Criminalistics, more commonly known as forensic sciences or sometimes simply called forensics, is the scientific examination of physical evidence in criminal cases. This includes the analysis of many kinds of materials including blood, fibers, bullets, fingerprints, and DNA. The study of forensics is popular with criminal justice majors, science majors thinking about becoming forensic scientists working in a crime laboratory, or anyone who simply wants to learn about forensic science.
Many law enforcement agencies operate crime labs that perform scientific studies of evidence. Forensic scientists, chemists, and lab technicians use microscopes and other instruments to analyze and interpret samples of physical evidence found at a crime scene. Forensic science encompasses many different fields of science including anthropology, biology, chemistry, engineering, genetics, medicine, pathology, phonetics, psychiatry, and toxicology. By using scientific principles and the latest laboratory techniques, these professionals help solve crimes and successfully prosecute criminals.
Ever wonder what it’s like to walk into a real crime scene?
Thomas Mauriello, author of The Dollhouse Murders, designed an Introduction to Criminalistics course for the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland at College Park. During the corresponding laboratory exercise, his students conduct a crime scene investigation, and in doing so they must examine the crime scene, identify all the evidence, and ask the right questions of victims and witnesses.
The author writes, “Watching crime dramas on television is a passive experience. My students must place themselves in the mindsets of ordinary characters and crime scene professionals. Because the crime scene is the first stage of the investigation, crime laboratory results are not available, but nevertheless, the process begins – either on the right track or the wrong one. Uniformed police officers are usually the first responders representing the legal process. They take the initial report [and] determine what crime has been committed. Meanwhile, EMTs (emergency medical technicians) arrive to render medical assistance to injured victims.”
Mauriello continues, “And then there are the detectives, who are responsible for conducting and managing the investigation of felony cases. Under their management, the evidence technicians (on the West Coast they are referred to as the criminalists) process the crime scene by searching, photographing and sketching the crime scene then finding, identifying, collecting, packaging, and transporting all physical evidence to the crime laboratory. Finally, there is the medical examiner, who is responsible for examining a body at a crime scene and subsequently autopsying the body to determine the manner, mode, time, and cause of death.”
He clarifies, “Forensic science as depicted on television can give the impression that everything done in an investigation – from responding to the crime scene and identifying and examining evidence to interviewing witnesses and arresting suspects – is done by one group of players, who happen to be the stars of the television show. This is an unrealistic view of a process that requires many different teams and kinds of professionals.”
The job of a forensic scientist is a challenging but satisfying occupation that benefits society. If you are an aspiring forensic scientist, check out these resources to get a taste of what it’s like to work in the field!
Forensic Science Resources
A Beginner’s Guide to Forensic Science is an ideal place for high school and college students interested in the field to begin exploring the world of forensic science.
Forensics: Uncover the Science and Technology of Crime Scene Investigation introduces students to the fascinating world of forensic science and shows them how to find clues, analyze evidence, and crack the case.
Forensic Investigations: Using Science to Solve High Crimes is a great workbook for homeschool students to build critical thinking and science skills through focused lessons in DNA, fingerprints, body language, handwriting, and other topics.
The Dollhouse Murders: A Forensic Expert Investigates 6 Little Crimes is a series of stories that show exactly how serious crimes are investigated. Walk through miniature rooms to witness the state of the art in modern forensic techniques and the simple genius of an effective investigation.
18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Invented Modern Forensics transports readers to a time when forensic science was in its infancy, and a woman named Frances Glessner Lee designed meticulous recreations of crime scenes. Lee revolutionized the way investigators approached criminal investigations, forever changing the face of modern forensics.
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death offers readers an extraordinary glimpse into the mind of a master criminal investigator. In the 1940s and 1950s, Frances Glessner Lee built dollhouse crime scenes based on real cases in order to train detectives to assess visual evidence. Still used in forensic training today, the eighteen Nutshell dioramas, on a scale of 1:12, display an astounding level of detail.