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Law school has all but ruined my love for the prime-time law drama. No one ever follows the rules. Not only do these shows run fast and loose with the law, but they take great liberties with forensic science. Detectives solve complicated, outrageous crimes quickly and neatly, usually after some geek in a lab coat uses the “solve-it-all-tromater” to pull evidence out of thin air and locate a suspect on a comprehensive government data base. In reality, legal rules and scientific capabilities put real limitations on solving the “whodunit.”
Recently, however, reality moved a little bit closer to the science fiction of TV investigation. Researches in Scotland have figured out how to lift fingerprints from clothing for use in criminal prosecutions. Traditionally, fingerprints could only be lifted from hard surfaces, but researchers applied similar techniques to generate fingerprints from clothing. The technique works best on smooth fabrics like high-count weaves, silks, and polyester, but researchers are optimistic that the breakthrough represents the “tip of the iceberg” and that refining the technology will permit investigators to lift prints from virtually any smooth surface.
Currently, the process is far from perfect — in fact, more than half the time it does not generate a usable, identifiable fingerprint. However, even if the print is not complete enough for comparison to suspect, having any print at all can help investigators figure out what happened, even without identifying a culprit. Fingerprints and hand prints lifted from fabrics can shed light on whether someone jumped or was pushed from a balcony, or the general size of a suspect.
Prosecutors everywhere recognize and lament the problems inaccurate crime related shows cause, calling it the “CSI effect.” Ubiquitous crime-solving shows have polluted the juror pool, making jurors expect technologically captivating, rock-solid, slam dunk cases. Although trials are much less flashy than these expectations, this fingerprinting breakthrough could provide the prosecution with one more tool to give the jury the pizazz they expect. I for one, would be quite impressed if a forensic team was able to lift fingerprints from the inside of cloth gloves discarded by the perpetrator at the scene of his crime.
– Rachel Purcell
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