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Forensic Science Degree Guide: Forensic Science Web Pages

The first conviction in a criminal court on the basis of DNA evidence in the U.S. was in 1987, a landmark case in which science and criminal investigation were united.  By 2005, over 600,000 people had been linked to crimes as a result of DNA testing, according to an article by John Pickrell in New Scientist.  The fact that 75 percent of the victims in the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami in Thailand were identified by dental records and that the admission of fingerprint evidence in British courts goes back to 1902, as Pickrell also states, shows the importance of forensic science in modern times.

The websites gathered on this page provide accessible resources for prospective students and anyone else with an interest in crime science investigations (CSI).  Links to professional organizations and journals are available for a more scholarly audience as well.  A forensic scientist’s area of study usually corresponds with a scientific field (pathology, botany, etc.), but the specialized sections in this resource focus on law and document examination, two associated disciplines that do not required a doctorate.  Otherwise, the websites assembled here are broad in scope and serve as gateways to more specific topics.

Introduction to Forensic Science

Forensic scientists draw upon fields as diverse as genetics and archaeology to analyze evidence that can be used to identify suspects or convict criminals in a court of law.  Some of the types of evidence studied by forensic scientists include:

  • Hair samples and fibers
  • Blood stains
  • DNA
  • Bullet trajectories, a sub-field officially known as ballistics
  • Fingerprints
  • Handwriting
  • Toxins

Forensic science developed as a field after a long series of unconnected investigations by figures as far removed in time and culture as Archimedes and Sun Tzu.  The institutionalization of science as a discipline in the 19th century led to more formal scientific investigations in the U.S. and the U.K. as well.  A detailed timeline can be read at Forensic Science Central, but the following are some of the most notable events in forensic history:

  • 1590: The microscope is invented in the Netherlands.
  • 1609: The first publication on questioned document examination is produced.
  • 1686: Fingerprints, which had been studied inconsistently throughout history, is systematized.
  • 1813: Forensic toxicology is pioneered by Mathieu Orfila.
  • 1836: A toxicology report is first used as evidence in a British court.
  • 1879: Rudolph Virchow develops the study of human hair.
  • 1887: Sherlock Holmes is introduced to the world by Arthur Conan Doyle.
  • 1888: Jack the Ripper is active in London, leading to subsequent investigations over the course of the next century.
  • 1903: Fingerprints are used to mark criminals in the New York State Prison System.
  • 1905: The FBI is formed.
  • 1953: An understanding of the structure of DNA is first published.
  • 1971: A seminal publication on blood stain patterns is released.
  • 1996: Mitochondria DNA is first admitted as evidence in an American court.

More introductory information about forensic science can be found in the resources below.

  • All About Forensic Science starts by defining forensic science, detailing its history, and providing information about how one might go about earning a forensic science degree.  There are also dozens of sections on forensic science’s traditional sub-fields (DNA, toxicology, ballistics, etc.) and its application to academic disciplines (anthropology, linguistics, engineering, etc.).
  • Education and Training in Forensic Science: A Guide for Forensic Science Laboratories, Educational Institutions, and Students is a special report by the National Institute of Justice from 2004 that sets standards for both graduate and undergraduate training in forensic science.  The guide is also meant as a primer for students who are interested in the forensic science career track, providing advice about qualifications and means of seeking employment.
  • Forensic Science Lesson Plans are comprised of six units intended for 8th grade, and include activities, worksheets, games, reviews, quizzes, and other materials.  Unit 2 has separate sections on different kinds of physical evidence, including fingerprints, hairs, blood, and DNA.  Besides the PDF and PPT resources included on the page, numerous links to external resources that are accessible to older children are available as well.
  • History of Forensic Science, a section of the British resource, Forensic Science Central, is a comprehensive timeline covering notable events in the field from the 700s BC to 2007.  The site also includes information about the usual forensic science topics: arson investigations, firearms, art history, etc.
  • Introduction: Forensic Science, an article from New Scientist by John Pickrell, provides a systematic overview of the forensic scientist’s job for anyone not already familiar with the day-to-day procedures.  The sections cover the analysis of dead bodies, the types of clues involved in an investigation (blood, computers, etc.), fingerprints, and DNA.  The article ends by discussing common criticisms of forensic investigations, namely the perceived lack of scientific rigor.

Forensic Science and Law

Some of the main controversies over the use of scientific evidence in courtrooms come from the vast difference in expertise between juries, lawyers, and scientists.  For one, expert witnesses with scientific backgrounds have a great deal of power to be selective about the content of their statements because very few legal professionals are qualified to call them out.  Solutions to these are other problems are presented by the National Academy of Sciences, which can be read about in the agency’s own report or in an article by Quintin Chatman.

  • Forensic Law, from U.S. Legal, provides short, introductory summaries about the different ways that forensic science intersects with the courtroom.  Separate paragraphs are devoted to DNA evidence, the identification of drugs, fingerprints, and forensic evidence used in litigation.
  • How Scientific is Forensic Science? is a long article by Quintin Chatman from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Champion Magazine that provides the answers of judges and other legal professionals to a number of questions about the admissibility of forensic evidence in court.  In particular, the creation of a federal agency, the National Institute of Forensic Science, and its potential to improve the quality of evidence presented by forensic scientists, are addressed.
  • Law, Probability & Risk, a publication from Oxford Journals, is an example of an academic resource that addresses the intersection of law and the sciences.  Issues are available from 2002 to 2005 in PDF format and in HTML format after that point.
  • Legal Aspects of Forensic Science, from What-When-How, provides essential information about laws that apply to criminal investigations.  The topics discussed include disclosures of evidence, search and seizure, and, most of all, conditions for the inadmissibility of evidence in court.
  • The National Academy of Sciences Report on Forensic Sciences: What it Means for the Bench and Bar is a 2010 document that addresses some of the weaknesses of forensic science analyses as they are used by legal professionals.  The document establishes a number of possible solutions, including the standardization of certification requirements and proper training.

Document Examination

Questioned document examiners are responsible for identifying handwriting, signatures, forgeries, typewriters, alterations and erasures, and equipment and substances used in writing (ink, photocopying, pens, etc.).  Becoming a document examiner typically requires a 4-year degree and about two years of additional, hands-on training in a lab.  The Southeastern Association of Forensic Document Examiners credits Albert S. Osborn for formalizing the field, which is sometimes called “Handwriting Identification,” in 1910.

  • The American Society of Questioned Document Examiners, besides maintaining a journal of the same name, holds annual meetings and provides a “Resources” sections that can connect visitors to databases of document examiners and expert witnesses.  The website also hosts external links and its own library.
  • Emily J. Will: Forensic Document Examiner provides services as a document examiner, but also gives detailed information about questioned document examination on her websitel.  A sample report, an article about standards, a FAQ, numerous photographs of handwriting and print evidence, and a description of common equipment are all included.
  • The Giles Document Laboratory is a British facility run by Dr. Audry Giles that offers an introduction to the document examination process.  Handwriting and signatures, equipment and procedures (spectroscopy, etc.), and consultation procedures with experts are discussed.  The site also includes information sheets about document examination that can be downloaded.
  • The Guide for the Development of Forensic Document Examination Capacity, a 52-page PDF document published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, aims to establish standard procedures for the titular field.  By dividing the investigative process into four phases, the guide also serves as an introduction to document examination.
  • The Southeastern Association of Forensic Document Examiners outlines the scope of a document examiner’s job, describing forgeries, handwriting, career qualifications, checkwriters, and other topics.  The website also provides a number of links to other organizations and websites of interest.

Miscellaneous

The resources gathered in this section are the most broad-based, providing a starting point for either researchers or students who want to gain a general understanding of the major organizations involved in forensic science and its key specializations.  Established scholars may be interested in the Internet Journal of Forensic Science, which gives some examples of the issues addressed by professionals in the field.  Otherwise, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences is the best place for researchers to find official information.

  • The American Academy of Forensic Sciences maintains the Journal of Forensic Sciences and provides resources for visitors with different levels of aptitude in the field.
  • Criminal Justice Resources: Forensic Science is a section of Michigan State University’s website that provides a brief overview of the field and the university’s own forensic science programs, and an enormous list of links.  These are organized by type: organizations, references, websites, and publications.
  • Forensic Science: Let Evidence Reveal the Truth is a ThinkQuest website available in English, German, and Chinese that provides detailed, image-heavy articles about weapons, crime scenes, autopsies, equipment, and many other topics.  Case studies and quick facts are provided along the right-hand side of the screen.
  • Forensic Science.net has major sections on some of the most common questions from visitors about becoming a forensic scientist (degrees, salaries, etc.) and the different specializations (forensic biologist, forensic toxicologist, etc.).  To the right of the page are sections on selected topics, including “The CSI Effect Infographic” and links to blogs.
  • The Internet Journal of Forensic Science is available for free from 2005 to the present and each article’s Table of Contents in hyperlinked for convenience.  The publication is maintained by the Department of Human Sciences at Loughborough University.