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Principles and practice of crime scene

Week 1
Principles and practice of crime scene investigation –
introduction – B – Video Transcript

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Introduction to forensic science

Although we hedged about defining forensic science, we can define its purpose as being "to provide
objective information on which reliable, evidence-based decisions can be made." Forensic science
deals with what is known as real or physical evidence. That is evidence based on the discovery and
examination of material sources, in contrast to testimonial or documentary evidence, which is
someone's verbal or written account of something.

For example, the statements of Mr. Dougan and Mr. Ward that were taken by the police are
testimonial evidence. But there is an expectation that real evidence will arise from the postmortem,
from the examination of the car at the crime scene unit's garage, and possibly from this search of
the grounds next to where the car was found.

Even if we accept that real evidence is more reliable than testimonial evidence, this does not mean
that it is absolute or infallible. However it has another valuable property, namely that it opens up a
huge range of potential evidence that is unseen or unrecognised by the layperson, including police
officers. In the words of Dr. Paul Kirk, who was head of the criminology and then the criminalistics
programme at Berkeley University, "whatever the criminal leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as
a silent witness against him."

The quote from Kirk in 1974 is a restatement of a concept enshrined in traditional crime scene
investigation, the Locard exchange principle, usually summarised as, "every contact leaves a trace."
The idea is that contact between people and objects or people and other people will always result in
the transfer of traces, such as hairs, fibres, and DNA. And these will then provide evidence to link
the accused to the scene and victim.

Locard did not actually say this. And there are many issues with the concept, ranging from the
epistemological concerns surrounding "every" to the practical issues of finding the transferred
materials and how to interpret them.

The South Australian case of Edward Charles Splatt provides some good illustrations of these
issues. Mr. Splatt was convicted of the 1977 rape and murder of Mrs. Rosa Amelia Simper in
Adelaide. All of the evidence linking him to the murder scene in Mrs. Simper's bedroom fell into the
Locard category. It included very characteristic microscopic particles found on his clothing and at
the scene.

However the original source of the particles was a factory adjacent to Mrs. Simper's home and
where Mr. Splatt worked. There was nothing that specifically linked the particles at the scene to Mr.
Splatt rather than to environmental contamination. But this was not mentioned in any reports or in
the evidence led at the trial. Mr. Splatt had his conviction overturned in 1984 following a Royal

The Splatt case illustrates that the Locard exchange principle is not a law of nature nor an ever
present tool of the forensic scientist. But neither is it devoid of meaning. If we return to the quotation
from Kirk, we could take a more pragmatic view that real evidence can indeed function as the silent
witness and allow us to view things in the context of the story that they can tell.

To achieve that, we first of all need to identify and recover those material objects at the scene that
will be the basis of the derived real evidence and do so in a way that is itself reliable. This requires
that the actions taken at the scene are designed to control, preserve, record, and recover to allow
us to reconstruct the events that created the crime scene, either by themselves or with the aid of the
examination of the recovered materials. We will explore, control, preserve, record, and recover in
part two and reconstruct in part three.

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