Body of evidence

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By If you think you can cajole tales out of dead men, forensic science could be your calling, says Reena Martins
  • Published 11.01.06

At St Xavier’s College in Mumbai, the senior students of a certificate course in forensic science create a murder mystery for their juniors to solve. On the terrace of the building lies the dead man (a chalk sketch on the floor). A blood-stained wooden stick lies on his right. At his feet are the shards of a broken bulb, which the dead man apparently tried to fix minutes before he lost his balance and fell. Around the body are the muddy footprints of the burglar who killed the man, hitting him with a wooden stick.

If you think you can cajole tales out of dead men, forensic science could be your calling. Apart from a sound knowledge of science, a forensic scientist, says Dr J.D. Pande, director, Forensic Science Laboratory, Nashik, would need to display a lot of mental tenacity as well. This is especially true of forensic pathologists, who deal with mutilated bodies and foul-smelling visceral samples. A good forensic scientist also needs to be a good psychologist, “opining on the crime on the spot; and interacting with the witnesses/complainants,” Dr Pande adds.

Forensic scientists, sometimes called crime laboratory analysts, provide scientific information and expert opinion to judges, juries, and lawyers. They specialise in a particular area such as criminalistics (which includes DNA testing), engineering, forensic medicine, forensic odontology, forensic anthropology, forensic toxicology, questioned document examination, firearm and tool mark examination, fingerprint examination and so on.

Given that criminal evidence is accepted only from government laboratories in India, this is where most of the career options in forensic science would lie. “One could start as a junior scientific assistant in any of the state forensic science laboratories, on a salary of about Rs 8,000 to Rs 10,000, which could rise to about Rs 25,000 when one becomes a director of the lab,” says Dr B.M. Mohan, director of the State Forensic Science Laboratory, Bangalore. One could also join any of the four central forensic laboratories in Delhi, Calcutta, Chandigarh and Hyderabad.

To get a job in government laboratories, a candidate has to enrol in an employment exchange or clear a Public Services Commission exam.

So apart from a postgraduate degree in forensic science, what are the pre-requisites for someone interested in making a career in the field? Says Riva Pocha, a forensic scientist who conducts a certificate course in forensics at St Xavier’s College, “You need to be someone who loves science, fights for justice, is systematic and has an eye for detail.”

Forensic scientists can also make their mark in “law schools or corporate houses,” says Dr Rukmani Krishnamurthy, director, State Forensic Science Laboratory, Mumbai. In fact, realising the value of forensics in security agencies, the National Resource Centre for Forensic Psychology, Gujarat, has been organising training programmes in forensics for members of the judiciary, police and security personnel.

Universities that offer
degrees in forensic science
Dr Harisingh Gour University, Sagar, Madhya Pradesh

Punjabi University, Patiala

University of Mysore, Karnataka

Osmania University, Hyderabad

Bureau of Police Research & Development, Govt of India, New Delhi

National Law University, Jodhpur

• University of Madras, Chennai

Apart from the technicalities of crime detection, one of the major lessons of the training, says Captain V.P. Sharma, security manager, Union Bank, Ahmedabad, is the importance of preserving evidence.

To be sure, in the field of crime investigation, as a forensic scientist you would be far from likely to walk away with the attention that investigating police officers draw. But you could be a very supportive member of the cast. Acknowledges M.N. Singh, former commissioner of police, Mumbai, “Crime investigation is not intuitive work based on hit and miss methods but on a very scientific process. Physical evidence has to be tested, analysed and processed, to arrive at a conclusion. Forensic science is evolving into a major field.”

The meticulous piecing together of evidence by many a forensic expert has also helped solve crimes from little or no evidence. A headless body found on a suburban Mumbai train in the mid-seventies was given a name and identity, thanks to investigations by forensic scientists. This was done by matching the fingerprints of the corpse (by dissecting the superficial layer of the skin) with that of those on police records. The body belonged to a criminal.

In this case, the specialisation of forensic science that came into play was fingerprinting. In a country where criminals often go barefoot, analysis of seemingly invisible clues like footprints plays an important role in connecting the culprit with the crime.

A few decades ago, forensic scientists reassembled and reconstructed a skeleton found in a septic tank in one of Mumbai’s western suburbs ? helping ascertain its owner’s sex, height and age and cause of death, namely, stabbing. From skeletons, one can also tell whether the victim died of poisoning, violence or bone disease.

DNA analysis is another means used by forensic scientists to identify bodies, using bone marrow, tissue matter, blood stains or body fluids. “Widely used in ascertaining parentage, this method has proven effective in solving the kidnapping of newborns,” says Dr J.M. Vyas, Director, Directorate of Forensic Science, Gujarat.

Solving mysteries

The role of forensic science is especially pronounced in the absence of witnesses. At the turn of the seventies, forensic science also helped solve the famous Joshi-Abhyankar murder case which rocked Pune, largely on the basis of material evidence (the cloth used for gagging the victims, which turned out to be part of the murderer’s kurta) which when reconstructed led to further clues.

But forensics is as much about anatomy as it is about common sense and caution. “Knowledge of forensics can save anyone,” says Dr Krishnamurthy. “If people are alert, many crimes can be averted,” she says.

Keeping up with times

Over the decades, forensic science has had to keep up with techno-savvy criminals. Therefore, the approach to solving crime has taken a more holistic approach, involving specialists from the various sciences ? biochemistry, chemistry, physics, computer science and psychiatry. And at a time when criminals have started leaving little or no evidence at the scene of crime, the future, Dr Vyas says, lies in forensic psychology ? which exposes the psyche of the criminal, bringing to light the truth in a manner no third-degree method could. Psychological profiling tests “help understand the intra-psychic world of the accused,” says Dr S.L. Vaya, the principal investigator at the National Resource Centre for Forensic Psychology.