So I am really into forensic science. I’ve been plowing my way through Forensic Files episodes, of which there are many. The show started in 1996, and it details the detective work and forensic testing that goes into solving a variety of crimes, mostly murders. As a morbid individual, I find this sort of stuff endlessly fascinating, though my roommates are both concerned with and alarmed by my preoccupation with crime. In college, I bought a book about serial killers and left it conspicuously on the coffee table. I suppose I hoped it would spark conversation, but it mostly just made guests back slowly out the door.
But you really do learn some cool things while watching this show. For instance, a body, mostly decomposed, was determined to be a drowning victim due to the dried-out diatoms residing in what remained of her lung tissue. These little bits of algae were enough to show that she had indeed drowned, and the species of diatom even helped determine in which body of water she had been originally dumped.
One of the most interesting episodes I’ve seen so far has been the case of Dr. John Schneeberger. People these days trust implicitly the validity of DNA tests, and when Dr. Schneeberger successfully passed not one, but three such tests, he was judged to be completely innocent. But his accuser and victim, who maintained that he had drugged and raped her at the hospital, was adamant. She fought the results of the tests for seven years, until his deceit was finally discovered. He had managed to foil the DNA tests by implanting the blood, and therefore DNA, of another person within his arm. He always insisted that the blood for the DNA tests be drawn from only his left forearm, where he had hidden a tiny vial beneath his skin that contained the blood of another man, combined with anticoagulants to fool the technicians. Witnesses present during the time that the doctor’s blood was drawn testified that they saw the needle pierce his skin, which was absolutely true. However, it was what was beneath that skin that fooled investigators for so many years. After his trial, Dr. Schneeberger only served four years of his sentence before being released and deported from Canada to his native South Africa.
The show reveals the importance of footprints, the power of saliva in cigarette butts, methods for lifting fingerprints off non-porous substances (hint: it involves Super Glue), and the scientific revolution that was PCR. Forensic anthropology, as detailed in the fascinating book Death’s Acre, allows scientists to identify a body decades, and sometimes centuries, after death. The Body Farm, located near the University of Tennessee Medical Center, is a research facility that tracks and quantifies the process of human decomposition. Bodies are studied in countless scenarios, including buried, underwater, or simply left to the elements. Such research has proved invaluable in the quest to rapidly and accurately identify the time of death in a homicide. Also, cops are apparently permitted to lie a LOT when pressuring a suspect for a confession. You’re allowed to say you have whatever evidence against them that you want, but can’t say that if they don’t confess, they’ll be put to death. Eeks.
Anyway, you really should watch this show on TruTV. Reruns are on constantly, so go ahead and learn a little something. Who knows, maybe the knowledge you gain will allow you to commit the perfect crime one day. Though having watched the show for years, I doubt the “perfect crime” even exists. Even without a body, you can still be convicted. As the great animation Something Left, Something Taken illustrates, forensic science relies on the assumption that in every interaction, you either leave something behind, or take something with you, or both. A telltale carpet fiber on your coat, or a single hair of your pet dog left at the crime scene, can connect you intrinsically to a bloody murder. Even an angled speck of blood spatter on your shirt can reveal that you were present while blood was actively flowing, instead of merely touching the body after the fact. We can’t all kill amongst plastic sheeting like Dexter, after all, so forensic science will remain a powerful investigative tool for years to come.