What is Forensics?

The term forensic science involves forensic (or forensis, in Latin), which means a public discussion or debate. In a more modern context, however, forensic applies to courts or the judicial system. Combine that with science, and forensic science means applying scientific methods and processes to solving crimes.

From the 16th century, when medical practitioners began using forensic science to writings in the late 18th century that revealed the first evidence of modern pathology, to the formation of the first school of forensic science in 1909; the development of forensic science has been used to uncover mysteries, solve crimes, and convict or exonerate suspects of crime for hundreds of years.

The extraordinary scientific innovations and advancements in forensic science have allowed it to become a highly developed science that involves a number of disciplines and thousands of forensic scientists specializing in everything from DNA and botany to dentistry and toolmarks.

The Application of Forensic Science

The field of forensic science draws from a number of scientific branches, including physics, chemistry, and biology, with its focus being on the recognition, identification, and evaluation of physical evidence. It has become an essential part of the judicial system, as it utilizes a broad spectrum of sciences to achieve information relevant to criminal and legal evidence.

Forensic science may prove the existence of a crime, the perpetrator of a crime, or a connection to a crime through the:

  • Examination of physical evidence
  • Administration of tests
  • Interpretation of data
  • Clear and concise reporting
  • Truthful testimony of a forensic scientist

Forensic science has become an integral part of many criminal cases and convictions, with objective facts through scientific knowledge serving both defense and prosecution arguments. The testimony of forensic scientists has become a trusted component of many civil and criminal cases, as these professionals are concerned not with the outcome of the case; only with their objective testimony based purely on scientific facts.

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Forensic scientists perform both physical and chemical analyses on physical evidence obtained by crime scene investigators and law enforcement officials at the crime scene. These scientific experts use microscopic examining techniques, complex instruments, mathematical principles, scientific principles, and reference literature to analyze evidence as to identify both class and individual characteristics.

Although the majority of forensic scientists perform their jobs within the confines of the forensic laboratory or morgue, their work may also take them outside of the laboratory and to the crime scene, where they observe the scene and collect evidence. Forensic scientists may work for local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and government, private laboratories, and hospitals. They may also serve as independent forensic science consultants.

The Organization of Forensic Science

Due to the highly complex field of forensic science, forensic scientists are most often skilled in a particular area of forensic science, such as latent prints, questioned documents, trace evidence, or firearms, just to name a few.

Forensic scientists may be divided into three, major groups:

  • Forensic Pathologists: These include medical examiners and other professionals who oversee autopsies and clinical forensic examinations
  • Forensic Scientists: These include forensic professionals working in law enforcement, government, or private forensic laboratories who are responsible for dealing with any number of specific tests and analyses, such as toxicology, ballistics, trace evidence, etc.
  • Associated Scientists: These include scientific professionals lending their knowledge to forensic science, such as forensic odontologists, forensic botanists, forensic anthropologists, etc.  These scientists apply their knowledge to the forensic science field as to provide investigators with crucial information regarding everything from bite marks to insect infestation on the postmortem body.

Forensic science is therefore further organized into the following fields:

  • Trace Evidence Analysis
  • Forensic Toxicology
  • Forensic Psychology
  • Forensic Podiatry
  • Forensic Pathology
  • Forensic Optometry
  • Forensic Odontology
  • Forensic Linguistics
  • Forensic Geology
  • Forensic Entomology
  • Forensic Engineering
  • Forensic DNA Analysis
  • Forensic Botany
  • Forensic Archeology
  • Forensic Anthropology
  • Digital Forensics
  • Criminalistics

Forensic science often includes even more specialized fields, such as forensic accounting, forensic engineering, and forensic psychiatry, among others.

The Study of Forensic Science

Although forensic science may be a very complex study, particularly in the areas of DNA and trace evidence, for example, the study of forensic science is grounded in fundamental concepts and techniques that are gathered from the natural sciences. In particular, the study of forensic science involves a multi-disciplinary approach that covers everything from biological methods to analytical chemistry techniques.

The majority of forensic scientists study a specific physical science, such as chemistry or biology, while others pursue forensic science degrees that are rooted in either chemistry or biology.

A comprehensive degree from a college or university draws from the biological sciences, as well as from the fields of criminal justice and the law. Students learn to develop an appreciation of both the scientific and social environment of the criminal justice system, and many students go on to focus their degrees on specific areas of forensic science, such as DNA, trace evidence, toxicology, latent prints, or questioned documents, for example.

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