Identification and the Development of Forensic Science Research Paper

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Forensic science as a science and profession takes its roots in the industrial revolution and the Age of Enlightenment. Measurement, classification, and databases started on habitual criminals or recidivists, with criminal anthropometry introduced in Paris by Bertillon, but this was soon followed with fingerprinting or dactyloscopy. The scientific exploitation of traces as silent witnesses of crimes or clues to their understanding extended the capabilities of forensic science throughout the twentieth century. The story of identification sees a major development in 1985, with the advent of the analysis of DNA markers which allow current individualization, through their extreme diversity. Identity has always been a fuzzy notion. It is the need to identify criminals and recidivists that led to the concept of identity and individuality that currently influences the structure of large databases such as fingerprint or DNA, but also most measurements in biometry as well as administrative identities (security documents, electronic identity, etc.). These developments arose at the end of the nineteenth century around pioneers. This research paper goes through the early discussions and controversies that established forensic science as a scientific endeavor.

Definitions, History, Administrative Identity, And Biological Identity

Early man may have used identification in rituals and in relation to gods (hand impressions, finger impressions). The process of identification and individualization became essential as soon as communities grew to a size when direct knowledge and recognition of familiars was not possible anymore. There is little reference to identification of persons in the earlier texts (such as Hammurabi’s code, art 18 about the identification of the owner of slaves), but the early history of man describes impostors or characters impersonating others to rob, cheat, or gain undue advantages or a hiatus around the identity (in religious early manuscripts such as Esau in the Genesis) that make the essence of theatre plots and great tragedies (such as Oedipus). Persons in organized societies started to have rights (community, legal, monetary) and duties needing administrative or civil identification, and supports were soon introduced in material forms such as church registries (recording birth, death, marriages, filiations) and magistrate logs.

Within organized societies, migrations created the need for legislation, classification, and identities. The use of “identifiers” such as a written signature (in Europe) or an apposed fingerprint (in Asia) strengthened the binding of terms in documents, engagements, etc., whereas official documents “sauf-conduits” were given to officialize the identity of the bearer for a safe passage. This led to the first passports that, incidentally, gave little information about the identification of the bearer but carried the power of the authority given by seals such as royal or imperial heraldic seals. Passports became personal identity papers for early royal messengers of the French King Louis XI in 1464 – early postmen. Associated to the passport, a registry of passports allowed tracking every journey made by messengers and a way of controlling back the activity and the effectiveness of delivery. The development of surveillance has become a whole part of the identification process in modern days, often in contradiction with other rights (privacy, data protection, etc.).

One can distinguish two types of identities: civil or administrative (surname, name, sex, filiation, date of birth, address, profession, function, etc.) and biological. The first may be variable over time and may depend on the observer’s knowledge making this identity relative, whereas the biological identity (genome, DNA, fingerprint, biometry) is usually very stable over time with notable exceptions (like the extraction of a tooth in odontology).

Any new development such as identity documents has intrinsic weaknesses that will be abused by government (spies, etc.) and criminals (forgers, counterfeiters, mafias, etc.). Groebner (2007) makes a fascinating account of the historical developments around the needs and reasons for identification in Europe from the Middle Ages to modern times and technological developments and their risks. The need for identification becomes a major issue in our electronic world with the apparent distance between a person (identified, pseudo) and her activities through the electronic medium. Identity theft is not a new crime, but it has taken dimensions never attained before the twenty-first century.

Other needs arise for the recognition and identification of deceased persons (Gremaud 2010), an act necessary for a mourning family (particularly important for victims of disasters – Disaster Victims Identification teams or DVI teams are often deployed), but also for administrative reasons (pensions, heritage, insurances, etc.) or to establish the criminal act of genocide, or stop a criminal investigation against a disappeared person.

The use of court experts and expertise is documented in Antiquity, but the needs for the identification of persons became a real issue with the comparatively recent demographic explosion (humankind reached one billion in 1860 and sees the seven billion mark will overtaken in 2013!). This was compounded by the disappearance of many forms of arbitrary justice (based on torture and various forms of godly intervention, etc.), and punishments based on mutilations (from severe cuttings of limbs or disfiguration to marking the skin with a hot stamp). The century or Age of Enlightenment in France (sie`cle des Lumie`res – Diderot (1713–1784), Montesquieu (1689–1755), and Voltaire (1694–1778)) led to major changes (American Declaration of Independence, US Bill of Rights, French Revolution, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, etc.) that affected the way justice was done. Punishment (except for the death penalty) became pecuniary or imprisonment in Europe and countries under its influence. This led to a situation where habitual criminals could not be identified as such, unless arrested by the same policeman who could identify a recidivist under whichever name (pseudo) the criminal used. The need for authentication or verification was born, and the questions of how to recognize or identify a person previously condemned for a crime, what are the causes of crimes, is there a way to identify the signs from crimes, etc. became the focus of interest of both natural and social scientists. Many theories were based on pure prejudice and have led to tragic decisions and outcomes (racial theories, facial or body stigmata, genetic syndromes, psychological traits, etc. justifying exclusions, investigation methodologies, to the extreme of genocides) that still haunt us today. Except for specific types of madness, most crimes fall under categories of moral or conventional decisions that may vary over time, and some changes come about because some broke what they considered wrong laws (see the debate about passive or active euthanasia in this beginning of the twenty-first century).

The use of measurements and statistics helped develop selectivity of observed traits that may differentiate individuals or groups within populations or to observe relationships (whether causal or correlated) between societies and crime. Que´telet (1796–1874), a versatile mathematician, decided to apply the newly developed statistics and probability to measure social phenomena a discipline that he called “social physics.” It was a key factor in the development of both sociology and criminology. His work on the measurements of man, to determine the “average man” (still used in medicine in the form of the body mass index), was also the seed to the development of a fundamental aspect of forensic science: criminal anthropometry or bertillonnage.

Bertillon And Criminal Anthropometry

Bertillon (1853–1914) was what we would call a failed scientist, but he had a systematic and orderly mind, almost to an obsession. Highly influenced by a family of scientists, he obtained a clerical job at the Pre´fecture de Police in Paris in 1879 because of strings his influential father pulled. His main duties were to copy and file criminal records, created in 1848 after indications that many crimes were made by few individual repetitive offenders (recidivists). These records were mostly vague, nonsystematic, partially inaccurate, and with photos (when photos were available) taken in different lights, angles, sizes, etc. It was obvious that there was no way this data could be used to recognize or describe known criminals with any chance of success. The only recognized recidivists were recognized because they were known to the police officers that arrested them, often under different assumed names, the real birth name remaining unknown most of times with little chance of reconstructing the criminal career. The family background of Bertillon led him to obsessively search for a combination of measurements on each individual that would be selective to the extreme so that any recorded criminal, when arrested again could be identified to a recidivist with the same set of measurements, whatever the assumed name. This would be a process of authentication or verification that the person was already known and had a criminal record. The assumed names were identified to a set of crimes and not necessarily to a specified identity in the sense that we use with biometry now days (biological identity).

The principle was based on the measurement of fixed and stable features offered mostly by bone structures in adult persons. Nine bone measures offered 19,683 possible features that could be combined to obtain a highly selective classification. These included the stature and the spanning (from the left shoulder to the tip of the major of the right hand) (Bertillon 1893). Examples are given below: Fig. 1.

Identification and the Development of Forensic Science Research Paper

Various other descriptive features such as skin color, eye/iris color, face morphology, nose, hairline, forehead, and shin as well as accidental or added features (tattoos, warts, scars) offered complementary attributes that would characterize an individual.

Bertillon also introduced the standardization of the “mug shot” (position, lighting, size of face, and profile) that is still the feature of police file photographs. Initial success led to the systematic introduction of anthropometry, despite heavy administrative demands, error prone measurements, and the limited application to the sole recognition of habitual criminals.

Herschel, Faulds, Galton, Vucetich, And The Lyon School Of Forensic Medicine (Lacassagne)

William Herschel (1833–1917) and Henry Faulds (1843–1930) fought over the discovery of fingerprints as identifiers, although both had essential merits in the development of fingerprinting. Both members of the British Empire, they observed in India (Herschel was a British civil servant) and in Japan (where Faulds was a medical doctor, part of a Scottish mission) that fingerprints were locally used as binding seals in contracts, works of arts, and judgements and decided that these minute patterns and details of papillary ridges may be used for identification.

Herschel had the merit of studying the permanence as well as the diversity of ridge details and proposed through a letter to the British Government (the so-called Hooghly letter sent in 1887) that it could be used for the identification of recidivists (Herschel 1880). The proposal was indeed similar to Bertillon’s anthropometric measurements, once recorded a recidivist can be identified by his fingerprints. Faulds, on the other hand, had noticed that the contact of fingerprints with objects left an image of the pattern and details (a finger mark) that could be used to identify the source of the mark (Faulds 1880). Here the identifier is not necessarily in a file but on the fingertip of the bearer and could be used to identify the source of a contact, even if this source is not a recidivist but identified through inquiry as a potential participant to a crime. Whereas Herschel and Bertillon considered the possibility of identifying using the basic relation “person to person,” Faulds proposed the identification through a “trace to person” or “person to trace” relationship, thereby being able to solve crimes from trace elements. Faulds had addressed his findings to Charles Darwin, who passed it on to a relative, Francis Galton, who mostly ignored the submission and forwarded it to the Anthropological Society of London.

The awkwardness of the anthropometric system led to question its effectiveness as a law enforcement tool. A veterinary doctor Wilhelm Eber, who had observed many times his own fingerprints in animal blood, proposed to the Preussen ministry in Berlin the use of dactyloscopy (the study of fingerprints) in 1888 rather than anthropometry, and that same year, Galton was required to discuss the identification of criminals. This led him to study Bertillon’s system and reminded him of Herschel and Faulds proposals. He started to study fingerprints from an anthropological point of view and was soon convinced of its usefulness and superior identifying power in law enforcement not only in the identification of recidivists but also in crime and trace investigation. This was published in a book, now considered a classic in forensic science (Galton 1892). Bertillon resisted all discussion with Galton, and Great Britain adopted initially a mix between anthropometry and dactyloscopy. An efficient classification system (Henry’s system) soon demonstrated its ability to supersede most of what anthropometry was supposed to offer (Henry 1900). The active resistance of Bertillon internationally probably was instrumental in slowing down the development of dactyloscopy.

Vucetich (1858–1925), a Croatian immigrant in Argentina, anthropologist, and police official, was in charge of setting up the Argentinian police identification system at the end of the 1880s. He came across reports of Galton and communicated with him. Convinced of the superiority of dactyloscopy over any other system, he designed a classification system (the Vucetich system) based on Galton’s work and was apparently the first to use finger marks to identify the author of a crime in 1892.

To move from an administrative system designed to recognize recidivists to a system that would allow the recognition of recidivists but also the identification of criminals based on traces left at scenes of crime accepted throughout the world approximately 25 years elapsed, and the death of Bertillon in 1914 saw the abandonment of his system as a whole except for a few administrative and peculiar feature.

Ironically, beside Bertillon in France, a professor of forensic medicine in Lyon, Alexandre Lacassagne (1843–1924) was a keen observer of nature, convinced of the validity of scientific methods, and was very critical of various theories about crimes and criminals. He was very critical of theories about the criminal man propounded by Lombroso (1887) where facial appearance became an indicator of criminal propensity and critically considered the systematic use of anthropometry. Indeed, he created and opened the scientific journal he founded in 1886, “Les archives d’anthropologie criminelle,” to conflicting views and views he opposed. He developed an active research whose influence is still felt today. Locard was one of his students, but many others carried research on aspects of trace evidence to help identify authors of crimes or reconstruct criminal activity with many fundamental theses on subjects such as pattern marks in judiciary investigations (Coutagne and Florence 1889). Other examples include research on prints in general, with detection methods for invisible or poorly visible marks (Forgeot 1891), fingerprint patterns and as traces (Fre´con 1889), and blood marks and patterns (Florence 1885). Many tests and procedures to detect and analyze blood, finger marks, semen, hair, etc. survived most of the first half of last century. Locard, although his initial research was dedicated to medicolegal history, was the first, early in the twentieth century, to consider forensic science (criminalistics) as a separate branch of knowledge rather than a part of forensic medicine or police work. The research and innovations of this group were largely overshadowed by the fact that their endeavor was provincial as compared to Bertillon’s central position in Paris and the importance of anthropometry developed within police circles that would view the clerical and administrative aspects as secondary support to investigation.

Hans Gross And Archibald Rodolphe Reiss

Parallel to these activities in the police, scientific, and medical world, a scholar in criminal law, and part of the intelligentsia of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hans Gross (1847–1915) was fascinated by many scientific and medical discoveries and had contacts with personalities that had a huge importance in developments that influenced the whole twentieth century. These included Freud (psychoanalysis), Landsteiner (blood groups), Amoedo (odontology), and other chemists, biologists, and engineers. Gross had the insight to realize the benefit that science could bring to the criminal investigator.

Austria had a continental legal system, inquisitorial in nature, with a magistrate responsible for criminal investigation: the investigating judge/ magistrate. The responsibilities for this judge was (and still is) to collect and analyze all data to try to solve crimes and when faced with a suspect to determine all information in favor or against the suspect to build a case that is forwarded to a court and the public prosecutor. Gross imagined the immense resources afforded by scientific investigation and called for an academic discipline fundamental for all magistrates to be introduced in law schools: Kriminalistik (German name for criminalistics or forensic science). Gross considered that forensic science was the single fundamental investigative methodology for the investigating magistrate. This was epitomized in a book (Gross 1893) that became a best seller in a second edition, translated in multiple languages. A sixth edition was produced in 1913 by Gross himself and further editions updated by various authors have been published in German until the end of the twentieth century.

Locard recognized the great influence of Gross in his own writings. Most developments in Germany, Austria, and Central and Eastern Europe recognized the key influence of Gross who saw physical traces as rich indicators for strategic, operational, and tactical decisions by the magistrate. The dimensions of intelligence, investigative or probative value of physical traces, were already perceived. The phenomenological dimension – serial crime, intelligence – and the case solving (casuistic – inclusive of investigative and evidence dimensions of traces) combined to create this brand new discipline. Gross called in 1895 for the creation of this discipline as an academic discipline in Vienna, but he finally succeeded (2 years before his death) in 1913 with the creation of an institute at the University of Graz.

  1. R. Reiss (1875–1929), a chemist and photographer, immediately saw the interest of anthropometry and crime scene documentation through his interaction with Bertillon. The interest went further in the treatment of databases and international exchanges of standardized data. An international meeting in Monaco in 1914 carried the seed of what would become Interpol after the Second World War (Roux 1926) and of the current Prum Treaty in Europe, signed in 2005, which is institutionalizing database exchanges across signatory countries (DNA, fingerprints, car registration) (Dehousse and Sifflet 2006). Of German origin, Reiss saw the merit of being part of a judiciary (legal) process and followed up scientific developments from the Lyon School. He was able to create an institute at the University of Lausanne in 1909, linked administratively to the Law faculty and to the Science and Medicine faculties for research and education. This is the first academic program in forensic science, and it is still a major part of the Faculty of Law and Criminal Sciences nowadays. His contributions (Reiss 1911) included both phenomenological and casuistic dimensions that make up the various professions of forensic science nowadays (forensic intelligence, crime analysis, scientific investigation, and evaluator in the evidence process in court). It must be emphasized that history played an important role to have Gross and Reiss become scientific “enemies” each taking opposite sides in the Balkan wars in 1915 (Collectif 2009).

From Identification To Forensic Science, And Current Organizations

The absence of a uniform view, resistance by police organizations, together with controversial and political decisions led to the construction of forensic science as a discipline regrettably based on a patchwork of miscellaneous technical and scientific applications without real fundamental or conceptual developments as a discipline and without a unifying research agenda. Kirk, in 1963, called for fundamental work and academic research (Kirk 1963), but it is still currently an identified deficiency (National Academy of Sciences 2009). This also led to various structural decisions that still haunt the discipline today.

Although many developments occurred in the detection and analysis of various trace types, including biological traces and DNA (after 1985), the early developments discussed influenced most of the current structures, and difficulties, encountered today. Some viewed the development of forensic science as a law enforcement task, almost administrative, left for identification bureaus. These identification bureaus turned into police or crime laboratories depending on policies, management decisions, and whether or not science was considered a useful component of police activities. This developed with great variations across the world and across countries. They have become large organizations often accompanied by the development of identification databases. In many cases, management by police with little scientific inclination left forensic science within secondary and supporting structures with little or no influence on investigation and intelligence for that matter.

Other countries and organizations have decided to link expertise laboratories to the judiciary and belong, often, to departments of justice. This is indicating a certain independence from police services but also creating tensions as to who is responsible for scene of crime investigations and who is in charge of databases. Some countries, especially in Eastern Europe, have had dual laboratory services, police/crime laboratories, and justice department laboratories to this day. Ironically, Locard developed his expert activities within the Lyon tribunal, but his laboratory was reclaimed by the French National Police to become the headquarters of the French forensic science laboratories in Lyon, whereas the identification bureaus remain a distinct entity within the police. The first are manned by scientists and civilian, the second by police and are considered police province, but with some overlap.

Few of the academic programs that provided expertises both for law enforcement and courts survived the two World Wars (Lausanne and Berlin), and forensic medicine absorbed part of the forensic science activities within their laboratories (especially since the advent of DNA). Newer organizations or laboratories, whether part of the justice system or law enforcement agencies, have integrated forensic medicine within forensic science laboratories but with some administrative difficulties residing in their business models. Should forensic science laboratories be financially independent industries or are they part of the overall justice systems under government control? This is an opened entry that needs fundamental and policy decisions that may, in turn, overcome some of the barriers created by history.


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