Thanks to popular TV dramas, the most well-known forensic scientists are those working on crime scene investigation teams. Not all forensic scientists work for law enforcement. Forensic science is any science used in the legal system, including civil cases. The specific duties of a forensic scientist vary based on her employer and area of specialty.
The primary duty of a forensic scientist is to identify and scientifically analyze evidence to link the evidence to the suspect or potentially rule out a suspect. Forensic scientists must be skilled at using scientific equipment and conducting experiments. The specific experiments and equipment used varies depending on the forensic scientist's area of specialty and the evidence being analyzed. For example, microscopes may be used to compare casings from bullets to determine if they were shot from the same gun. Microscopes also may be used to compare handwriting to determine if a signature if valid or forged. Forensic scientists also may perform chemical analysis or examine data on a computer hard drive.
Forensic Science Specialties
The American Academy of Forensic Sciences recognizes multiple disciplines within forensic science: criminalistics, digital and multimedia sciences, engineering sciences, general, jurisprudence, odontology, pathology and biology, physical anthropology, psychiatry and behavioral science, questioned documents and toxicology. Criminalists are the most well-known forensic scientists and are responsible for analyzing physical evidence such as bullets, blood and hair samples, tire tracks and footprints. A forensic scientist working in questioned documents might analyze handwriting and perform chemical analysis of the document and ink. Digital and multimedia forensic scientists will analyze photographic evidence to determine if the media has been edited or to recover deleted files.
Forensic scientists must keep complete and accurate records of all evidence collected, analyzed and interpreted. In addition to detailing in a report each piece of evidence, the methods used to analyze it and the conclusions drawn from analysis, forensic scientists must maintain chain of custody paperwork. Any time evidence is transferred between departments or laboratories, the transfer must be documented to prove that evidence was not contaminated or planted.
Duties in the Courtroom
Forensic scientists testify in court as expert witnesses. In addition to testifying about their findings after examining the evidence, they also may testify about opinions based on the evaluation of the evidence and interpretation of the results. Forensic scientists must not only excel in their scientific work, they must be excellent communicators, able to take complex scientific procedures and findings and make them understandable to the jury. The work and ethics of a forensic scientist will be examined in every case, so attention to detail, honesty and impartiality are critical character traits for successful forensic scientists.
- American Academy of Forensic Sciences: What Do Forensic Scientists Do?
- American Academy of Forensic Sciences: Kinds of Forensic Science: Discipline Sections of the AAFS
- American Academy of Forensic Sciences: Criminalistics
- American Academy of Forensic Sciences: Questioned Documents
- American Academy of Forensic Sciences: Digital and Multimedia Sciences
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