With the release
of Conviction we look at the most crucial advances in forensic science, and
how they are used in our favorite films.
off the new year, on Jan 14, is the powerful true story of Betty Anne
Waters (Hilary Swank), a woman who put herself through nearly two decades of
schooling to free her brother from prison. But it looked like all was lost as
there was no actual evidence to either support or deny Kenny Waters’ (Sam
Rockwell) conviction; just the here-say of a corrupt cop. That’s because
the unbelievable story takes place 27 years ago, when we lacked the forensic
technology that is now commonplace on CSI. When Kenny Waters, played by Sam Rockwell, was put
away, there was no such thing as DNA profiling, something that would change the
Waters family’s life forever.
Meet the Parents: Polygraph
Based on the idea
that the body has an involuntary physical reaction to lying, the polygraph charts
variations in blood pressure, pulse, breathing and skin. The polygraph is
mostly used as an intimidating interrogation technique. Interestingly,
polygraph results do not hold up as credible evidence in a court of law but
they lead to incriminating criminals. In Meet the Parents, Robert de Niro a former CIA operative,
forces his future son-in-law (Ben Stiller) to take a lie detector test in his
dungeon-like basement in the middle of the night. See film clip, here.
Zodiac & Se7en: Fingerprinting
has his or her own distinctive set of fingerprints. In 3rd century
BC, the Chinese would use fingerprints as an authorization on official
documents, contracts, and loans. Today, forensic scientists will dust a crime
scene for fingerprints as a means to identify the criminal.
The Zodiac Killer
is a serial killer who murdered seven (but potentially more) people in Northern
California in the late 1960s. It was the basis of David Fincher’s Zodiac, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. The fame-hungry killer sent letters
to a Bay Area newspaper to terrorise the locals. Authorities were unable to
identify the fingerprints on the paper and the killer bragged that he used two
coats of airplane cement to disguise the prints. It worked; he has never been
caught. And again in Se7en (1995) also directed by Fincher, the fact that the
killer has systematically been removing his own prints from his own fingers
with a razor is a crucial plot point. See Se7en, here.
The study of
firearms is an excellent method of bringing perpetrators to justice. The first
firearms identification case took place in 1835 in London, when a homeowner was
shot and killed. The police were able to identify the paper patch, which
provides a seal between the ball and gunpowder, as having been torn from a
newspaper belonging to his servant. Consequently the servant was charged with
an important role in the film JFK. The District Attorney of New Orleans, Jim Garrison
(Kevin Costner) is investigating President John F. Kennedy’s assassination,
debunking the theory that the president and the governor of Texas were shot by
a single bullet. Garrison visited the reported murderer’s position reenacted
the assassination, concluding that the gunman must have had two additional
cronies to make the kill. See JFK trailer.
We Are What We
a tough job; they perform autopsies, medical examinations of corpses to
determine cause of death. Autopsies have been a staple in forensics since the
19th century, but the techniques derive from Ancient Egypt, where
organs were examined and removed for mummification.
We Are What We
Are, a dad collapses and dies in a Mexican
shopping centre. During his autopsy, scientists discover an undigested finger,
complete with painted finger-nail, in his stomach, revealing to the audience
that is no seemingly ordinary family; our protagonists are cannibals. See We Are What We Are trailer.
University of Leicester geneticist Alec Jeffreys developed the techniques used to
identify individuals based on their DNA profiles. Everyone has his or her own
DNA sequence, which is unique to that person. DNA profiling became an essential
piece of evidence in criminal cases beginning in 1987.
In Conviction, Kenny Waters is sentenced to life in
prison after being wrongfully charged with first-degree murder in 1983. His
sister, Betty Anne, devotes her life to getting Kenny his freedom back. She
works with the Innocence Project, which uses DNA profiling to overturn wrongful
convictions. All of Betty Anne’s hard work pays off; test results confirm
Kenny’s innocence, and he gets released in 2001. See Conviction trailer.