Sunday, November 9, 2014

Real Forensics!

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a presentation on forensic science at the Santa Clara County Crime Laboratory.  I love watching true crime TV programs that discuss the forensic aspects of solving the crimes, and I am a forensic genealogist, so of course I jumped at the chance.

One of the first things the speaker did was explain what exactly forensic science is:  the application of the physical and natural sciences to law (emphasis mine).  I discussed the meaning of the word "forensic" a few months ago and how Mr. E. used a definition available from online dictionaries but declined to quote the entire thing.  As I said then, forensic means “relating to the use of science or technology in the investigation and establishment of facts or evidence in a court of law”, with the fact that it relates to law being an important distinction.  Anyone can misuse the term, but that doesn't make her . . . um, those individuals right.

So after the definition of forensic science, the audience heard about the crime lab, which is a full-service lab with a staff of 65 people.  They work with about twenty different Santa Clara County police agencies but don't do anything with explosives (which are handled by ATF) or biological threats (e.g., anthrax).  About 10% of their work is related to collecting evidence, about 80% is analyzing evidence at the lab, and the final 10% is taken up by writing reports on their analyses and occasionally testifying as expert witnesses in trials.

The different areas of the lab cover pretty much everything you might expect:
• trace evidence (using chemistry and microscopy)
• latent print processing (using graphite and ninhydrin)
• narcotics and controlled substances
• toxicology (blood and urine analysis, breath and blood alcohol testing)
• firearms and toolmarks
• tire tread impressions and shoe impressions
• computers and digital evidence (deleted files, cell phones, security cameras)
• document examination (handwriting, indents, alterations)
• biology and DNA

Several powerful databases are available to the criminalists working in the lab. For example, CODIS (COmbined DNA Index System) is the generic term used to describe the combination of the National DNA Index System and other criminal justice DNA systems.  AFIS (Integrated Automatic Fingerprint Identification System) is the national fingerprint database maintained by the FBI.  (I'm in there because I've worked with children in the past, and to do that you have to be fingerprinted so they can check to see if you have a record.  I'm clean!)  SoleMate is a database of more than 12,500 shoe sole patterns.  Fascinating stuff!

The speaker showed slides relating to several crimes the lab has worked on, such as the Wendy's "finger in the chili" and Kenneth and Kristine Fitzhugh.  I knew I had watched too many forensic shows when I was able to recognize several of the cases immediately just from one slide, before he even said anything!

I asked how many people working in the lab were certified and was told that a little under half of the staff are certified in their fields.  I also asked specifically about forensic document examiners, because I know one; both forensic document examiners on staff are certified.

So what does all of this have to do with genealogy?

Well, directly, not much.  Indirectly, however, there's some crossover.  Certainly, it gave me another chance to kvetch about questionable (and conveniently truncated) definitions of "forensic."  But I also got to thinking about how the kind of DNA testing done in crime labs is far more detailed and accurate — because it has to be — than the automosal tests that the general public pays for.  If that kind of testing were available and affordable, can you image the kinds of family connections that could be made?

Oh, and the forensic document examiner I know?  I met her at the Forensic Genealogy Institute, of course.

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments on this blog will be previewed by the author to prevent spammers and unkind visitors to the site. The blog is open to everyone, particularly those interested in family history and genealogy.