Forensics | Val McDermid

Summary of: Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime
By: Val McDermid


Prepare to delve into the intriguing world of forensic science with Val McDermid’s book, ‘Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime’. This book summary peels back the layers of crime scene investigation, shedding light on its history, techniques, and challenges. From the foundations set by Edmond Locard to cutting-edge DNA profiling, the book explores the ingenuity and perseverance of forensic scientists. Discover how specialists analyze everything from bloodstains and insects to poison and fire damage to decipher crime scenes and bring perpetrators to justice.

Unraveling the CSI Phenomenon

Forensic science plays a pivotal role in solving crimes, with its evolution dating back to the nineteenth century. Edmond Locard established the first crime laboratory in 1910 and introduced the Locard Principle—every contact leaves a trace. Modern crime scene analysis soon followed, with the founding of the Harvard School of Legal Medicine in 1931 by Frances Glessner Lee. Crime Scene Investigators (CSIs) meticulously inspect crime scenes, collect initial evidence, and photograph every detail to help bring justice to light.

Diving into the world of forensics, its impact has been felt beyond just television screens. CSI professionals have aided criminal investigations since the genesis of evidence-based proceedings in the 19th century. Forensic science took a leap forward when Edmond Locard pioneered the first laboratory for analyzing crime scenes in Lyon, France, in 1910. Locard’s most significant contribution to forensic science was the Locard Principle stating that every contact leaves a trace, shaping the foundations of modern investigations.

The groundwork for modern crime scene analysis continued to evolve in 1931, when Frances Glessner Lee founded the Harvard School of Legal Medicine. Lee’s Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths featured miniature crime scenes that continue to be instrumental in training forensic students today.

But what entails a day in the life of a Crime Scene Investigator?

Upon securing the crime scene, the CSI commences their careful examination by gathering initial evidence, such as weapons or discernible fingerprints. To preserve the integrity of the crime scene, investigators don full-body suits, gloves, and hairnets. Following the collection of evidence, photography captures every detail from various angles to ensure thorough documentation.

Swift evidence analysis is crucial for expedited proceedings, particularly when police hold suspects in custody. Due to the pressing need for timely investigations, experts are exploring the introduction of mobile investigation labs and technologies to speed up the process, bringing justice to victims and their families more efficiently.

Unraveling Fire Scene Mysteries

Following the catastrophic Great Fire of London in 1666, fire scene investigators hold the crucial role of identifying the origin of destructive fires. They meticulously analyze the scene, working from the least to the most damaged areas while reducing cross-contamination. This allows them to unearth common ignition sources such as faulty wiring or matches in flammable materials. Although fires do not usually destroy evidence of criminal activity, certain cases, like the 1981 Stardust Disco fire in Dublin, remain unresolved despite extensive investigation efforts.

Ever since the Great Fire of London in 1666, which destroyed over 13,000 homes after starting from a baker’s shop, fire scene investigators have played a vital part in determining the cause of fires. So, how do they uncover the source of such a destructive force that can obliterate evidence?

A meticulous fire scene investigation begins from the exterior and progresses inwards. After firefighters extinguish the flames and a structural engineer grants approval, the investigator interviews witnesses, captures photographs, and examines the building’s exterior for any clues.

Upon entering, the investigator tackles the fire as if it were an archaeological site. They start from the least damaged area and progress toward the most damaged sections, minimizing potential cross-contamination. This method effectively helps locate the fire’s origin, which often involves common ignition sources such as faulty electrical wiring or matches left in flammable materials like newspapers or trash bins. Surprisingly, certain unique identifiers—such as diatoms on match heads and additives in gasoline—can withstand fires and aid in pinpointing specific brands involved.

Fire scene investigations frequently uncover criminal evidence. However, some evidence may be destroyed, leaving cases unsolved. Take, for example, the 1981 Stardust Disco fire in Dublin, which killed 48 people and injured 240 others. Despite 25 years of inquiries, 800 witnesses, and multiple forensic investigation teams, the case remains a mystery due to lack of sufficient evidence.

Unraveling Death’s Timeline

The fascinating field of forensic entomology has been a vital investigative tool for centuries, dating back to 1247 when Chinese official Song Ci first documented its use in a coroner’s handbook. The examination of insects infesting corpses can reveal critical information about the time and circumstances surrounding a person’s death. Fast-responding blowflies are the gold standard in this discipline, as they can sense blood from great distances and lay their eggs within hours. By observing the development of maggots, scientists can deduce when the blowflies first arrived, offering a reliable estimation of when death occurred. Beetles then strip the remaining flesh, followed by moths and mites that remove hair, leaving behind a clean skeleton. Forensic entomologists also consider environmental factors—including weather, temperature, and other ecological variables—helping investigators piece together death’s timeline, providing powerful evidence necessary to solve crimes. One prominent example, the 1935 “jigsaw murders” case in the UK, led to Dr. Buck Ruxton’s conviction thanks to the entomological analysis of maggots found within his wife and maid’s dissected remains.

Unveiling Forensic Pathology

Dating back to Julius Caesar in 44 BC, forensic pathology has played a crucial role in determining the cause of death through autopsies—an exhaustive and structured examination of the human body. While not infallible, the field continues to evolve, leveraging innovative methods such as Decomposition Odor Analysis to enhance accuracy. Significant establishments like the University of Tennessee’s “Body Farm” contribute to this progress by conducting research on factors of corpse decomposition in diverse environments.

Forensic pathology, a discipline pivotal in determining the cause of death, originates from the autopsy performed on Julius Caesar in 44 BC. The meticulous autopsy process entails collecting biological samples, such as hair and fingernail scrapings, and carefully examining the body’s external features. To scrutinize the internal organs, a Y-shaped incision is made, from which samples are extracted for evaluation by specialist pathologists.

After receiving reports from experts such as neuro- and orthopedic pathologists, the coroner finally compiles a comprehensive report. The body, with organs intact, is stitched together in case a subsequent autopsy is necessary. Despite being a valuable tool, forensic pathology has witnessed notable instances of fallibility—for example, when early twentieth-century pathologist Bernard Spilsbury allowed his personal bias to influence critical testimonies in court.

To mitigate such shortcomings, forensic pathology constantly evolves in developing more refined and robust examination methods. One remarkable contribution to this advancement comes from the University of Tennessee’s “Body Farm,” where studies on corpse decomposition have led to enlightening insights, such as the impact of duration and exposure on decomposition rates.

The “Body Farm” has also been working on Decomposition Odor Analysis—an innovative approach that estimates the time of death based on the unique volatile compounds emitted during decomposition, which number around 400. Overall, forensic pathology is an ever-evolving discipline seeking constant improvement and precision in determining the cause of death.

The Transformative Power of Toxicology

Forensic toxicology has been a vital force in saving lives and convicting criminals throughout history, with its relevance expanding from developing antidotes to advocating for safer workplaces. Mathieu Orfila’s groundbreaking works in the early 1800s marked the beginning of a new era, as his comprehensive encyclopedias on poison detection and treatments paved the way for modern toxicology. Advancements in the field continue to influence the judiciary, with landmark cases like the “radium girls” shaping legal precedents around occupational diseases. While forensic toxicologists have successfully uncovered deadly murders, some cases pose insurmountable challenges, as seen with the widespread use of arsenic in the 19th century.

Throughout human history, poisonous substances have been employed for murderous intent. Consequently, forensic toxicologists have taken on the responsibility of identifying lethal compounds and contriving antidotes. So essential has toxicology become that its impact now goes beyond convicting criminals – it plays a direct role in saving lives.

Take, for example, Mathieu Orfila’s work in the 19th century. After conducting extensive tests on numerous dogs, Orfila published his comprehensive, 1,300-page-long General System of Toxicology, the first of its kind. Following this trailblazing contribution to the field, he authored another book five years later, sharing valuable insights into treating poison victims and solidifying his position as the leading toxicologist of his time.

Toxicology’s influence hasn’t stopped there. Besides contributing to scientific advancements (e.g., Marie Curie’s 1898 discovery of radium, polonium, and thorium), the field has played a crucial role in the improvement of factory conditions and the establishment of legal precedents. One such case is the 1920s “radium girls,” whose legal battle against their employer set the stage for future occupational disease lawsuits.

Forensic toxicologists’ expertise in toxin detection has had a significant impact on solving countless suspicious deaths, such as convicting infamous serial killer Harold Shipman. However, challenges remain. In 19th century England and Wales, the slow, disease-like effects of arsenic poisoning made it difficult to determine its use as a murder weapon, leading to unresolved trials.

Unraveling Fingerprinting’s Origins

The intriguing history of fingerprinting traces back to Henry Faulds, a Scottish missionary who noticed the use of finger imprints on Japanese pottery. Fascinated by this technique, Faulds’ research reached Francis Galton, who wrote the first fingerprint literature. This discovery influenced police worldwide, creating systems to identify and track criminals. However, fingerprinting is not foolproof; patent and latent prints can sometimes result in significant inaccuracies.

From ancient Japanese pottery to modern forensics, fingerprinting has evolved to become a vital investigative tool. Henry Faulds, a Scottish missionary stationed in Tokyo, first became fascinated by the finger imprints used by pottery makers to mark their creations. Upon discovering that these faint marks could be made visible using powder, Faulds shared his findings with Charles Darwin, who in turn introduced the concept to his cousin Francis Galton.

In 1892, Galton published the pioneering book, Finger Prints. Transforming the criminal justice system, Argentine police officer Juan Vucetich was stirred to catalog fingerprints of criminals in Buenos Aires. Vucetich’s efforts led to the groundbreaking first-ever conviction based on fingerprint evidence. Word of his success spread, reaching Edward Henry, Bengal’s chief of police, who implemented the Henry Classification System – a revolutionary fingerprint reference and filing method.

Scotland Yard soon appointed Henry as the head of their Criminal Investigation Department. Upon using fingerprints as a main forensic tool, they revealed 632 hidden criminals in just one year. Nevertheless, fingerprinting is not without its limitations.

Fingerprints can be classified as patent prints, visible to the naked eye, or latent prints, requiring technological or chemical assistance for visibility. During the 2004 Madrid train bombings investigation, the FBI relied on an incomplete latent fingerprint, resulting in 20 possible matches and an erroneous detention costing $2 million in settlements. This case highlights that fingerprinting, though a powerful investigative tool, should always be used in conjunction with other forensic techniques to ensure accurate analysis.

Decoding Bloodstains: Crime and Science

Contrary to popular belief, bloodstains often reveal more than just the occurrence of a crime; they can divulge critical details such as the weapon used, the location and manner of the deadly strike, and even the perpetrator’s identity. The field of bloodstain analysis, despite its brutal beginnings in 1895 with Edward Piotrowski’s experiments involving rabbits, has evolved over the years. The 1955 trial of Samuel Sheppard marked the first real-world application of bloodstain pattern analysis, eventually exonerating him of his murder charge. In addition to understanding the circumstances of a crime, bloodstain analysis is instrumental in reconstructing the scene through techniques such as the stringing model, which calculates angles of impact for individual bloodstains. Furthermore, blood samples carry invaluable DNA evidence that can help to identify victims, culprits, or even witnesses. While low copy number DNA profiling in 1999 made significant strides, it remains plagued by challenges such as cross-contamination. Conclusively, bloodstain analysis and DNA evidence are crucial elements in solving crimes, as they offer more profound insights than mere autopsy reports.

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