Can a doornob solve a murder?

We have all heard this word before – evidence – but what does it mean and how does an everyday item like a door knob become evidence? What makes ‘good’ evidence? What makes evidence unusable? I took a trip into the world of forensic science to find out.

Evidence in its broadest form is defined as anything that can demonstrate the truth of a hypothesis. However, depending on the context, this evidence can take different forms. In the context of criminal investigations two kinds of evidence are important: testimonial and physical evidence. Testimonial or eyewitness evidence relies on the recollection of an individual on the matter in question, and physical evidence is based on the scientific analysis of material found at the scene, including documents, any kind of objects or biological samples. To solve a case both types of evidence are important, but to be admitted in court every piece of information has to meet a certain standard - be ‘good’ evidence. Read more »

Microbial forensics

It is estimated that the number of bacteria on Earth exceeds the biomass of plants and animals. These organisms are extremely versatile and adaptable, and can be found everywhere, from 35,000 foot deep oceanic trenches, to volcanic hot springs over 80°C, to our skin surface and gut. There are actually more non-human cells in the human body than there are human ones. In fact, bacterial cells outnumber ours by 10:1, and their genes exceed ours by 100:1! All of the microorganisms that live in and on the human body make up the human ‘microbiome’. Read more »

Criminal minds: helping the people nobody will help

Q. Did you always want to be a forensic psychiatrist?

Before I did medicine, I did a degree in human sciences, which is really just about human behaviour in general. I was interested in the way people behave: how people behave in society and deviance from society. Forensic psychiatry is just the area of psychiatry that relates to legal issues, and crime and offending, so it’s not a great leap.

Q. What encouraged you to specialize after that?

I wanted to do a PhD, but I found the lab quite removed. At the time, I was working with a lot of doctors who were doing clinical research and going onto wards, and I thought that seemed a lot more interesting. It's nice to have patient interaction. I've had some very interesting and unusual cases, but unfortunately I can't tell you about them - because of confidentiality.

Q. So you can’t talk about cases? Read more »

Confessions... of a morgue assistant

Picture a medical examiner’s (ME) office with a pathologist drunk at a crime scene; two employees posing for photographs with dead bodies; and an employee convicted of paedophilia. This same office was also the source of a tuberculosis outbreak that spread throughout the police department, even infecting the Chief of Police’s wife. Sounds like a TV show, right? Well, it’s all true and it all happened in Upstate NY, where I was a morgue assistant.

In NY state, all suspicious, accidental, or natural but unattended deaths, with no physician willing to sign the death certificate, are sent to the ME. By law, all prisoners, even if hospitalised at the time of death, also must be autopsied by the ME. While states differ, NY law requires a ME to be a pathologist. Furthermore, the ‘crime lab’ is not part of the ME’s office, and the scientists don’t have badges or carry guns. Read more »

Criminal scientist: is the law ruining science?

Nowadays, strict regulations on certain experimental areas of science result in the quenching of some inventions. I’ll give you it’s essential to carefully monitor and restrict scientific research to prevent its abuse, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it is a headache to every research scientist the Western world over. There are committees for every moral question, paperwork for every possible safety issue, and all this must be cleared before a pipette is lifted. It all takes time, and slows down the research progress. Throughout history however, researcher were far less restricted in testing their theories and experimental ideas. Especially in the medical world, regulations on safe and ethical practice simply did not exist. The result was that the methods of most doctors in the middle ages were questionable at best. What did they do to cure rheumatism? Wear the skin of a donkey of course! Internal bleeding? Read more »

The insanity defence: to be sane, or not to be sane

Picture the following situation: you are in the jury at a court case. The defendant, Mr X, has been accused of murder. Mr X has confessed to killing Mr Y, and evidence from reliable witnesses and forensic experts supports this. You have no doubt that Mr X committed the murder.

The defendant’s lawyer calls a forensic psychiatrist to the stand. You haven’t heard of one before- but forensics is used in some TV shows you’ve seen, including CSI and Bones. You wonder what the psychiatrist will say.

The lawyer questions the forensic psychiatrist, who says that Mr X cannot be held accountable for his actions because he was not in a fit mental state at the time of the murder. The psychiatrist states that Mr X has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, which sometimes causes him to be unable to tell what is real. He had been experiencing hallucinations at the time of the murder. Read more »

The good, the bad, and the unintended

Man’s best friend Viagra works wonders against erectile dysfunction. But did you know that it was actually designed to treat heart problems? Scientists at Pfizer only discovered the ‘positive‘ side effects of Viagra during later human trials. Since this unexpected result turned out to be a blessing in disguise, Viagra is a positive example of the 'dual use' of science. ‘Dual use’ simply means that an object or idea can be used for at least two different applications. When talking about dual use in a scientific context, it is mostly associated with the unethical misuse of scientific work – including bioterrorism.

In June 2012, the arrest of Naoko Kikuchi reminded us of the world‘s most dreadful bioterrorism incident. In 1995, 13 commuters died and thousands were injured when Kikuchi, and other members of the Japanese cult “Aum supreme truth”, released the highly toxic nerve gas sarin into Tokyo's subway system during rush hour. Read more »

The data doesn't lie (but scientists do)

In a recent market research poll, nearly three quarters of people said they would trust a scientist to tell them the truth. Scientists’ trustworthiness was ranked even higher than the clergy, the police, and the press. Given the public trust in scientists, one would expect a high rate of truthfulness in the literature. However, by analysing data from previous independent studies, Dr Daniele Fanelli from the University of Edinburgh found that two per cent of scientists owned up to modifying, fabricating, or stealing data at least once. Even more starkly, more than a third know a colleague who has committed such a cardinal sin.

Misconduct implies malice: it’s altering images and doctoring data and stealing stats, but not an honest error or an inability to reproduce results. Even so, misconduct accounts for around half of the papers retracted from journals, according to the journal Nature. But why is scientific fraud so rife? Read more »

Science and crime

Popular crime dramas such as CSI, Bones, and NCIS, have triggered an increased public interest in forensic science. Scientific tools to investigate suspicious deaths have been handed down since 1248 AD, when the Chinese described how to distinguish drowning from strangulation. But scientific tools have also been used by innovative criminals to commit clever crimes, showing that science can be used for both solving and committing a crime. In this issue’s Focus, we take a closer look at this ambivalent relationship between science and crime. Read more »

CSI Edinburgh

Crime scenes nowadays are immediately blocked off by white tents, police cars, and crime tape, and are crowded by forensic scientists and police detectives. Most of the evidence is collected at this time, for identification and conviction of the criminal(s). Fingerprints, DNA, and other material are gathered and taken back to the lab for analysis. Many popular TV series, including Crime Scene Investigation (CSI), have made us familiar with this process, and it is difficult to think of crime investigation without bringing to mind these highly advanced scientific techniques, even if some shown on CSI are still fictitious. Read more »

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