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Forensic science: Fact vs. fiction

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Forensic science: Fact vs. fiction

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Justice: something the United States has been known for centuries, but are the ways we achieve justice just as outdated? As seen on shows like “Criminal Minds”, “CSI: New York, Law and Order: SVU and others, the crime scene investigators (CSI) use forensic science to catch the ‘bad’ guy. In reality the CSI’s job is just to collect the facts.

It is common knowledge that fictional television shows, even those based on actual events are nothing more than stories that don’t explain the real world. So why do people trust crime shows so much? Is it the smart sounding science words they use? Or the high tech labs and computers that seem to have an answer for everything?

The false portrayal of forensic science is a problem for the real world. In cases today, jurors expect to be presented with forensic evidence. Trusting something without fully understanding it is dangerous. These crime shows may not realize it, but their influence on society is dangerous and can send innocent people to prison.

Rebecca Feldman said that forensic science “is a type of science that helps detectives solve crimes.” From watching “The Flash,” she saw that Barry Allen was able to figure out that the cow manure they found at a crime scene came from a certain farm because of the different substances found inside the cow manure.

While watching TV shows that talk about crimes, viewers are immersed in trying to figure out the identity of the killer(s) ,they are in suspense, they may not fully pay attention to what the actors are saying about evidence and forensic science.

Another student at the NYC iSchool said that she learned a bit about forensic science from TV shows. Freshman Jay Gottesman learned that, “the blood splatter is a certain way it can indicate whether the killer was right handed or left handed, shoe prints indicate shoe size, the spacing between the shoe prints can indicate height.”

From watching TV shows we can learn about forensic science but viewers don’t really pay attention to that.

Therefore, what really is forensic science?

Forensic science is the use of scientific principles and techniques in criminal cases. In forensic science,  Crime Scene Investigators examine any evidence that is found at crime scene. It can range from examining a fingerprint found, analysing hair, analyzing DNA, and anything else that is found at a crime scene.

Forensic science helps us find a person who is guilty of a crime and put them in jail. It helps clear peoples’ names and let them finally be free of burden.


One form of forensic science that is very different in real life than is crime shows is bite mark analysis. Bite mark analysis is when forensic scientists compare the marks on the body of the victim to the bite of the perpetrator, the person who may have committed the crime.

In the real world, it’s problematic and invalid, but in crime shows cases it can be easily solved correctly with bite mark analysis.

Dr. Michael West is an expert in the field of forensic odontology, more commonly known as forensic dentistry. In forensic dentistry there is a more controversial form of forensic analysis, bite mark analysis. By analyzing bite marks, Crime Scene Investigators, or CSI, can match bites to the perpetrator.

In the trial Eddie Lee Howard v. State Mississippi the court declared, “testimony from the state’s dental expert, Michael West, claiming to have positively matched Eddie Howard’s teeth to a bite mark on the victim’s body was constitutionally unreliable, as it is well-established in the scientific community that such comparisons are not possible.”

By establishing Dr. West’s work as unconstitutional, the court in Mississippi questioned the validity of bite mark analysis. In another trial, Dr. West testified that the defendant Levon Brooks was accused of rape, murder, and abduction. In the case Brooks v. State of Mississippi the court also questioned bite mark analysis even stating that “the trial court erred in admitting the testimony of Dr. Michael West into evidence.”

West’s work was unreliable, and therefore, was no longer used in court. The PCAST report in 2016, a letter to the president from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, explained that ,“the bitemark standards do not provide well-defined standards concerning the degree of similarity that must be identified to support a reliable conclusion that the mark could have or could not have been created by the dentition in question.”

The PCAST report also mentions, “A recent study by the American Board of Forensic Odontology also showed a disturbing lack of consistency in the way that forensic odontologists go about analyzing bite marks, including even on deciding whether there was sufficient evidence to determine whether a photographed bite mark was a human bite mark”

This is very different from bite mark analysis in TV shows where bite marks are easily distinguished from animals or correctly match the perpetrators bite.  While in reality bite marks do not meet a level of scientific validity.

In TV Shows like “Criminal Minds” or “Law and Order: SVU,” forensic science is used very often. They show the viewer where the body was found, what they find at the crime scene and what the lab found in the body.  

In season nine, episode eighteen of “Criminal Minds,” the FBI is investigating a case in which they find bodies with human bite marks. They found that the bite marks were ninety percent animal and ten percent human.

When the autopsy of the bodies was complete, they found that there was no DNA evidence left behind. Using dental records, they found out that the bite marks had come from previous victims. In the show they didn’t explain how they came to that conclusion.

In season 4, episode 12, a serial killer dumped a body in a river.  The killer had bitten the woman multiple times. When they noticed these bite marks, they automatically sent the body to the coroner’s office so that they could compare the bite mark to dental records. Unfortunately, there was no match. Only having bite marks as a way to identify the killer made the case so much harder. They had found the killer before someone else died.  

When watching any crime show, they have their suspect pool, which is description of people that could be the killer based on the evidence collected at the crime scene. At crime scenes, they look for anything that seems out of place. They look for anything that is missing from the body. They want to find as much evidence as possible.

Once they find the body, they immediately send it to the coroner’s office where the body is inspected.

When watching TV shows, the results of the autopsy are reported.  

The autopsy report includes the doctor’s discoveries in or on the body. It is how the doctor determines the victim’s cause of death. It also includes the estimated time the person died or for how long the person has been dead for based on decomposition.

But forensic science in real life is a little different. There are certain forensic sciences that are more reliable than others. There are some forensic sciences that have a higher chance for error to occur.


DNA analysis is one of the sciences that isn’t always the most reliable. Consider the case of Lukis Anderson – he was implicated for the murder of a Silicon Valley millionaire. Anderson was at a hospital the night of the murder. Anderson was drunk and unconscious at the hospital the night of the murder miles away from where it happened, but CSI’s still found his DNA underneath the fingernails of the millionaire.

The DNA had been accidentally transferred from an ambulance that Anderson had been on earlier. The two paramedics that had attended to Anderson also attended to Kumra, allowing for the DNA to transfer from Anderson to Kumra. Since Anderson and Kumra had been on the same ambulance, this would have been prevented if the ambulance was sanitized.  

Anderson spent five months in jail wrongfully accused. He was eventually released and freed of all charges.

He is not the only person that has been wrongfully accused; there have been hundreds of people that have been put in jail because of evidence being exposed to different substances or having been misplaced. There are so many ways evidence can be mishandled.

When working in a lab, technicians have to be very careful.


The New York City Medical examiner’s office reviewed over 800 rape cases because the lab technicians mishandled the DNA evidence. The lab technician either overlooked the DNA evidence meaning that there was DNA but the lab technician didn’t find it because it wasn’t examined carefully.


William C. Thompson,criminology professor at the University of California at Irvine, said that“accidental transfer in a lab of DNA from one sample to another sample is not a rare event.” The mishandling of DNA is a really big issue, but nothing is being done to fix it.

In 2011 a lab technician resigned because of the mishandling of evidence in two rape cases. When she had  the two rape cases open, she wasn’t following protocol. That wasn’t the only circumstance they found 19 other rape kits where the evidence was in the wrong rape kit which the lab technician was also responsible for.

Rape cases are very common but they aren’t talked about. Not many people report rape cases but when they are a lot is done to convict the rapist.

Forensic nurses are the ones that perform the rape kit they only collect the evidence they don’t examine it. These are specially trained nurses that perform rape kits, they gather any medical evidence that could be used in an investigation. They use medicine, science and law in their work.

In April of 2018, Jessica Hayes was called upon to be a juror on a rape case. She said,“the defendant and his friend helped her get back to the shelter, one found reason to take the older child to the store and the other one took the mother who was again very inebriated to the bathroom when the other two came back from the store the older son was really worried about his mom and wanted to know what was going on so he got a metro card and he opened the door to the bathroom because it was locked and he saw his mother was naked on the toilet and passed out.”

The mother (the victim) accused the defendant of rape. They found a condom wrapper in the trash can, but they didn’t know when that had gotten there, so that piece of evidence that wasn’t strong.

A rape kit is a way of collecting evidence that the perpetrator might have left behind on the victim. The process of collecting the evidence takes a long time. It can sometimes take as long as six hours.

The victim had gotten a rape kit done but the results were inconclusive even though the nurse had taken multiple swabs. Out of the multiple swabs that they had done, only one was tested. The nurse, who had performed the rape kit, had explained this under oath.

She also explained that all of the swabs were sent to the lab.

They didn’t explain why they didn’t test all the swabs. They only said that the results of the swabs were inconclusive. That meant that there was no physical evidence that showed that the defendant had raped the victim.

Hayes said, “ they said that the forensic evidence may or may not be helpful.” Even in court cases they mention that they shouldn’t really on forensic science to get the verdict.

In the TV show  “Law and Order: SVU” they always mention the importance of rape kits. They want to make sure that the rape victim understands that the rape kit is very helpful. In the show they don’t tell us what a rape kit is, they just say they are important and that they get done as soon as possible.

In many of the “Law and Order: SVU” episodes, they talk a lot about sexual assault and rapes and talk about how nothing is ever the victim’s fault. They always solve the case in the end and usually it is thanks to a rape kit or a piece of evidence that was left behind at the crime scene. These rape kits are very helpful anything that they find is better than nothing.


Donald Gates served twenty seven year in prison for a rape he did not commit. The evidence that put him behind bars? Microscopic hair analysis. It it now common knowledge that microscopic hair analysis is dangerous, the FBI is aware of 3,000 cases of invalid microscopic hair analysis in the time period the FBI was investigating, working with the them is the Innocence Project, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), and the Department of Justice.

Vanessa Antoun from the NACDL commented ,“the results of the hair comparison were overstated so that the statement exceeded the limit of science.”

In science it is important to state the facts as they are, and in forensic science it is even more important. If forensic scientists aren’t careful, people like Donald Gates can spend years of their life in prison or even on death row. Even worse, some can be executed before they are exonerated. According to the FBI’s report on their investigation of microscopic hair comparison,“Nine of these defendants have already been executed and five died of other causes while on death row.” These numbers are from a small pool of reopened cases the FBI investigated.

The FBI investigation of microscopic hair comparison began after mitochondrial hair analysis became recognized as more valid. Mitochondrial hair analysis gives scientists more to compare which will yield more accurate results. This form of hair analysis can give people wrongly imprisoned the chance to walk free again. This would not only free innocent people, it would clear space for the real criminals to serve their time. The FBI investigation shows how many criminals are out on the streets because courts relied on faulty forensic evidence.

The Innocence Project has been involved in 184 cases where faulty forensic evidence was used and better forensic evidence helped exonerated them. They also have gathered information about another 173 cases where better forensic evidence helped exonerate people wrongly accused. One group the Innocence Project did help exonerate was the Ford Heights Four.

The Ford Heights Four are a famous example of being wrongfully imprisoned and the consequences for the innocent people. On May 11, 1978, Lawrence Lionberg and Carol Schmal, a newly engaged couple, were found murdered, and Carol Schmal was also raped. An eye witness claimed to have seen Dennis Williams, Kenneth Adams, and Willie Rainge and Verneal Jimerson, also known as the Ford Heights Four. The court erred on many accounts and the lack of restrictions on choosing a jury resulted in an all-white jury trying these men.

In their first trial, Michael Podlecki, a serologist (a scientist who studies bodily fluids)for the state of Illinois, testified that they found evidence that showed that one of the perpetrators had type A secretor blood, a trait shared with twenty five percent of the population This means that one out of the four defendants had type A secretor blood. Although valid, this evidence was used to send four innocent men to prison and two of them to death row because the evidence was used as a definitive answer of who commited the crime.

Testifying against them was Paula Gray. She was the eyewitness that claimed she saw the Ford Heights Four rape and kill the couple. Her testimony was false, and when she decided not to testify in court, the lawyers charged her with perjury and as an accomplice of the Ford Heights Four.

Williams was sentenced to death and sixty years in jail. He served eighteen years in prison and was on death row. Adams was sentenced to seventy five years and also served eighteen years before being exonerated. Range also served eighteen years but was sentenced to life without parole. Jimerson was sentenced to death and served eleven years on death row before he was exonerated. Gray was sentenced to fifty years, and she served more time than the other men. n the end, she was in prison for twenty four years.


Forensic psychology could have prevented Paula Gray from getting into the mess. This is a field that can determine whether someone is capable of testifying in court. This field is very important. Physiatrists are trying to help the legal system work in favor of everyone.

“There are other aspects of forensic psychiatry that pertain to the treatment inmates and prisoners,” states Dr. Steven Hoge, a forensic psychologist in New York City.

Years of prison can take a toll on the body and can cause all sorts of psychological damage. As the Ford Heights Four have learned, people can recover physically from traumatizing events, but its psychological impact stays with them for the rest of their lives and can often haunt them.

Many of the people exonerated have gotten compensations, but nothing that is enough to truly make up for the years stolen from them. Some of these symptoms include “depression, anxiety and there can be a lot of psychiatric symptoms associated with that, some of that could be about being in prison in general, and then some could be maybe unique to being wrongfully convicted,” said Amelia Hritz, a forensic psychologist and a Fellowship Attorney at Justice 360.

James Grigson, on the other hand, used his power as a forensic psychologist to push his strong stance on the death penalty. Grigson practiced in Texas and testified in 167 capital trials. His reputation for promoting the death penalty earned him the nickname “Doctor Death.” Although he passed away June 3, 2004, his abuse of power and misuse of forensic psychiatry will have a lasting impact.

According to forensic physiatrist Dr. Hoge, “ the term he would use was that he 110% sure that someone would kill again.” James Grigson would say that he was so confident that someone would definitely kill again to try to get someone on the death penalty. Dr. Hoge explained that saying that someone will kill again is beyond a forensic psychiatrist abilities.

For forensic science to affect the world in a positive way, those investigating need to remember they are just pointing out evidence, and juries should be helped to understand the science used in trials in order for them to do their job to the best of their abilities.

Like mentioned before, juries are told that the evidence they are given either will or won’t be helpful.

It is good that juries are told to not solely rely on the forensic evidence because on TV shows none of this is ever mentioned. Hearing that they are told to almost be cautious of how they interpret the evidence is good because we do not want jurors to be biased.

In crime TV shows like : “Law and Order: SVU” they show us the courtroom and the debates they have, but they don’t show the jury’s deliberations. about the evidence they just present it and it’s over. The verdict is announced and the case is over.

In real life, court cases can last hours, days or even months. Court cases require a lot of time because they want the jury to understand the situation.


Unfortunately,forensic analysis can jump to false conclusions that can lead to wrongful arrest. This was the case in a very famous incident 14 years ago.

In 2004 a devastating event shocked the world, and changed what the world knew about forensic science and fingerprints, the series of bombings in Madrid, Spain. Before this case, fingerprint analysis was considered strong evidence, even today in the movies and TV shows they show fingerprint analysis to be failproof and can only match one person.

The Madrid bombings proved this to be untrue. A bag of detonators was found on the tracks in a train station in Madrid, it had fingerprints that were analyzed, and were matched to a lawyer in the United States named Brandon Mayfield, it seemed like they had found another person involved with the bombing but there’s a catch. Brandon Mayfield had never traveled to Spain. As scientist soon learned, fingerprints can be very similar, and therefore, the fingerprints actually matched someone else and Mayfield was proven innocent, after being held by the FBI for a couple of months.

Fingerprints can be found almost anywhere in a crime scene and can be very helpful when identifying a suspect.

The PCAST report also commented that the method for comparing fingerprints was not as valid as what it was displayed to be:“the method was long hailed as infallible, despite the lack of appropriate empirical studies to assess its error rate.” This is like doctors prescribing medication that has not been researched previously. They also note that this method had been used for over a century. There are very few thing that were done a century ago that would be considered valid today.


In the case United States v. Crisp the court stated,“His appeal presents a single question: whether the disciplines of forensic fingerprint analysis and forensic handwriting analysis satisfy the criteria for expert opinion testimony under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 113 S.Ct. 2786, 125 L.Ed.2d 469 (1993). As explained below, the prosecution’s fingerprint and handwriting evidence was properly admitted, and we affirm the convictions.” Courts have many ways to decide what forensic science is admissible in court. Not only do they base it off of what has been permitted in court previously, but some states also use the Frye test.

The Frye test“asks whether the scientific technique is a technique that is generally accepted as reliable in the relevant scientific community. If the technique is not generally accepted as reliable, then the lawyer may not present the evidence to the jury. If is accepted as reliable, then the lawyer may present the evidence to the jury,” explains Judy Lieb, a judge in New York City. The Frye test not only affects physical evidence, but it also affects forensic psychology and the evidence they present.

“The admissibility of evidence was governed on statue” explained Antoun on the practice in Virginia. In other states they use the Daubert standard where “the judge is is the gatekeeper of the evidence at trial,” said Judge Lieb.

In some cases judges permitted forensic evidence based on the previous use of that specific type of forensic science in that same court.

Forensic psychiatrist Amelia Hritz said, “if expert evidence would be admitted to a trial, so certain experts if they are going to talk about their research or the basis of their opinion they would have to meet The Frye test.”

According to psychiatrist Dr. Steven Hoge, “forensic psychiatrists are called on for a range of issues mostly for competence on trial.” They help determine if someone will be able to give a testimony that is true and not biased.

He also says, “psychiatrist ability to predict future violence being modest.. It definitely does not approach any level of certainty.”

Forensic psychiatrists are very helpful because they want to put the correct person in jail and for the right reasons. Forensic psychiatry will make sure that whoever is testifying is able to understand what is going. That is why testimonies are checked.

But when it comes to collecting physical evidence, it is a little different. We have to trust what is given to us. There is a lot of different forensic sciences that can be wrong.


Fingerprint aren’t the only field of forensic science that is considered fail proof. DNA evidence can also cause problems sometimes. One problem with DNA is that it can be hard to get and when it is collected it could be contaminated or be the DNA of more than one person. A common example of this is blood. Pools of blood can be a mix of different peoples blood and as of now with the technology of today it can be very hard to distinguish who’s blood is who’s.

“DNA” explained Antoun “could be what is often referred to as simple DNA analysis which mean they are looking at what appears to be a profile from one person or you could have what is called a complex mixture dna analysis which… is when they are looking at a mixture of two or more people and that’s were the interpretation becomes more complex.”

Take the example of Amanda Knox. While she was studying abroad in Italy, her roommate was killed. Amanda Knox had been out with her boyfriend the night of the murder. Both Knox and he boyfriend had been arrested because they found their DNA in the crime scene. They found Knox’s DNA on the kitchen knife, which was the alleged murder weapon, and her boyfriend’s DNA on the victims bra clasp.

The police, who had found this evidence, were not following any protocol. They were not wearing gloves when looking for the evidence, allowing for cross contamination to happen.

When they further analyzed the murder weapon, they found Knox’s DNA but no trace of the victim’s DNA. If the suspected murder weapon had no traces of the victim’s blood, then it was impossible for it to be the murder weapon because the victim had lots of injuries in the genital region and the victim also had her throat slit. That meant that the murder weapon definitely had her DNA if it cut her throat.

The forensic scientist who was in charge of analyzing the DNA was not following international DNA protocol, which meant that all the evidence they had was useless because it was not up to standards.

Ms. Klimowicz tells us that to start the DNA process, we need something that has cells. She also says, “DNA is a set of chemicals we can use those chemicals and we can look at the sequence or the order in which the chemicals are in and then we can compare that to other DNA samples that might have a similar order.”=

To find the order of DNA, gel electrophoresis is the most popular form of finding the DNA sequencing.

The only problem is that if relatives are suspects it can be harder to determine who is the perpetrator because their DNA will be very similar.

Ms. Klimowicz mentioned that “unless you get the entire genome sequence unless you get all the A, T, C, G exactly lined up with other series of ATCG what we can do is we can say that two samples are more closely related to each other than maybe other samples that are representative but unless I fully get it sequenced I can’t say for sure that they are identical… I can just say they are very closely related.”

But if the full genome sequence is acquired, it is more reliable and very expensive.

Forensic science is a tool used to analyze information, but some CSI have prioritized catching a criminal over making sure they are focusing on every aspect of the crime scene and that what they are doing is explaining evidence to the best of their ability not providing a definitive answer of who committed the crime, with this mindset it is no surprise mistakes are made. These mistakes, however, come at a cost. Human lives can be saved from execution to serving time in prison or death row.

Mr. Snyder, an English teacher at the NYC iSchool, said, “I trust forensic scientist because I believe in science and I guess if the evidence is there and explained I guess I would trust that.”

The FBI has admitted that almost every examiner in the FBI forensic unit gave a flawed testimony in most trials. So why do people trust forensic science so much?

This trust in forensic science doesn’t just come from the way they manipulate how they present evidence to a jury in order to make it sound more fail proof. It also comes from fictional stories in crime TV shows. Crime TV shows have a lot of power that goes unchecked, which can have a very dangerous affect on society especially with the jury. Jurors trust in forensic science is deeply rooted in crime TV shows.

Now organizations like the Innocence Project, the FBI, Justice 360 and NACDL are tasked with cleaning up those mistakes. No matter how many times they use accurate forensic science to solve a case correctly, it is important to remember that in TV shows it is fiction and nothing more than that.

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Forensic science: Fact vs. fiction