Trace Evidence Essay, Research Paper
Trace evidence is very important in forensic investigations. This category of evidence encompasses many
diverse types of microscopic materials as well as some examples that are easily visible to the naked eye.
The subject is broad and diverse because of the number of different types of evidence that are commonly
encountered. Trace evidence can be thought of as evidence occuring in sizes so small that it can be
transferred or exchanged between two surfaces without being noticed. Varieties of trace evidence can
include, but are not limited to: metal filings, glass fragments, feathers, food stains, building materials,
lubricants, fingernail scrapings, pollens and spores, cosmetics, plastic fragments, gunshot residue,
chemicals, paper fibers and sawdust, human and animal hairs, plant and vegetable fibers, blood and other
body fluids, asphalt or tar, vegetable fats and oils, dusts and other airborne particles, insulation, textile
fibers, soot, soils and mineral grains, and e!
Forensic scientists routinely come into contact with a relatively few number of these. They are: hair, glass,
paint, fibers, fingerprints, and flamable liquids. These will be covered more in-depth in this paper.
Edmond Locard, a French scientist and one of the early pioneers in forensic science believed strongly that
individuals could not enter an area without taking dust particles with them from the scene. This became
known as what is now called “Locard’s Exchange Principle.” This principle states that when two objects
come into contact with each other, each of the objects will leave particles of one on the other. It is this
principle that is the foundation of the forensic study of trace evidence.
Trace evidence examination is the examination and analysis of small particles in order to help establish a
link between a suspect and a crime scene or a suspect and the victim of a crime. These small particles
usually include such items as hair, paint, glass, and fibers. Although not considered “trace” items by
definition the many Crime Labs also examine and analyze such important evidence as flammables (in arson
investigations), fingerprints, footwear (shoeprints), and “fracture matches.” Many also perform
examinations of automobile headlamps, taillights and speedometers.
The first category of trace evidence I will discuss is hair. Hair is examined grossly (with the naked eye),
and with both low power and high power microscopes to determine if questioned hairs, found at the scene
or on the clothing of an individual are consistent in characteristics to known hair collected from the suspect
and/or victim. Some of these characteristics include more obvious traits such as color, length, and
morphological shape and also microscopic aspects of the cuticle, cortex and medulla, which are the three
basic components of a hair. A hair cannot be linked specifically to an individual through these methods but
vital information developed as to who the suspect may be and significant elimination of other suspects can
often be done. It is possible to tell the race, sex, and region of the body that a hair comes from. A relative
idea as to the time since the last haircut can also be made.
The second type of trace evidence is glass. When larger samples are available glass can be useful in linking
a suspect with the crime scene through “fracture matches”. This is when a larger piece of glass, found
associated with the suspect, can be physically fitted with one or more pieces from the crime scene. More
often when an individual gains access to a business or dwelling by breaking glass the perpetrator will
acquire very tiny pieces of glass on his/her clothing. These cannot be physically matched due to their tiny
size. However, these pieces, though smaller than a pinhead, can be characterized under the microscope.
After proper gross and low power microscopic examinations are performed the Forensic Scientists use
microscopic “refractive index” determination to further characterize the samples. Refractive index is a
measurement of how light is “refracted” (bent) as it passes through the microscopic glass sample. Glasses
having different formulations and used for differe!
nt purposes have different RI’s. Therefore samples can be compared to determine if the glass from the
crime scene could be the source of the glass removed from the suspect’s clothes.
The third type of trace evidence is paint. When perpetrators break into businesses or dwellings they have
the potential of acquiring small paint samples during their illegal visit. And usually when cars and/or trucks
collide there is a significant chance that paint from either vehicle will transfer to the other. Many Forensic
Scientists will perform tests on these samples even though they may be pinhead in size. These initial tests
include low power magnification (macroscopic) to determine color, paint layer sequence, thickness, and
overall texture. If the questioned and known paint samples appear the same they then perform analytical
chemical examinations including solubility test, and analytical instrumental examinations. These later tests
give further characterization to the paints in order to determine if they could share a common origin.
The next kind of trace evidence is fibers. Fiber examination usually concerns itself with the potential
transfer of clothing fibers between individuals who have come into contact with each other or fiber
transfers between a suspect and carpet and/or other environmental fiber donors at a crime scene.
Questioned and known fibers are examined and compared using microscopic and analytical instrumental
techniques much like paint is analyzed. As with most trace evidence, individual fibers cannot be said to
come from a particular item of clothing or fabric. However, finding fibers with the same generic
composition (e.g. polyester), color, shade, and morphology(shape) on the suspect with known fibers from
the scene can be of significant value in both investigation and prosecution of a criminal case. Fiber analysis
has often demonstrated that the body of an individual was likely transported in the trunk of an automobile.
Flammable liqiuds are also a type of trace evidence. When arson investigators are called to the scene of a
fire one of their foremost methods to determine that a suspicious fire was deliberately started is by taking
samples from the burned scene and submitting them to Arson examinations. Burned debris samples are
taken by the investigator in airtight cans. The labs then perform careful extractions on the contents of the
cans. These extracts are analyzed using sophisticated and very sensitive instrumental techniques. In some
cases, petroleum residues less than one microliter (0.00004 ounces) can be found in the debris from the
scene. Since most of these are not naturally ocurring in nature the prosecutors can argue that it was put
The last type of trace evidence covered in this paper is fingerprint evidence. Some Forensic Scientists
perform examinations on various items submitted to them, as well as processing crime scenes, to determine
if usable fingerprints are present. The labs use classical fingerprint processes such as dusting powders,
ninhydrin solutions and “Superglue” techniques. They also use the latest advances in detection technology
such as laser lighting and computer enhanced imaging. These later techniques are valuable in examining
very faint latent prints, smeared/smudged prints, and prints on multicolored surfaces. They are also
extremely useful in the examination of blurred surveillance photos and other photos that may be otherwise
Trace evidence is a very important part of forensic science and plays a large role in identifying perpetrators
of crime. One of the best values of trace evidence is that its deposition is almost always unnoticed. Its
importance can not be minimized however, as the article clearly shows. Many different scientific
techniques are utilized to analyze trace evidence as hopefully, I’ve shown.