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Chipping clues to crack crime

A couple of years ago a young man was found murdered in a posh apartment on Beach Road. By the time the heinous crime was noticed and the police were informed, the corpse turned stiff and cold, like a block of ice, and the blood that gushed out of his slit throat was clotted to give a gory blackish colour. Examining the body the investigating officer understood that the crime must have been committed just a couple of hours ago.

During the inquest, the police realised that the youth was a businessman from Rajasthan, who was staying alone. Like every other rich man of his age he had led a carefree life and had many friends that included couple of young women and foreign students from Andhra University. The crime scene baffled even the experienced officers as nothing seemed to have been disturbed nor was there any sign of struggle or resistance. They were left clueless. The only conclusion that they could draw was that the person who committed the crime must have been known to the victim as the deceased was dressed in casuals and must have allowed the killer into his apartment that had an automatic locking system. The criminal must have seized the opportunity of surprise to slit the throat of the victim from behind, and later walked away after removing all material evidences like fingerprints and the weapon used.

It is generally believed that every criminal leaves behind some clue, which is up to the intelligence and the experience of the investigator to recognise and follow up. In this case, the only clue that the police could salvage was a small smudge of blood that looked like a footprint with stud marks, a little away from the actual scene of offence, which the perpetrator of the crime tried to erase hastily.

While the Crime Branch officials were busy reconstructing the crime scene, a Jordanian was trying to sell a gold fish pendant usually worn by affluent Indians from the north. This raised curiosity in the pawnbrokers mind and he informed the police. The police immediately swung into action and arrested the Jordanian. Not getting a satisfactory explanation, the cops raided his hostel and recovered a pair of shoes that had similar stud marks the impression of which was found in that flat.

That bit of evidence was sufficient to implicate him in the murder case. The shoes were sent for forensic examination and a few stains of blood that was left unwashed matched with that of the victim. On further questioning, he admitted the guilt. The motive: they killer and the victim loved the same girl.

Just imagine if the killer hadn't overstepped on the victim's blood and if the police hadn't recorded it and sent it for forensic examination. He would have been in Jordan by now enjoying life instead of cooling his heels in a jail in India.

Forensic science begins at the crime scene. If the investigator cannot recognise, collect and package evidence properly, no amount of equipment or expertise can incriminate any criminal in the absence of any direct evidence.

The use of forensic labs and scientific crime detection methods were first popularised by Arthur Conan Doyle through his legendary Sherlock Holmes. It was Holmes who first applied the then developing principles of serology, fingerprinting, firearm identification and ballistic reports, long before their value was first recognised, accepted and implemented by real life crime investigators.

According to the Indian Penal Code (IPC) all investigations start with the collection of evidence, be it a murder, robbery, bomb blast or a simple case of forgery. Evidence is again broadly categorised into two segments, direct evidence like eyewitness account and material evidence or circumstantial evidence like fingerprints, blood stains and weapons.

As an automobile runs on gasoline forensic labs run on the material evidence. Material evidence or physical evidence encompasses any and all object that can establish that a crime has been committed or can provide a link between a crime and its victim or a crime and its perpetrators. But if physical evidence is to be effectively used for aiding the investigator, its presence must first be recognised at the crime scene. The investigating officer must have thorough knowledge of the crime scene, methods of collection of evidence and crime laboratory techniques, capabilities and limitations.

Collection of evidence which forms the vital part of any investigation differs from crime to crime, and it also depends on the location and gravity of the crime. Like in the case of a robbery the main physical evidence would be fingerprints. Francis Galton (1822-1911), who invented the technique of fingerprinting, assured the world that no two fingerprints in the world would be identical. "Fingerprints collected at the spot are sent for matching with the records available at the Fingerprint Analysis and Crime Tracking System (FACTS). These records are available in district, State, national and international database systems and form the most important evidence for any crime like murder, rape, dacoity or any economic offence. I still remember an interesting case in this context. A decade ago there was a major gold heist from a noted jewellery shop in Chennai. The robbers wiped out all clues, including fingerprints, before leaving the scene, except for one fingerprint in a corner. As it did not match with any of the inmates of the shop it was presumed that it belonged to one of the offenders. Tracking the lead, the Crime Branch officers from Chennai reached me after a few months. On examining the print and verifying the old records manually as there were no computers then, we concluded that it belonged to one small time mechanic whom I arrested 20 years ago for a petty crime in Vijayawada. That's the power of forensic science," says S. Rama Rao, Assistant Commissioner of Police (crime), Visakhapatnam.

Likewise in case of homicide, suicide, rape or dacoity any item found after scanning the area, can become a significant physical evidence. Hair, blood stains and samples, documents, fragments of skin or fibers from nail clippings, semen and saliva, organic and inorganic fluids, powder residues, bullet casings, weapons, fingerprints, footprints, soil, impressions or any other thing that may look peculiar to the investigating authorities is the potential physical evidence, according to forensic scientists.

"Crime or offence is basically divided into two categories, grave and non-grave. Murder (IPC 302), attempt to murder (307), rape (376), dacoity (395), dacoity coupled with murder (397) and kidnapping for ransom (366 A) come under grave crimes. In such crimes, physical evidences that are collected from the scene and which are matched and certified by forensic experts are enough to imprison the accused for life and can also support a verdict for capital punishment depending on the gravity of the offence, even in the absence of direct evidence and establishment of motive," says U.S.R. Raju, a former Public Prosecutor.

Forensic science can also help in solving economic offences. A well- equipped forensic lab can detect forgery, match handwritings, decipher secretive writings and decode various other clues that are unseen by naked eyes.

If forensic labs give the minutest details of the crime committed, the branch of forensic medicine supports its findings especially in homicide and suicide cases by establishing the time of death and the probable cause of death. A careful examination of the corpse by the coroner will reveal details like, the amount of struggle involved before death, severity of the wound, whether the wound was inflicted post mortem or ante mortem or whether the victim was raped before death. Basing on the forensic science and medicine reports it is up to the investigating officer to reconstruct the scene of crime and probe the motive behind to apprehend the wrongdoer.

One thing is certain that crime labs do not solve crimes, only supplement and quicken the investigation process. But its findings are considered to be authentic and are accepted by courts of law everywhere. Moreover, its development over the years is not only a check on the criminals but all such people who think that they can get away with their act. For instance, its latest DNA matching techniques had the audacity not only to challenge the statement of the world's most powerful President but also made him confess to his guilt and apologise (remember Monica Lewinsky case).

Forensic techniques can not only determine and give clues to crimes of recent times but it can exhume and delve into the past, dating back to thousands of years. And using such techniques like DNA testing and examining dental and bone structures, archaeologists and forensic scientists could come to a conclusion that one of the exhumed mummies from the valley of death in Egypt was that of Prince Tutankhamum of Egypt, who was murdered 2,500 years ago. They could even reconstruct exactly how the crime was committed by examining his mummy.

Wrongdoers beware, because forensic science is here to pin you down.

SUMIT BHATTACHARJEE

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