Perhaps the proverbial scene of the crime conjures images of dusting for fingerprints or scanning for biological material. Perhaps it evokes thoughts of taking blood samples or running DNA database queries.
If only things were still so simple.
There was a time when there were any number of quasi-magical means to scientifically divine the identity of a suspect. A microscopic bit of dander was all it took to link a suspect to the scene of the crime. A strand of flu virus found on a victim’s shirt collar could plot a dotted line to the killer in hours. Get to the scene quick enough, and you could lock in an olfaction I.D. by capturing scent molecules left hanging the air, carrying proteins whose amino acids could be reverse-translated into DNA. In those days, there was a whole lot of science in the field, leaving very little necessity for intellectual deduction.
It all sounds very exciting, which is why the myths of super-science crime fighting are still perpetuated in popular culture; lab-coated cops working over fancy equipment late into the night, trying to discern a bit of mRNA or some other acronym. Fact is, you don’t see that sort of thing anymore. White-gloved investigating has become a thing of the past.
Our culture has this schoolgirl crush on the notion of progress; we think anything that moves us forward is inherently good. The unfortunate truth is that progress is sometimes our own worst enemy. It might seem counterintuitive, but the real world usually is.
You could write a book about the downfall of science in the field of criminal investigation. Someone probably has. I haven’t read it, but I have a feeling it would start something like this.
Once upon a time, DNA was the final word in police work. By its very nature, a structure unique to every individual human being seemed infallible. But some thirty or forty years ago, the medical field began to abandon mechanical, cybernetic prosthetics in favor of lab-grown, organic replacements. This method was well established in the growth of internal organs, but using the same techniques to grow flawless new skin, limbs, digits and eyes was revolutionary. However, every output needs an input, and the process often involved the borrowing of organic matter from one or several donors.
Crime scenes were suddenly rife with DNA from multiple suspects. Cops would think they were dealing with multiple perpetrators and get led around in circles, tracking down what would turn out to be a series of innocent parties– donors of genetic material used for some scumbag’s lab-grown teeth or something.
The first major outcry came in an incident when investigators over-confidently released a murder suspect’s name to the media, based on DNA found at the crime scene. Police were subsequently abashed when a simple public records search revealed their prime suspect had been dead and buried for over a decade. Turned out he had donated organic material upon expiration, which was thereafter used to grow a new hand for someone who used it to kill somebody.
The reputation of high-tech detective work was already waning by the time of the infamous, media-dubbed Rug Ruse. In a stunning disaster, an elderly man with a spotless criminal record and zero history of violence was convicted and sentenced to death for quadruple homicide. The evidence against him: a DNA match, drawn from a handful of hair, torn from the killer’s head. The old man died of natural causes while awaiting his fate on death row, ruined and disgraced.
The whole thing was turned upside down when an investigative journalist uncovered the truth. The barber of the convicted old man had been running a homegrown wig business on the side. He and his son– a graduate student in medical genetics– had been recycling the sheared hair of clientele for use in genetic hair replacement. The old man could never have known he had unwillingly donated his hair to be grown in the scalp of a killer. The historic, interplanetary headlines read: Science Trumps Logic! Innocent man dead and defamed in RUG RUSE!
It was an eye-opening turn of events, igniting public ire and inciting a general loss of confidence in investigative police work. Soon, organized crime dipped their ladles into the stew. The mob started constructing false evidence for frame-ups, and suddenly all manner of suspicious crimes were being committed by perpetrators without motive, sometimes even without opportunity. God knows how many innocent people were wrongly convicted in those days.
All this might lead one to believe that standards of practice would be mandated in the growth of biological material. But like I said, things in this world are often counterintuitive.
The limitless wealth of the medical genetics industry and increasing disdain for law enforcement over wrongful convictions led the tide to the turn the opposite direction– against the police. The scandals spearheaded rounds of harsh legislation against the use of DNA evidence, becoming increasingly strict over the years, and eventually outlawing nearly every form of biological material as admissible in court.
There’s still no legislation barring the use of DNA in police investigations, but it is very illegal to bring a case against someone based solely on genetic/biological material. Old school cops– specialists clinging to tradition– still use it to find leads, but nowadays it’s really more trouble than it’s worth. Mild variants of genetic alteration are used in everything from beauty products to dental hygiene– and don’t get even me started on the ‘bodily enhancement’ industry. Finding reliable biological evidence often involves sifting through a whole lot of junk material. It’s easier to fake DNA than to fake a cold.
The result of it all this was a great, backwards leap in the field of police investigation. A new breed of detective– or an old breed, reborn– rose to the occasion: the investigator who relied on logic, deduction, and hard-nosed fieldwork to track down his man. Modern investigatory work is based on reason, motive, and hard, physical evidence.
And so, as my taxi hovers down to street level and I step out onto 105th, I’m not wearing a lab coat or white gloves. And I’m sure as hell not here to dust for fingerprints.