Forensic Science in the 21st Century

In the last decade or so, the applications of forensic science in criminal investigation have increased.  For all sorts of criminal allegations, including rape and murder, the services of forensic scientists are being employed.  The infiltration of forensic science into the field of criminal justice is so deep that courses in police academies have included it in their syllabus.  While the academia is catching up with advancements in technology, the media on the other hand plays a role in popularizing forensic science for the general public.  Television soap-operas such as E.R., NYPD, CSI, CSI Miami, Forensic Files, etc. and science based re-enactment shows such as Medical Detectives which reach a wide TV audience have brought forensic science into the mainstream cultural discourse.

While the application of scientific methods to criminal investigations have a long-standing historical association, recent developments in Genealogy and DNA mapping have had a profound effect on the criminal justice system.  These days, no court trial for murder or rape can reach a conclusion without supporting evidence in the form of traces of the perpetrator’s DNA found at the site of the crime.  Given the history of incorrect jury decisions in the past (as proven by new forensic evidence) this fool-proof procedure is a welcome relief for the defendants.  For instance, many convicts across the world are resorting to help from forensic science to make a case for repealing their sentences.  In the United States in particular, there have been numerous instances of innocent people being put in jail, with only the support of dubious circumstantial evidence available at the time.  Thanks to advanced forensic science techniques, these victims of law are finally finding justice, albeit a belated one.

An area of civil justice that had adopted forensic science procedures for its investigations is “paternity” related cases.  In what is an extension of offences such as rape, paternity suits are on the rise mainly because of a renewed public confidence in the justice system.  Even security systems are embracing the latest forensic science development in order to make a robust and fraud-proof identification and access arrangements.  Although this concept is only at an experimental stage presently, there will be a time in the near future when credit/debit cards, employee access cards, passports, etc will see the application of DNA-based identification techniques.  Given the rampant credit card fraud and identity theft in the prevailing system, the DNA-based approach will easily gain public acceptance.

The two primary avenues in which the media deals with forensic science is in detective soap-operas and tabloid journalism.  While the media is given a greater leeway in soap-operas, where factuality can be compromised, the same cannot be said for journalism.  News reports based on sensationalism and scandal don’t strictly fall within the purview of a responsible media house.  Yet, due to market forces and increasing competition many news channels and newspapers resort to tabloid variety of journalism.  Inaccurate portrayal in the media of the state and role of forensic science can have negative implications for the society at large.  In this context, keeping in view the susceptibility of the judiciary to popular public opinion, the media should rethink its obligation toward the general public and present fact/fiction pertaining to forensic science congruent with its broader social responsibilities.

References:

Crime and Clues: The Art and Science of Criminal Investigation, retrieved from <http://www.crimeandclues.com/index.htm> on 01/07/2008.

American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), Journal of Forensic Sciences, retrieved from < http://www.aafs.org/> on 01/07/2008