What is a Forensic Scientist?

Bruce Burk

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— Updated on July 25, 2017

What is a Forensic Scientist?

Forensic ScientistForensic Scientists are technical experts that can aid in criminal and other legal investigations by processing evidence collected by police and investigators. As such, Forensic Scientists are instrumental in the charging, convicting, and potentially acquitting of many criminal defendants.

Becoming a Forensic Scientist

Forensic Scientists can have rewarding careers working for laboratories, law enforcement, hospitals, or the coroner’s office. The first step towards this career is to obtain a bachelor’s degree. However, obtaining a Master’s degree can only broaden your potential. One should also think about obtaining an internship working with a law enforcement agency while pursuing your degree. As a result of how closely these scientists work with law enforcement, a forensic scientist needs to be able to pass a background check and drug test. To assist in testifying in court, records should be kept of all training, classes, and certificates obtained.

Forensic Evidence Collection

Forensic Scientists begin their jobs by showing up to a crime scene and conducting a preliminary investigation. Then, these experts identify what type of forensic evidence at the crime scene. This could include things such as fingerprints, blood, drug residue, bodily fluids, bullet pieces, documents, or digital information on computers. Then, Forensic Scientists work with local law enforcement to collect the evidence so that it can be taken to a lab for examination.

Chain of Custody

Remember that the use of this evidence in court depends largely on the how well the chain of custody is maintained. This means that law enforcement and the Forensic Scientists have to have documentation for the location of the evidence from the crime scene to the courtroom where the trial takes place. Failure to have that chain of custody could weaken the prosecution’s ability to use the evidence or result in the evidence being denied admissibility entirely.

Technology Used

Forensic Scientists use some amazing technology to perform their jobs and if you have ever watched an episode of CSI then you likely have seen some of this technology in action. With the increased use of DNA evidence in criminal trials, DNA sequencing is something that is used often. This technology enables the matching of DNA evidence between a criminal defendant and crime scene to place the perpetrator at the scene of the crime. Magnetic fingerprinting is used to compare fingerprint samples to those found at the crime scene. These experts also use facial reconstruction technology to assist in creating visual profiles to assist in identifying fugitives. More commonly, Forensic Scientists use state of the art laboratory equipment and chemical testing to test blood, bloodily fluids, drugs, or other human remains found by law enforcement.

There are some new technologies just entering the field of the forensic science. Massively Parallel Sequencing is now a new way to analyze DNA to help find in large disasters where many people have died. Hair Bacteria Assessments helps convict sexual predators by identifying sexually produced microbes in hair follicles. Fingerprinting technology has come a long way from using white powder and a brush. Now, scientists can not only identify fingerprints, but also tell the time that they were left on a surface.

Forensic Scientists Testimony

Forensic Scientists are subject to the same qualification rules as any other expert witness used in a trial. Due to the confrontation clause, a criminal defendant has the right to be present in court with any witness being used in the case. This means that the forensic scientist has to be thorough in the report that they prepare regarding how the evidence is collected, the types of tests that the performed, and the results of those tests. These experts need to be prepared to testify regarding their backgrounding including their education, licenses, scientific methods, and work history. Forensic Scientists should know that the methods they use the analyze materials collected at a crime scene need to be widely used, peer reviewed, and capable of surviving a Daubert challenge–the Supreme Court’s test for the admission of scientific evidence in the courtroom.

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