Forensics is Used Daily in Investigations

Forensics is defined as “the use of scientific methods and knowledge to investigate crime.” [1] Forensics is used daily in investigations around the world by agencies in all levels of government; i.e. Federal, State, and Local. It is also widely utilized in the media; from television shows to movies, and in books. The forensic methods displayed in television shows contain accurate and inaccurate information based on real forensic methods utilized today. Television shows like NCIS and Bones are among the most popular that feature forensic science as their primary way of investigating solving crimes. The television show, Bones, displays many accuracies and inaccuracies about the forensic science field and job such as timelines, products, terminology and equipment used.

The example I used is an episode from season four of Bones called “The Girl in the Mask”. It starts with FBI Agent Booth and Dr. Brennan, of the Jeffersonian, talking in a restaurant. Booth’s friend from Japan, Agent Nakamura, calls about his sister not responding to any form of contact. Agent Nakamura wanted to fly to the US to look for his sister, Sachi, with Booth. Booth starts looking for her and they find her car abandoned in the lower salt marshes. While Booth and Brennan are searching the car they find blood on the front seat. Brennan sees something in the water and proceeds, only wearing gloves, to go into the water and investigate. Brennan finds a mask and lifts it up to discovers a head underneath it. She does not take any pictures or measurements of the crime scene for the forensic report prior to touching the evidence. [2]

The screen cuts to a new scene in the forensic lab at the Jeffersonian. They have taken the head back to the lab and analyze it. The team finds what appears to be an entry wound and blade markings. They test the wound for gunshot residue and it comes back negative. Brennan also determines that the skull has Japanese ancestry. Agent Nakamura tells Brennan about Sachi’s jaw being broken when she was little. Brennan finds the remodeling on the bone and determines that the skull is Sachi’s. They cut open the skull and examined the wound track, took x-rays, and removed foreign particles from the brain. Booth and Brennan go back out and do more investigating.

The entomologist, Hodgins, finds bird vomit on the skull. The bird is native to the high marshes and the head was found in the low marshes. This leads to a conclusion that the murder may have taken place in the high marshes and that the rest of Sachi’s remains could be found in the high marshes. The team goes out and searches the high marshes finding the rest of Sachi’s body. They aspirated Sachi’s lungs and determined she died from drowning. The water removed from her lungs is tested to determine the composition. Due to a particular chemical found in the analysis of the water, it is determined to be from a water feature and the foreign particles in the brain were slivers of ornamental bamboo which was from her head being stuck on a bamboo spike. The forensics team use the wound markings on the body to attempt to recreate the weapon with a rare 3D computer program. They ultimately find out all of the details of what happened to the victim when they make a deal with their main suspect. [2]

This episode of Bones utilized methods from various fields of forensics and displayed many of the procedures correctly. They had all the components of a true Forensics Team; the Pathologist/Medical Examiner, the Forensic Anthropologist, the Entomologist, an artist who also questions documents, and the Investigating Agent (FBI in this instance) for the case. The team used proper terminology when it came to doing tests. For example; they used ferrocene to test for gunshot residue and looked for striations on the wound track. They found her lungs were aspirated and took proper samples to determine the type of water that was in Sachi’s lungs. When searching for the rest of the body, the team used cadaver dogs to locate it in the high grass of the high marsh. Cadaver dogs are used in real life for this type of situation; to find a missing remotely located body or parts of a body when dismembered. When the Medical Examiner and her assistant wanted to cut the skull open to examine the brain, they wore the proper protective gear. They donned face masks, goggles, jumpsuits, and gloves. They also followed the proper procedure of taking x-rays to examine the skull first before cutting it open.

The forensics team in the show also did an accurate job when examining the wound tracks and taking casts of them. They analyzed the exit wound for striations from a bullet and found none, thus determining that a gun was not used to wound or murder the victim. Mikrosil, a silicone casting putty, was used to make an impression of the wound on the bone to help further the investigation by assisting in identifying a possible murder weapon. This method is actually widely used today where impressions of wounds and markings on bone(s) are taken to help determine a possible murder weapon. Mikrosil is actually a real trademarked product, a silicone casting putty, used in real life investigations by CSI and Forensics Teams to take such castings. The Mikrosil cast of the bone damage showed the indication of sharp, or blunt, force trauma. They knew it was sharp force trauma because the cast had the teeth markings of a knife. The use of modern technology to help aid the investigation and solve the crime was accurate as well. The use of 3 dimensional computer rendering and holograms to assist in recreating the weapon; the trajectory of the weapon; and the progression of the crime was correct, even if it was very advanced through.

This episode also contained mistakes that are very common in forensics methods portrayed by media. They had the forensics team investigating the crime and doing lab work. In a real life situation, the forensics team would do the lab work and give their results to the investigators to use to further their case, determine suspects, motives and possibly solve a crime. The show Bones depicted both FBI Agent Booth and Dr. Brennan, a Forensics Anthropologist, travelling and doing the investigations together, when in actual real life Dr. Brennan would stay in the lab. When Brennan finds the head, she is not wearing the proper gear to retrieve it.

She walked into the water surrounding the evidence thereby contaminating it because she was not wearing a jumpsuit. Brennan also removed the head from the water without taking any pictures or measurements for a crime scene sketch. In a real life murder scene, they would have to rope off or secure the area around where the head was found to locate further evidence, such as a murder weapon, to locate the balance of the dismembered body, or evidence that would lead to a possible suspect (i.e. items such as cigarette buds, wrappers or drink containers with fingerprints). Afterwards, when Brennan found the rest of Sachi’s body, she was only wearing a jumpsuit and gloves, but her hair was down and that could have contaminated the trace evidence in real life.

The show also simplifies the job of forensics and makes it appear quick an easy. It takes the basic methods used in forensics and puts them in the show. It depicts certain members the Forensics Team spending more time out in the field with the Investigating Agent than in the laboratory performing tests. The show only provides an audience with the most basic procedures and hints at the more difficult ones. For example, they showed the swabbing of the entry wound on the head, but only mentioned running water it through the mass spectrometer. The mass spectrometer is mentioned in every episode of this show but is never seen. Although there is an understanding of the budget restraints of these shows, you would figure that they would attempt to retrieve a shell of the machine at least for the viewers to see as some of the background equipment in the lab scenes are impressive but never utilized.

The most unrealistic part of TV forensics shows is the timeline. In this episode of Bones, it only took about two days to examine the entire body and gather witnesses, then solve the murder. In real life just examining the body and receiving all the test results back would take a lot more time. Even getting the test results back that soon was unrealistic. The amount of testing and work they had to do would take many days. It also appeared that a lot of the results came from the Forensics Team conversing with each other rather than on actual laboratory work. The technology that was is used in Bones is unrealistic as well. It is very advanced with the use of all the 3-D renderings and holograms, programs that are very advanced and extremely expensive. Most State and Local Government Agencies here in the U.S. could not afford such technology.

“The Oxford English Dictionary lists one of the first uses of the phrase ‘forensic science’ to describe a ‘mixed science’ [3]. Forensic Science is a very diverse field including many job area types and procedures. The media has taken those and dramatized them for the public.

Today’s viewing public loves drama and crime mysteries; the media took that and ran with it to the extreme. As Beatrice Baker says, “I guess crime is, in the broadest sense, human theater” [4]. The media depicts forensic science in a way that catches people’s attention, amplifying the mystery and drama, even if the actual career does not have much of that to begin with. The media may not always be accurate when portraying forensics, but its attempt has many people interested in joining the field today.