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Amazing Advances in Forensic Science, Part 3: Firearms and Ballistics

In the 1980s, all we had to check ballistics nationwide was the “Drugfire” program administered by the FBI. It had been initiated during the drug wars of the 1980s to track murders and killers using the same gun. Today, we have the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) and presently every gunshot case sent to the FBI or ATF is on file.

Thousands of bullets that have been read by laser and coded for computer storage are on file using the technology provided by the Integrated Ballistic Identification System (IBIS). Developed by Forensic Technology Inc., IBIS is an image analysis system for acquiring, storing and analyzing the images of bullets and cartridge cases.

IBIS is Forensic Technology’s cornerstone product and has proven to be one of the impressive advances in forensic science and criminalistics. The System is comprised of two modules: Bulletproof for bullets and Brasscatcher for cartridge cases. IBIS captures video images of bullet striations and the markings left on cartridge cases, which produce an electronic “signature” stored in a database. Networking hardware and software allow transfers and comparisons of forensic evidence from different cities and countries.

Gunshot Residue Testing

The most effective gunshot residue testing in the past was done with the scanning electronic microscope and atomic absorption with SEM-EDX capability. Today ASPEX has become the world leader in gun shot residue testing. When a weapon is fired or discharged, it produces a residue from the combustion of the primer and powder in the shell cartridge.

Residue may adhere to the skin or clothing of the person who discharged the firearm, or on other people and objects in close proximity at the scene. The major primer elements are lead (Pb), barium (Ba) or antimony (Sb). Gunshot residue (GSR) is normally a combination of gunpowder and lead residues. As lead-free primers are becoming increasingly common (lead is replaced by aluminum and strontium), new methods are required to handle GSR analysis.

Traditional approaches would no longer be useful, but ASPEX GSR can be configured to detect, classify and report on new types of ammunition. The Aspex GSR Analyzer is a dedicated system capable of performing high throughput analysis of GSR samples. The Perception software platform seamlessly integrates the SEM and the EDS components for a fast and accurate analysis. We have certainly come a long way from Trace Metal Detection or Neutron Activation Analysis tests of years ago, which gave mixed results.

Cell Phone Technology

Thirty years ago, cell phones were not a major player like today. The first generation of cell phones began in 1973 with a Motorola hand-held analogue model. The first commercial cell phone service began in 1983 and the devices were basically “bag phones.” The first modern network technology began in the 1990s with the introduction of the Motorola StarTac flip phone in 1996.

Wireless technology for cell phones has existed for a long time, but it was only very recently that cell phones themselves became practical and popular. In fact, wireless technology has made huge advancements in the last five years and it continues to do so. Cell phones are quickly becoming one of the most widely used pieces of technology in the world.

Initially cell phones were only used to send and receive calls but with a fast influx of new technology, they are a lot more that just a phone. Everyday a new cell phone enters the market with a new amazing feature. First, it was games for your phone, next came the digital camera and then after that the video camera and these are just a few forms of technology to make their way onto today’s cell phones. What used to be a tool for making and receiving calls now has the ability to do much more.

From an investigative standpoint, the cell phone has become a crucial source of information. Cell phone technology is giving detectives leads in cases that they may not have had before. Today the newer phones are being equipped with the global-positioning technology that pinpoints the user’s location within dozens of yards.

As the hand-held devices grow smarter and hold more and various kinds of data, they become something like highly mobile closets of information such as contacts, images and text conversations. Police can use the cell records to track the owner’s movements, which can establish or refute an alibi. It’s a valuable tool in law enforcement’s toolbox as the investigators ask questions such as, “Who do you know?” and “Who have you been talking to?”

The science of recovering digital evidence from mobile phones, using forensically sound conditions and accepted methods, is called mobile phone forensics. In general, forensic science is the application of scientific principles for legal, investigative and public policy purposes. Digital forensic science refers to the preservation, acquisition, examination, analysis and reporting of electronic data collected and stored on computer and network systems and on many digital devices.

Time of Death Breakthroughs

The bacterial putrefaction of the human body is a progressive breakdown of complex biological compounds into smaller and simpler ones. Scientists can now make determinations of the time of death based on microbial digestion of the body’s proteins, which produce chemical compounds.

Scientists have isolated 30 compounds specifically linked to decomposition in buried bodies.

Researchers from the University of Tennessee have identified these compounds which are uniquely human. This breakthrough will immediately be useful in creating chemicals to train cadaver dogs.

The future of forensics in recognizing the 30 human compounds of decomposition will be the development of hand-held devices, which will draw in the air with a pump to concentrate and analyze samples, which will provide an estimated time of death.

In a similar study, a group of scientists of the University of Granada has developed a new technique of forensic dating based on thermo-microbiology, which will allow more accurately the time of a death which has not occurred under controlled natural conditions or as a consequence of a crime.

This new system, of great interest in the field of criminology, establishes correspondences between the parameters of micro-organic growth on cadaverous remains and dates the time of death of such remains, as well as their relation with their temperature.

They have used new thermographical and weather measurement tools, and they have applied traditional microbiological methods with a new approach. The purpose was to make easier the analysis of the stages of cadaverous decomposition and putrefaction, connecting them with the model of growth/death of the microorganisms, responsible for the post-mortem alterations. The aim of this work, in short, is to establish a microbiological indicator to determine the time of death.

Vernon Geberth, M.S., M.P.S., is a homicide and forensic consultant and the former commander of NYPD’s Bronx Homicide. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Oct 2010

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