Culture & Literature
The Science of True Crime

The Science of True Crime

The Science of True Crime

This BBC Focus Special Edition reveals the cutting-edge techniques being used to catch criminals... IN THIS ISSUE… Understand how forensic science works How psychological profiling changed the FBI The DNA detectives solving unsolved crimes How brain injuries can create criminals Take a test to see if you are a psychopath How maths can help predict terrorist attacks Robocops: the future of crime fighting

United Kingdom
Immediate Media Company London Limited
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in this issue

1 min.
guilty pleasures

Most of us have a morbid fascination with crime. We may not like ourselves for it, but we can’t help clicking on a news story about a serial killer or watching just a bit of a gory documentary as we flick through the channels. Why? What’s the allure? It’s the spectacle – just like we ‘rubber neck’ a traffic accident on the motorway, a serial killer’s actions may horrify us but we struggle to look away, because we get a hit of adrenaline. Plus, we love to be scared – provided it’s in a protected environment. From the safety of your sofa you can get the heart pumping watching some horrific crime drama. And a series lets you join in the fun of solving the crime as the episodes unfold. We’re even…

9 min.
forensic science

WHAT IS FORENSIC SCIENCE? Any scientific process used as part of a criminal investigation is considered forensic science. This spans both the grim, grisly procedures of the autopsy room and the cutting-edge analysis of a crime scene. But it also encompasses the less glamorous, painstaking lab work of DNA profiling, fingerprint analysis and the uncovering of hidden digital files. There is even such a thing as forensic accountancy. WHAT TECHNIQUES ARE USED TO SOLVE CRIMES TODAY? The bulk of modern forensic work involves the analysis of DNA or fingerprints left at a crime scene. In murder cases, forensic autopsies help work out how a person died. A range of more specialised and elaborate forensic techniques can be used to identify suspects in the most serious cases, such as tracking serial killers or terrorists. These…

1 min.
jargon buster

DNA PHENOTYPING Something of a holy grail for forensic scientists, DNA phenotyping creates a ‘photofit’ image based on a DNA sample alone. But the technique is still being developed. DNA PROFILING A person’s DNA profile is not simply their entire DNA sequence, which is billions of letters long. Instead, profiling compares the DNA in around a dozen highly variable stretches of the human genome. ENTOMOLOGY The study of insects. Forensic entomologists can work out the time of a victim’s death by studying the types of insects feeding on their corpse. LOOPS, WHORLS AND ARCHES These are the classic patterns made by the ridges of skin in a fingerprint. Fingerprints are still commonly used to identify suspects today. MATCH PROBABILITY This complicated calculation essentially gives the probability of a forensic match occurring by chance – for example, the likelihood that…

1 min.
what we still don’t know

WHO OWNS OUR DNA? Police forces have been compiling large databases of DNA profiles for years, sometimes from people they’ve arrested but then released. Having the DNA profile of everyone in the country is a detective’s dream, but others say it turns everyone into a suspect. With DNA-testing companies and the NHS also collecting DNA samples en masse, there’s no easy answer to the question of who actually owns your genetic code, or what they can do with it. HOW TO POLICE THE DIGITAL WORLD Government security agencies are locked in a battle with technology giants over how to access evidence they say is crucial to preventing terrorism. Amazingly, even the FBI’s digital experts can’t unlock encrypted iPhones without the help of Apple. Even more worrying for security services is the burgeoning art…

1 min.
explain it to a friend

1 IT’S NOTHING LIKE ON TV Forensic science, especially DNA analysis, can often involve tedious laboratory work – something that TV programmes usually neglect to show. For forensic evidence to hold up under scrutiny in court, every stage of the process – collection, handling, storage and analysis – must be conducted to impeccable scientific standards. 2 PRINTS AND PROFILES DNA and fingerprints are the most commonly used forensic evidence in criminal investigations. Apart from identical twins, no two people have the same DNA, and DNA samples are compared at points where the human genome is known to be incredibly varied. Fingerprints are still used, though, as they’re cheaper to process and more likely to indicate what someone has been doing. 3 EXTRAORDINARY EVIDENCE A huge range of materials can be collected and analysed to match…

1 min.
anatomy of a modern crime scene

1 FINGERPRINTS Prints can be recovered from surfaces. Their position helps detectives sequence events. 2 INSECTS Insects on the body can help to determine when the victim died. Blowflies and then maggots arrive first, followed by beetles. 3 SALIVA There may be visible bodily fluids, but DNA can be collected from less obvious sources, such as a drinking glass. 4 VEGETATION Pollen and spores from plants and fungi can stick to clothes or car tyres, linking suspects to a precise location. 5 FOOTMARKS Forensics can recover a footmark that’s almost invisible to the eye. 6 DIGITAL FOOTPRINT With our smartphones, travel cards and online activity, most of us now leave a digital trace that can be easily followed. Listen to The Life Scientific with a forensic entomologist discussing how her knowledge of insects helps solve crimes bbc.in/2SNRkxc…