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Dick Bisbing

The Forensics of the Night: The CSI Effect and The Microscopy and Microanalysis of Trace Evidence

Dick Bisbing


“The game's afoot:  Follow your spirit, . . .”
[Henry V, Act 3, Scene 1]

The CSI Effect has had a remarkable influence on the practice of forensic science, public policy, the educational interests of our young people and, therefore, on my own career.  It all started unexpectedly with the murder of Ron Goldman late one night and the subsequent trial of O.J. Simpson where The CSI Effect germinated and, for the first time, where DNA evidence was publicly revealed.  Now, everybody wants to be a forensic scientist.  
I recently watched again some of the first C.S.I. episodes and immediately remembered that the setting and music is dark, mysterious and seductive—it’s what I now call forensics of the night.  Nevertheless, having no other life outside of his expertise in all matters microscopical, Gil Grissom (actor William Petersen) brightened up my day a little with some sensible and wise forensic philosophy that will ring true with forensic scientists.  On the other hand, I was more often irritated by the fictional portrayal of forensic evidence by C.S.I.’s half-truths.  In all television dramas, whenever science is portrayed, a microscope comes into view.  Unfortunately, all types of strange things are seen down the tube of the C.S. I. microscope and most are half-truths about trace evidence.  I don’t watch any of the spin-offs.  
Traces can be any mark or material left by something that has passed by.  Trace evidence usually is found as small bits of material and used as associative evidence in a forensic investigation; it associates people with places, objects with people, objects with places and objects with objects and provides evidence to help understand the behavior of parties to accidents and crimes.  
One way to recognize trace evidence is to consider all the possibilities in generic groups rather then trying to remember each and every possibility individually.  Trace evidence will originate from any of the following groups: impressions like from shoes or tools; fractured fragments like torn paper; genetic markers found in blood and semen; somatic samples from the body like hairs; manufactured materials like fibers, paint, and glass; or soil and other natural samples from the ecological environment.  I’ll illustrate some types and how they are used.  Trace evidence will often be microscopic in size and initially invisible to the unaided eye.  The crime scene investigator (CSI) must think small in order to make the big discoveries and must be capable of recognizing a wide variety of materials as evidence, and the trace evidence examiner is necessarily skilled in microscopy in order to handle and analyze the small motes and usually has the knowledge, skills and means to analyze all kinds of materials.    
The microanalysis of the manufactured materials is relatively straightforward.  The microtraces are manipulated using microscopical techniques and first identified by microscopical or chemical analysis, that is, put into predefined classes such as nylon trilobal carpet fiber, for example.  The second phase is usually an attempt to use more individualizing characteristics such as color, optical properties, morphology, structure, additives and trace constituents to compare the questioned microtrace with exemplars from possible sources.  The microanalytical techniques include:  polarized light microscopy (PLM) with microchemical tests (chemical microscopy), infrared microspectroscopy (FTIR), Raman spectroscopy, scanning electron microscopy (SEM) with energy dispersive x-ray spectrometry (EDS), pyrolysis gas chromatography (Py-GC) and mass spectrometry (GC/MS), visible and ultraviolet microspectrophotometry (MSP), thin layer chromatography (TLC), and some means for trace elemental analysis such as inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP/MS).  There are no particular secrets to successful microscopical and microanalysis of trace evidence, or any problem solving for that matter.  Over a hundred years ago, Sir Arthur Canon Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes gave them away and I'll remind you of them.
Recently, there has been a paradigm change in trace evidence caused by The Innocence Project.  While remarkable advances in biotechnology have enabled DNA typing to become the gold standard for forensic science, other forensic evidence such as fingerprints, toolmarks, bitemarks, handwriting, hairs, and blood spatters struggle to defend themselves against their critics.  We should all expect forensic science to solve crimes and put the right people in jail--but it doesn’t always work that way and that’s a problem.  Those that practice forensic science need to better understand the principles, practices, and contexts of the scientific methodology they use, as well as the distinctive features of their microanalysis.  So, what’s the solution?  


Dick Bisbing recently retired as Executive Vice President at McCrone Associates, Inc., Westmont, Illinois.  Nevertheless, he intends to continue to utilize his leadership, investigative, educational and professional experiences by sharing his knowledge and skills in materials analysis and trace evidence through volunteering, lecturing and consulting.  He currently volunteers in the conservation laboratory at The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago where he is assisting others in natural history problem solving.

For 40 years, he practiced forensic science at the Michigan State Police and McCrone Associates laboratories.  His experience includes:  crime scene investigations; and, cases of consumer safety, medical malpractice, patent infringement, industrial security, art fraud, pollution, accident and crime.  He has testified in 21 states and Canada; lectured at Michigan State University, The University of Michigan, and Northwestern University; made presentations to the National Academy of Sciences, Washington. D.C. and The Geological Society of London, Burlington House; been a pundit for CNN News regarding the O.J. Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey cases, 850 KOA Radio in Denver regarding the Chandra Levy and the Kobe Bryant cases; and consulted on CBS’s show “C.S.I.“  His trace evidence experiences have been featured on the Discovery Channel’s “The New Detectives: Case Studies in Forensic Science," A&E’s “Cold Case Files,” Court TV’s “Forensic Files ” and “Stories of the Innocence Project,” and in John Grisham’s The Innocent Man.  He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and Founder and Past President of the Midwestern Association of Forensic Scientists.  He currently serves on the Editorial Board for the Journal of Forensic Sciences. 

He has authored chapters on trace evidence for: Forensic Science Handbook (Prentice-Hall, 1982); Proceedings of the International Symposium on Forensic Hair Comparisons, (Superintendent of Documents, 1985); Encyclopedia of Forensic Sciences, (Academic Press Ltd., London, 2000); Mute Witnesses: Trace Evidence Analysis (Academic Press, 2001); Forensic Science Handbook, Volume I, 2nd edition (Prentice-Hall, 2002); Forensic Science Review (2005); Spitz and Fisher’s Medicolegal Investigation of Death, 4th Edition (Charles C. Thomas, 2006); and The Forensic Laboratory Handbook (Humana Press, 2006).

Initially trained by Dr. Walter C. McCrone, for 40 years he solved problems using analytical light microscopy and microanalysis.  He believes materials analysis often requires the particle approach: microscopical observation of the problem, morphological analysis, isolation of homogeneous samples, and ultra-microanalysis of the samples.  He also is a member of State Microscopical Society of Illinois and Midwest Microscopy and Microanalysis Society.    

A native of Flint, Michigan, he studied Chemistry at Albion College and Forensic Science at Michigan State University where he earned a Bachelors of Science Degree in 1968. 

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