he grew sicker, doctors tested and found Plunonium 210 in his urine. Further testing revealed that a teapot at a hotel where he stayed also tested positive for the substance... and was in continuous use, potentially contaminating many more people.
  • Epidemiologists also help track outbreaks, such as salmonella, to see where the contamination begins. In 2009, there was a multi-state outbreak of salmonella, which investigators linked to peanut butter.

Forensic Geology

Forensic geologists apply earth science to legal cases. They most often match earth materials, such as soil or rock found on a 'receptor' (a victim, car, etc.), to a crime scene. One such example is the disappearance of Drug Enforcement Agency officer 'Kiki Camerana.' Scientists first took earth samples from Camarena's body, being suspicious that there was foul play. They then matched the samples to potential locations where his death might have occurred and through much analysis, they discovered the body was actually moved posthumously. This evidence exposed a cover-up by the Mexican government and eventually led to the conviction of the men responsible.

Water Purity Test

Marine Forensics

Marine forensics deals with the scientific analysis of marine species. The field came about when in the 1970s, the government passed legislation that protected fisheries, marine mammals, and endangered species. A marine forensic scientist might help investigators determine where a species is from, or whether it is endangered. Examples of cases solved by marine forensics include:

  • Marine forensic scientists will test shark DNA to help determine whether the shark fin used in certain cuisines was illegally obtained. Likewise, they will also test the DNA of fillet samples to determine whether the fish is a protected species.
  • Another example is in the case of drownings. Scientists will look for the presence of diatoms to help tell whether the victim was drowned or killed and then dumped in the water.

Forensic Meteorology

Forensic meteorologists use their weather-related expertise to help in insurance claims and other legal disputes. For example:

  • There is a legal case where after a severe storm and much property damage, forensic meteorologists are trying to help insurance companies to determine whether they are responsible for the damages, as policies may cover damages from one weather-related incident, but not another.
  • A key suspect had an alibi - he said he was snowboarding. However, forensic meteorologists disproved his snowboarding story by noting that at the time he said he was snowbaording, it was actually raining and there was no snow.
Pathology

Forensic Pathology

Forensic pathologists help determine information about a victim or a crime by examining a dead body. Many people are familiar with forensic pathology because these scientists are also known as medical examiners. Medical examiners are often used to determine the cause of death and how a victim died, and in so doing, can suggest to whether the deceased was a victim of homicide. According to WebMD, autopsies may be performed:

  • To discover a previously undiagnosed medical condition
  • If there are questions as to how the person died
  • If relatives request an autopsy to uncover any genetic diseases
  • When the death happens during a medical procedure, but was unexpected
  • If the death could affect other legal matters (such as conditions in a will, a civil case, etc.)

Consequently, there are a wide variety of cases that involve evidence from a medical examiner, from murder to malpractice.

Wildlife Forensic Science

Forensic scientists with this specialty focus on forensic evidence that is of non-human origin to help determine if wildlife law has been broken. Wildlife forensic specialists may analyze evidence to help catch poachers, help stop illegal ivory trading, and similar wildlife crimes.

Forensic Science Is Fascinating

Forensic science is fascinating and can include a wide variety of disciplines. Using scientific knowledge to help promote justice and bring down criminals is a satisfying career.

What Is Forensic Science?