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Book Review of Physical Evidence in Forensic Science (Lee and Harris) by Heckman (Forensic Science Communications, October 2000)

Book Review of Physical Evidence in Forensic Science (Lee and Harris) by Heckman (Forensic Science Communications, October 2000)


October 2000 - Volume 2 - Number 4

Book Review

Physical Evidence in Forensic Science
by Henry C. Lee and Howard A. Harris
Lawyers & Judges Publishing Co., Inc., Tucson, Arizona, 2000
ISBN 1-930056-00-1 (casebound) 1-930056-01-x (soft cover)

Physical Evidence in Forensic Science functions well as an introduction to forensic science, but it attempts to address too much subject matter in too small a space. The reader, consequently, is left with a general overview of a complex field and a somewhat cursory knowledge of the forensic analysis of evidence. Readers with some background in forensic science but no formal training, however, will find Physical Evidence in Forensic Science an informative and useful tool in understanding the elements and range of crime scene investigations and forensic analyses.

Divided into three parts, Physical Evidence in Forensic Science presents general descriptions of the types of physical evidence encountered at crime scenes, itemizes the laboratory analyses for specific types of physical evidence, and provides information about the legal aspects of forensic science. Moving from the well-organized, multi-leveled content summary to an examination of the actual text, however, the reader may discover a more superficial treatment of the subject matter than anticipated.

Part One, "General Concepts in Forensic Science," describes and classifies the variety of evidence handled by investigators and forensic scientists and outlines the role of physical evidence in the analysis and reconstruction of crime scenes. True to its title, this section serves as an overview of the subfields of forensic science and provides core information about the responsibilities of forensic examiners working with latent print, document, DNA, firearms, anthropologic, odontologic, toxicologic, and other evidence. This section of the book functions well as an introduction to the text, but it is somewhat distracting as a result of its abundant headings and subheadings, which are accompanied by disproportionately short segments of text information.

The bulk of material presented in Physical Evidence in Forensic Science is contained in Part Two, "Laboratory Analysis of Physical Evidence." This section separates forensic evidence into chapters by topic and includes, but is not limited to, arson and fire evidence, biological and chemical evidence ranging from blood, bite marks, and body fluids to drugs, explosives, and paint, fibers, firearms, imprints and impressions, soil, toolmarks, and video evidence. Each type of evidence is described with regard to collection, preservation, and packaging, and the authors are especially thorough in their discussion of the steps required prior to submitting evidence to a forensic facility. The nature and purpose of the laboratory examinations that can be performed on each type of evidence are also provided, although these descriptions often suffer from a lack of procedural detail. Individuals new to the field or reading recreationally will find the laboratory testing sections interesting and adequate, but those expecting to find intensive information or protocols for individual examinations will be disappointed. This same assumption of the reader's familiarity with the techniques and terminology of forensic science is evident throughout Part Two, which would have benefited from the expanded definition of key words and other terms not likely to be recognized by the average reader.

Physical Evidence in Forensic Science does not provide a definitive section or chapter on safety or safety guidelines. A short discussion of biohazardous materials and diseases can be found within the blood evidence section of Part Two, which also offers a brief set of precautionary measures and guidelines for investigators, but this presentation may not be seen by readers skimming or using the book as a quick reference. Given that Part Two's focus is the handling and processing of evidence at crime scenes and in laboratories, a subsection containing detailed safety information would have been appropriate.

Although Harris and Lee recognize forensic science as "science in the service of the law," their treatment of legal matters in this field is surprisingly brief. Most of Part Three, "Legal Aspects of Forensic Science," is devoted to the seizure of evidence for use in court, and although it does provide useful information concerning the proper means for executing search warrants, it fails to address many of the current and pressing issues facing the forensic community. The discussion of Daubert and its impact on scientific evidence, for example, occupies only three paragraphs of this section, whereas chain of custody is restricted to one paragraph, and Frye hearings receive no mention at all.

The references provided by the authors are noteworthy in that barely one third of the listed works were published during the 1990s. Given the wealth of information published in more recent books and journals, especially in response to technological advances in such fields as DNA analysis and forensic chemistry, it is surprising that the authors did not use newer references instead of or in addition to those cited.

Readers unfamiliar with forensic science will no doubt be impressed by the table of contents of Physical Evidence in Forensic Science. They will correctly assume that this book will provide them with a good working knowledge of the many aspects of forensic evidence, as well as its value in the courtroom. More information about individual topics could have been provided, however, and lengthier discussions would have been possible had the material been divided into two companion volumes (scientific and legal) rather than condensed into one book. As a comprehensive reference in forensic science, especially for those experienced or working in the field, this book falls short.

Reviewed by: Robert J. Heckman
  Training Instructor
  Forensic Science Training Unit
  Federal Bureau of Investigation
  Quantico, Virginia

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