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 Crime Recpnstruction, 2nd Ed.

Forensic Science



What is a forensic scientist?
A forensic scientist examines physical evidence and then testifies about the results of their findings in court. They are in fact defined by the expectation that they may give expert testimony about their examinations and further provide interpretations or opinions under oath. As explained in Thornton (1997):  

"Forensic" comes to us from the Latin forensus, meaning "of the forum." In Ancient Rome, the forum was where governmental debates were held, but it was also where trials were held. It was the courthouse. So forensic science has come to mean the application of the natural and physical sciences to the resolution of conflicts within a legal setting.
The single feature that distinguishes forensic scientists from any other scientist is the certain expectation that they will appear in court and testify to their findings and offer an opinion as to the significance of those findings. The forensic scientist will testify not only to what things are, but to what things mean. Forensic science is science exercised on behalf of the law in the just resolution of conflict.  

A true forensic scientist is not a policeman, nor are they partial about the outcome of their examinations. They are objective investigators of scientific fact. Subsequently, a forensic scientist may work in a state run crime lab, or they many work in private practice. 

There are different kinds of physical evidence, and subsequently there are different kinds of forensic scientists, all variously educated and trained.

The Austrian Jurist Dr. Hans Gross (born Johann Baptist Gustav Gross, 1847-1915), was one of the earliest forensic scientists of modern record. In his ground-breaking text, System Der Kriminalistik (aka Criminal Investigation) published in 1893, he is widely credited with coining the term "criminalistics". Dr. Gross is also widely regarded as the grandfather of modern criminalistics. A criminalist, by his usage, would have been one who studies crime, criminals, and the scientific methods of their identification, apprehension, and prosecution.

In modern use, the scope of the term criminalist has been greatly narrowed. It now refers only to a particular kind of forensic scientist who, according to the American Board of Criminalists (ABC), specializes in one or more of the following areas:

        Forensic Biology (serology and/or DNA)

        Drug Analysis

        Fire Debris Analysis

        Trace Evidence (hairs, fibers, paints, & polymers)

A criminalist may or may not be board certified by the ABC. They may also be trained in crime reconstruction related to their areas of specialized knowledge, though this is not always the case. Some may visit crime scenes on a regular basis, and some may never leave their lab station. Most modern criminalists will have a four-year degree of some kind, likely in a hard science like chemistry or biology. However, there are plenty of exceptions. Every lab and agency has their own unique policies and procedures about such things.

A forensic generalist is a particular kind of forensic scientist who is broadly trained in a variety of forensic specialties. They are big picture people who can help reconstruct a crime from work performed with the assistance of other forensic scientists, and then direct investigators to forensic specialists as needed. They can also make for good crime lab administrators or directors. According to DeForest, Gaensslen, & Lee (1983, p.17):

Because of the depth and complexity of criminalistics, the need for specialists in inescapable. There can be serious problems, however, with overspecialization. Persons who have a working knowledge of a broad range of criminalistics problems and techniques are also necessary. These people are called generalists. The value of generalists lies in their ability to look at all of the aspects of a complex case and decide what needs to be done, which specialists should be involved, and in which order to carry out the required examinations.

The generalist typically has broad education and training in the major forensic sciences, and will often have a masterís or doctorate level education. However, many of those claiming to be generalists have only a law enforcement background with no formal science education. These are often police technicians who have confused their role with that of forensic scientist.

As suggested, a related profession is that of evidence technician. An evidence technician (aka crime scene technician) is charged with the recognition, documentation, collection, and preservation physical evidence. Sometimes they even have training, though this is not necessarily the case. A full time evidence technician is typically not a forensic scientist, and is not necessarily qualified to examine forensic evidence and interpret its meaning. Evidence technicians may be attached to the police department, the crime lab, or the medical examiners office. They are not necessarily sworn police officers, though they can be. It is common for technicians not to have attended a four-year degree program at a college or university. Some have two year associates degrees, and still others have only on the job training with a high-school diploma or GED. In many jurisdictions, police officers must do this work themselves with little or no forensic training, for lack of specialized assistance. 

For those who wish to pursue a serious interest forensic science, beyond the headlines and the hype, Forensic Solutions recommends the following resources, as well as the publications listed below (for those who wish to start with a book, we recommend our text: Crime Reconstruction, 2nd Ed.):

Forensic Solutions Campus
Forensic solutions offers a variety of courses on subjects relating to forensic science and criminal profiling by case-working, court-qualified instructors.

Check out the course schedule and register today!

Forensic Fraud
An archive of cases involving alleged, admitted, and / or demonstrable forensic fraud by forensic experts.

Forensic Misadventure
An archive of cases involving mistakes or errors committed by forensic experts with serious consequences, unintentional and potentially intentional alike.

Careers in the Forensic Sciences FAQ
This is a guide to a variety of free resources that will help you to learn more about a Career in the Forensic Sciences.

There are many areas of study to consider.

Forensic Science Bookstore 
Your complete guide to the essential forensic science reference materials, and a convenient way to purchase them for your library.

Rape Investigation Handbook, 2nd Ed. Crime Reconstruction, 2nd Ed. Forensic Victimology Criminal Profiling, 4th Ed. Journal of Behavioral Profiling

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Last update: 06/15/11