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Trails of Evidence: How Forensic Science Works

Trails of Evidence: How Forensic Science Works

Professor Elizabeth A. Murray Ph.D.
Mount St. Joseph University

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Trails of Evidence: How Forensic Science Works

Trails of Evidence: How Forensic Science Works

Professor Elizabeth A. Murray Ph.D.
Mount St. Joseph University
Course No.  1190
Course No.  1190
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

Crime is as old as human society. So is the use of evidence, witnesses, and reason to solve crimes. The desire to identify lawbreakers and bring them to justice is so great that it has inspired countless stories, novels, plays, movies, and television series. But how accurate are the fictional portrayals of crime investigations? What happens behind the scenes when forensic scientists crack a case? The actual details are far more than a lesson in how detective dramas often get it wrong. Knowing how real forensic investigators approach real cases will help you

  • serve as a better juror in a criminal trial or civil lawsuit;
  • be a more effective witness if you ever see a crime take place or are a victim of one;
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Crime is as old as human society. So is the use of evidence, witnesses, and reason to solve crimes. The desire to identify lawbreakers and bring them to justice is so great that it has inspired countless stories, novels, plays, movies, and television series. But how accurate are the fictional portrayals of crime investigations? What happens behind the scenes when forensic scientists crack a case? The actual details are far more than a lesson in how detective dramas often get it wrong. Knowing how real forensic investigators approach real cases will help you

  • serve as a better juror in a criminal trial or civil lawsuit;
  • be a more effective witness if you ever see a crime take place or are a victim of one;
  • sharpen your analysis of the endless array of crime reports that fill the news;
  • think more critically in assessing the value of different types of evidence;
  • learn about a wide range of technical fields that all come to bear in the investigation of crime.

What's more, an introduction to the principles of forensic science and a look at some case studies will give you a new appreciation for law enforcement, which in recent decades has seen a revolution in its ability to determine who committed a crime, how it was done, and often, why.

Taught by veteran forensic scientist and Professor Elizabeth A. Murray of the College of Mount St. Joseph, Trails of Evidence: How Forensic Science Works takes you from the crime scene to the lab to the courtroom in 36 riveting half-hour lectures that reveal the personality and passions of an investigative mind.

Forensic Science from the Inside

One of the nation's foremost experts in forensic anthropology, Professor Murray has participated in hundreds of investigations, involving homicides, missing persons, and mass disasters. In Trails of Evidence, she draws on this extensive experience to show how forensic science works from the inside with discussions of cases such as these:

  • American Eagle Flight 4184: After a commuter plane went down in rural Indiana in 1994, Professor Murray was called to assist with identification of the victims, a daunting task that sheds light on how authorities mobilize to deal with the catastrophic loss of life.
  • The cold case of a missing teen: Four decades after police gave up trying to identify a young woman found dead in a cornfield, Professor Murray examined the evidence and reached new conclusions that helped give a name to a teenager who met a tragic fate.
  • The forgetful killer: A murder suspect agreed to take police to the spot where he buried one of his victims nearly two years earlier—except he couldn't find it. Given only a rough idea of where to search, Professor Murray used a few simple principles to locate the grave.

You also learn about landmark forensic cases that are classics in the history of crime solving, including these:

  • Lindbergh kidnapping: The abduction and killing of Charles Lindbergh's infant son left a host of puzzling clues, including a homemade ladder. When a suspect was arrested, tool marks and other distinguishing features on the ladder were crucial in establishing his guilt.
  • First use of DNA fingerprinting:The death of two teenage girls in central England in the 1980s led investigators to a strong suspect. However, a newly developed DNA technology developed at a local university exonerated an innocent man and led to the real killer.
  • Ted Bundy: This notorious serial killer perfected a modus operandi that allowed him to escape police for years. A master at hiding his tracks, he was finally convicted based largely on testimony by a forensic odontologist, who matched bite marks on a victim to Bundy's teeth.

Learn to Read the Evidence

Unlike what's shown on TV, forensic scientists do not chase down leads and question suspects. Instead, they leave the legwork to the police and use the tools of science—chemistry, biology, physics, and psychology—to uncover the story that carefully collected and analyzed evidence has to tell.

But first they have to know what to look for at a crime scene. Professor Murray begins the course by introducing Locard's exchange principle. Proposed a century ago by the French forensic scientist Edmond Locard, this important idea holds that no one can commit a crime without leaving something behind or altering the surroundings, however imperceptibly.

Armed with the assumption that clues are scattered everywhere, forensic investigators learn how to approach and evaluate an unfamiliar setting. For example, Professor Murray recounts how a police officer told her how to tell the difference between a ransacked house and a messy housekeeper just by looking in the kitchen sink.

In the first section of the course, you explore protocols for investigating a scene, and you probe some classic types of evidence:

  • Fingerprints: Learn the finer points of this venerable tool of identification, including how a common household product, Super Glue, is used to uncover latent prints.
  • Shoeprints:Footprints are more commonly left behind at crime scenes than fingerprints. Criminals can't avoid walking on a surface, even when they're careful not to touch anything with their hands.
  • Fibers:Microscopic fibers transferred to or from a crime scene have incriminated many criminals, including Wayne Williams, convicted of the Atlanta child murders in 1982.
  • Blood: TV dramas get it wrong when they show dramatic blood spatters revealed by high-tech chemistry or lighting. What real forensic scientists see is a smear, made by a perpetrator's attempt to clean up evidence.
  • Handwriting:Signs of hesitation, such as jerky starts and stops, can indicate that someone was trying to duplicate another person's handwriting by looking at a copy of it.

You also hear what goes into investigating a scene that has been nearly obliterated, whether by arson, bombing, or structural collapse. And you learn how the aftermath of an auto accident may hold all the clues needed to determine the sequence of events and who was probably at fault.

In the second part of Trails of Evidence, you focus on Professor Murray's specialty—analysis of human remains—discovering how the time of death is estimated, whether the body is discovered hours or years after the fatal event. She explains the difference between a coroner and a medical examiner. And using some powerful case histories, she describes the roles of various forensic scientists in establishing the cause and manner of death and how unknown persons are identified.

Professor Murray also delves into the psychology behind law enforcement, explaining that effective interrogation strategies are seldom as confrontational as depicted on TV. You will also hear about forensic profiling, the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, and the criminal mind. Then she takes you into the courtroom to see how evidence is presented to the final arbiters of its value: the judge and jury.

Science in Pursuit of Justice

Winner of the Sears-Roebuck Foundation Teaching Excellence and Campus Leadership Award, among other distinguished honors, Professor Murray brings to teaching the same gifts for clear, incisive, and creative thought that have made her so effective in the investigation of questionable deaths and unidentified persons.

In Trails of Evidence, she examines her subject from all angles, covering the principles and real-life practices of the diverse professions that come together in forensic science. And she offers several do-it-yourself projects that she uses with her students—from a simple exercise to test your observational skills to an experiment with blood spatter patterns that employs real-looking fake blood that you can make in the kitchen.

Not surprisingly, Professor Murray shares some of the classic qualities of her fictionalized counterparts. She is frank, meticulous, unflappable, and adept at diffusing the more shocking aspects of her work with humor. But she is also the real thing. She has witnessed firsthand the tragedy of innumerable crimes. What keeps her going is the quest to use the tools of forensic science to see that justice is done.

View Less
36 Lectures
  • 1
    Using Science—Crime Scene to Courtroom
    Professor Murray opens the course by discussing her participation in a multifaceted homicide case that illustrates the many factors that go into a forensic investigation. Learn how the scientific method is rigorously applied in the field, and survey the topics you will cover in the course. x
  • 2
    Crime Scenes and Forensic Evidence
    Locard’s exchange principle holds that every contact leaves a trace. Starting with this rule, discover how a forensic scientist approaches a crime scene. Professor Murray suggests an experiment you can perform to understand the difficulty of finding evidence in an unfamiliar setting. x
  • 3
    Fingerprint Science—Hands-Down ID
    Explore the science of fingerprint analysis, which has been a tool of forensic investigators since the late 1800s. Learn the different coding systems for classifying fingerprints, the techniques for recovering prints where they appear absent, and the innovation of computerized matching. x
  • 4
    Telltale Marks—Tools, Guns, and Ammunition
    Many people know that a gun leaves telltale marks on the bullets it fires. But firearms evidence is only part of a much broader field called toolmark analysis. Examine the ways forensic scientists match a tool to the impressions it leaves on a surface it contacts. x
  • 5
    Good Impressions—Shoes, Tires, and Skin
    Continue your study of the crime scene by looking at the importance of forensic photography and the marks made by shoes, tires, and textiles. Professor Murray describes a case in which crucial clothing impressions on a body showed a death was accidental. x
  • 6
    Forensics of Fibers, Paint, and Glass
    Turn to examples of trace evidence that can clinch a case in court—as long as samples are properly handled and analyzed. Fibers, paint, and glass fragments sometimes have a vivid story to tell about their origin and the events that left them on a victim or at a crime scene. x
  • 7
    Traces of Hair and Fur
    Hair is one of the most commonly analyzed forms of trace evidence and may contain DNA that can pin down its source. Discover that the difficulty of DNA testing makes hair more often used to rule out suspects, since hair has distinctive characteristics that are easily observable. x
  • 8
    Soil, Protist, Plant, and Animal Traces
    Enter the field of wildlife forensics, which involves not just attacks by animals on people but the many ways that evidence from nature is used to solve crimes. Soils, wood, pollen, and animal traces can all connect a person or object to a crime scene. x
  • 9
    Serology—Blood and Other Body Fluids
    What does an investigator do when a murder scene has been scrubbed spotlessly clean by the perpetrator? TV dramas often get the facts wrong. Survey the arsenal of tests for body fluids that can uncover a hidden crime. x
  • 10
    The Forensic Analysis of DNA
    Learn how DNA profiling became the gold standard in both victim and perpetrator identification, even though humans have more than 99% of their DNA in common. Professor Murray discusses the landmark case in the United Kingdom that was the first to use DNA to convict a killer. x
  • 11
    Forensic Toxicology of Drugs and Poisons
    Enter the toxicology lab to learn how drugs and poisonous substances are detected, even in minute quantities. Trace the path of drugs through the bloodstream and understand their effects. Then see how forensic scientists use sophisticated tests to identify chemicals in a victim’s body. x
  • 12
    The Forensics of Substance Abuse
    In one recent year, drug overdoses accounted for 26,000 deaths in the United States. Focus on the forensics of this serious social problem. How are drugs of abuse classified? How do they affect the body? And which regulated substances are more commonly analyzed in the forensic chemistry lab, since they’re the most frequently encountered on the street? x
  • 13
    Handwriting and Forgery Analysis
    Examine the field of questioned documents, which involves both handwriting analysis and the more scientifically conclusive procedures of materials examination. Learn the tip-offs that someone is trying to duplicate the handwriting of another, and explore the ways that some famous fakes were unmasked. x
  • 14
    Computer Forensics and Digital Evidence
    Learn how forensic investigators extract evidence from computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices. Discover the importance of slack space on a hard drive, and review how GPS tracking solved one murder that ultimately led officials to link that killer to another murder over a decade earlier. x
  • 15
    Structure Failure—Forensic Engineering
    Whenever a bridge, building, or other structure fails, forensic engineers are called in to determine what went wrong, which may show whether a crime was committed. Focus on cases such as Boston’s deadly Great Molasses Flood in 1919 and the collapse of the World Trade Center Twin Towers in 2001. x
  • 16
    Forensic Analysis of Vehicle Accidents
    Apply Newton’s laws of motion to automobile accidents, discovering what skid marks, front-end damage, and other clues reveal about the cause of a collision. Close by considering two other types of vehicle accidents: an airline crash in 1994 and the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. x
  • 17
    Fire Science and Explosion Forensics
    Probe the ashes of a smoldering building to find the telltale traces that can point to arson. Even the aftermath of a violent explosion leaves clues about what caused it. But first, it’s important to understand the physics of fire and explosives—and the motives of those who light the fuse. x
  • 18
    Blood Evidence—Stains and Spatters
    Even when a body is absent, blood leaves distinctive patterns that can tell investigators the nature of an injury, the type of weapon that made it, and sometimes the degree of culpability of the person who caused it. Review the role of blood evidence in the infamous Sam Sheppard murder trial. x
  • 19
    The Science of Death
    Begin a series of lectures on death and its aftermath by studying the end stages of life. Seldom as simple as portrayed on TV, death is a cascade of failures rather than a single event. Explore some of the many routes to this inevitable end. x
  • 20
    Death Investigation—Algor, Livor, and Rigor
    How can an investigator inspect a body and estimate the time of death? Follow the steps that the body’s systems take after life ends, including algor mortis, livor mortis, and rigor mortis. Each of these processes can help signal when death occurred and also the likely circumstances. x
  • 21
    Autopsy—Cause and Manner of Death
    Step into the morgue to understand why and how a forensic autopsy is performed. The purpose is to determine the cause and manner of death, and often to identify the victim. Much like exploratory surgery, no two autopsies are the same. x
  • 22
    Decomposition—From Bugs to Bones
    When bodies are in a state of advanced decomposition, forensic entomologists use knowledge of insect life cycles to estimate the time since death. Discover that a research center known informally as the Body Farm has turned this gruesome subject into a science. x
  • 23
    Forensic Anthropology—Skeleton Stories
    Study the science behind skeletons, learning how investigators read the clues in bones for signs of age, sex, ancestry, and trauma. Human skeletons vary widely, even in the number of bones in an individual. The standard textbook figure—206—is only an average. x
  • 24
    Forensics of Teeth and Bite Marks
    Forensic odontologists are dentists trained to use their knowledge of teeth in two ways: to identify unknown persons and to interpret bite mark evidence on victims. Learn how dental patterns can be compelling evidence and led to the murder conviction of serial killer Ted Bundy in 1979. x
  • 25
    Police Sketches and Facial Reproductions
    From wanted posters in the Old West to today’s digital face reconstructions, forensic art is an enduring tool of law enforcement. Explore the techniques artists use to create a recognizable human likeness based on limited information, and learn about the careful approaches these artists must take when interviewing witnesses. x
  • 26
    Interview, Interrogation, Intelligence
    Turn to a key component of police work that underlies all forensic investigations: evidence provided by people. Learn the differences between interviewing, interrogating, and gathering intelligence. Effective interrogation is a far less adversarial process than is portrayed on TV. x
  • 27
    Forensic Profiling—Who, How, and Why?
    Explore one of the most controversial aspects of forensics: personality profiling. Profiling can greatly narrow the field of potential suspects and aid in capturing criminals. Review cases in which this technique proved spectacularly successful and also tragically misguided. x
  • 28
    Human Memory and Eyewitness Accounts
    Eyewitness testimony carries enormous weight in court. But how reliable is it? Professor Murray describes a “crime” that she stages in front of her students to test their reliability as witnesses. Her experiences in the classroom match the unsettling findings of studies. x
  • 29
    Criminal Minds—Psychology and Psychiatry
    Dealing with human behavior is at the root of the legal system. Delve into forensic psychology and forensic psychiatry by studying the disturbing case of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Then look at how the criminal justice system evaluates insanity pleas, separating frauds from the genuinely mentally ill. x
  • 30
    When Forensic Evidence Is on Trial
    Forensic evidence must be collected, prepared, and analyzed with care, since it may wind up in court. What happens when it does? Review the history of scientific evidence, its changing acceptance by the courts, and efforts today to develop uniform standards in forensics that apply throughout the country. x
  • 31
    Forensic Scientists and Expert Testimony
    Both sides in a legal dispute have the right to good science, and Professor Murray has testified for both the prosecution and defense in different trials. Hear some of her experiences, and examine the many career pathways to becoming a forensic expert. x
  • 32
    Comparing Crimes and Crime Labs
    Turn to the subject of crime itself, exploring the different categories of homicide, assault, and property offenses. The disparity in technology around the world means that forensic science practices vary. Close by looking at a typical high-tech crime lab and the types of evidence that move through it. x
  • 33
    Crimes—Nobody’s Supposed to Get Hurt
    Get practical forensic experience by learning how to calculate when an individual is over the alcohol limit for drunk driving. Then explore the role of forensics in cases of identity theft, arson, and a famous kidnapping in which an astute victim laid the foundation for snaring his captors. x
  • 34
    Crimes—Killers of One, Killers of Many
    Analyze four tragic cases that were solved with the help of forensic evidence: the killing of eight-year-old Sarah Payne in England, the Jeffrey MacDonald triple-murder case, a 17-year string of hospital killings that appeared to be natural deaths, and the BTK (“Bind, Torture, Kill”) murder spree in Wichita, Kansas. x
  • 35
    Applications—Mass-Disaster Forensics
    What is the experience of a forensic investigator in the aftermath of a mass disaster? Professor Murray recounts her role in the analysis of the 1994 crash of American Eagle Flight 4184. Learn how mass disasters are like monumental crime scenes, in which many forensic techniques come into play. x
  • 36
    Applications—Identification Matters
    One of the most emotionally satisfying aspects of Professor Murray’s work is identifying deceased unknown persons, helping to bring answers to a victim’s family. Finish your study of forensic science with examples of her work in this area, including a nearly 40-year-old cold case that she helped solve. x

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Elizabeth A. Murray
Ph.D. Elizabeth A. Murray
Mount St. Joseph University

Dr. Elizabeth A. Murray is a forensic anthropologist and also Professor of Biology at the College of Mount St. Joseph, where she teaches doctoral-level human gross anatomy and undergraduate-level anatomy and physiology, as well as forensic science. She earned her bachelor's degree in biology from the College of Mount St. Joseph and her master's degree in anthropology and Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies in Human Biology from the University of Cincinnati. Most of Professor Murray's forensic casework has been in Ohio and Kentucky, where she has participated in hundreds of investigations. She is one of fewer than 100 anthropologists certified as a Diplomate by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. Professor Murray has been honored with the Sears-Roebuck Foundation Teaching Excellence and Campus Leadership Award, and she twice earned the Clifford Excellence in Teaching Award. She has served as an instructor for numerous organizations, including the U.S. Department of Justice, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, and the International Association of Coroners & Medical Examiners. Her television appearances include National Geographic's Buried Secrets, Discovery Health's Skeleton Stories, The New Detectives, and Forensic Files. Her book Death: Corpses, Cadavers, and Other Grave Matters was named one of the top ten summer titles for students by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Her 2012 book, Forensic Identification: Putting a Name and Face on Death, was recently selected as one of the outstanding books of 2012 by the prestigious National Science Teacher's Association.

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Rated 4.1 out of 5 by 37 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent Overview of Process Whatever your reasons, whether a novelist or just a curious mind, this course provides a detailed view of the forensic process with plenty of examples and case studies; nothing graphic. Dr. Murray knows her topic and presents it with enthusiasm. I recommend this to all interested students. December 12, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Colorful overview of forensic sciences DVD review. ©2012. Guidebook 286 pages. This course was even better than I expected. It was easy to sit through and watch lecture after lecture every day. They’re just fascinating and absorbing. Most likely you’ve seen an endless lineup of various CSI and other detective shows, so you’re probably already a bit informed, but likely misinformed to a certain degree. I think this course has wide appeal, especially to those who might be interested in this kind of career. But it’s also for people like me who just want to know about something that’s become hidden from everyday view. I think modern life has sanitized the life cycle, leaving many of us to live through these kinds of life experiences vicariously. Although a lot if this is just not dinner table fare, these tales and techniques certainly make for gripping stuff. But if the darker side of life doesn't appeal to you, perhaps you should steer clear. That's perfectly understandable. The forensics field is much larger than I had thought and serves as a very thorough introduction to the field. Professor Murray often cites from cases within her personal work history and family life, so it was also very personal and moving. She does a very good job of illustrating the daily work of forensic scientists, and you really get more than a glimpse of what the job entails, both the coll and the macrabe. It also makes you wonder how they go home at night, as it seems impossible not to take your work home with you. She uses quite a few dry jokes and puns throughout, and that makes an otherwise morbid and heavy topic more bearable. No doubt, she’d be a colorful neighbor or dinner party guest. A few lectures were more intriguing than others, but overall, I was satisfied. For most lectures, you get about 20-25 minutes of background science and 5-10 minutes of a infamous crime to illustrate the topic. Near the end of the course you get a number of longer case studies that often draw on several previous lectures. A few, like the Charles Urschel kidnapping, were really interesting. I’d say that there are about 25 or so lectures devoted to hard science that come to mind when we think of forensics, and there are 3-4 that cover soft sciences that seem to fall into the discipline of criminology, like courtroom formalities and interviewing/interrogating, etc. These were less interesting, but they do add to the knowledge base of forensics. The DVDs were enjoyable. There were a fairly large number of pictures and generic graphics that made the course much more memorable for me. However, I suspect audio listeners wouldn’t feel like they’re missing that much. Either would do, but I’m glad to have gotten the DVDs. The Guidebook is thick and comprehensive. The bibliography is extensive, but I won’t be following up on any of them. They mostly seem like classroom textbooks. In closing, it was fun and informative. October 28, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Expounds on newer information Unbeknownst to me I had seen a disc about Murray's previous work, that of finding the graves of the Granitos, Guatemalan murder victims from the Iran-Contra, etc. era. Being a woman who couldn't get into the field when I graduated in 1989 in Penna. I really enjoyed the update on what is taught to students now. It is not scary or full of dead bodies. This goes far beyond the Body Farm because now we require even cops to know chemistry. Enjoyable because it mentions where forensics has failed and why. Good for lawyers, also!! October 25, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Strongly recommended, with some concerns... Entertaining, lively, extremely educational series of lectures, as Dr Elizabeth Murray explains exactly what is real in crime scene analysis and related investigations... and what is "Hollywood/TV". This includes everything from fingerprints and blood, trace materials, computer evidence, ballistics, to corpses and body parts. You'll learn how investigators record, analyse and interpret crime scenes, how they conduct interrogations and prepare evidence for presentation in court. Dr Murray gives interesting and informative historic sidebars of various extensively-used procedures in forensic evidence, e.g. fingerprints, hairs and fibres, incorporating sharp, colourful graphics and clips which are immensely useful. This is a truly compelling, fascinating course, ably presented by a recognised expert in her field. Perhaps not advised for anyone particularly squeamish, however... otherwise: STRONGLY RECOMMENDED! And now a few criticisms: The intrusive music & sound-effects (dings, whooshes, loud crashes, riffs) are awfully irritating and distracting. I hope this is not a trend with Great Courses; I'm heading quickly towards my 200th course and I've noted this "noise" factor a few times in recent recordings. Improved production quality and greater use of graphics & videos are deeply appreciated, but please don't introduce factors that may annoy or alienate the buyer. Dr Murray used the term "more unique" in talking of fingerprints and later about paint layering. She also used the term "most unique" in referring to the medulla of non-human hair. These egregrious misuses of "unique" are not merely pedantic grammatical points, but serious factual inaccuracies. The adjective "unique" is an absolute: one thing cannot be "more unique" than another, just as one person cannot be more dead than another! And there's no need to say "There I go again, making criminals smarter" time after time after time after time after time after time!! The course seems to have been padded out to fill 36 lectures; I felt it could easily have moved at a much brisker pace, with less editorial from the professor and more actual case material. October 16, 2014
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