True crime series Forensics explores the science behind solving some of New Zealand’s most notorious crimes. As well as detailing the detective work that went into investigations, it offers a crash course in forensic science including blood spatter, DNA analysis, tool marking, digital forensics, toxicology, entomology, and ballistics.
While the subject matter is gory, this isn’t car crash TV. Forensics will reward anyone who is intrigued by the puzzle-solving aspect of crime and case work. No detail is too small to be ignored in a tricky case. And when concepts involved in the scientific side of the investigation need to be unpacked, the series host, technology journalist Simon Morton, steps into the story to talk to a relevant scientist, who will step him through the process of how they used 1 particular aspect of forensics to analyse evidence from the crime. As we see Simon attempt the process himself, it’s a real eye-opener to how much time it takes, how complex it can be, and how much can be extrapolated from a scrap of evidence.
Simon plays interpreter between the police and scientists and viewers at home, making it easier to grasp the process. “True crime has never really interested me,” says Simon. “I’ve been more driven by science, which is why I got involved. If they said to me that this is going to be a series about heinous crimes and we're going to re-enact the crimes. We're going to really focus on the psychological nature and the criminal nature, then I wouldn't have gotten involved. I was really drawn to this because they are very much focussed on science. The format of the series and why it has done so well around the world is because it has a really nice balance of science and narrative, and it doesn't focus on the crime per se, but there's enough information and enough narrative for you to be able to commit to the individuals, the family members, the police, the forensic scientist – but the science is really the star of the show.”
Read on as Simon speaks to us about his own fascination with forensics science, and how they made the show.
Inside Forensics with Simon Morton
How did you come into the show?
Simon: I've been a consumer technology/science journalist and I think they chose me because I am a curious person. That curiosity drove a lot of my intent in trying to find out what was going on (in forensic science). My job really was to translate the technical science into a format that I could understand. And if I can understand it, then I am assuming that a 10-year-old can understand it (Simon laughs). I am the proxy for anyone who is interested but doesn’t want to go off and do a degree in forensic science. They decided on me because I'm good at translating complex theories into quite simple language and building some narrative around that as well.
At what point would you begin that “interpretation” process?
Simon: In pre-production the producers build the cases and work out which scientific elements they want to explore as part of the episode. My process starts when I go into the lab, or I am sent some notes and a pre-briefing document telling me where I am going and I'll think, "Yeah, okay, this is going to be interesting. I wonder what they're doing here." Arriving on site and starting to work with a forensic scientist, I was often going into labs where there would be some sort of DNA sequencing technology or blood spatter technology, using various tools to measure degrees and looking at spatter patterns to try and work out the force of the blow and the direction of the blow. They’d be working in a ballistics lab and looking at gunfire and trying to determine where the shot was fired from, where the entry point was and building that back as an evidential narrative that could be used in a case. When you go into a lab with a scientist, they can often struggle to tell you in a simple way what is actually happening with the data they are capturing and the technology that they are employing, because they are scientists and often quite concerned that they are going to be judged by their peers if they dumb it down. So my job is to not so much to dumb it down, but to bring a perspective that is understandable by most people.
Which of the aspects of forensics did you find the most opaque?
Simon: None of it really, but the genetics stuff is really interesting because, without getting into too much depth, you're dealing with this huge sequence of code that relates to an individual's genome, and you're only taking a really small segment of that, you're using technology to magnify that, hundreds of millions of copies, to then get a sequence that you can match to someone's genome, i.e. the perpetrator of a crime. Now the thing that I still struggle with is that a forensic scientist could never say in a court of law 100% that that DNA was from that individual. They used to use these terms like, "It's 100 million times probable that this DNA is matched with this individual," which I found quite intriguing. I thought DNA was quite objective and finite, and that it was a lock-and-key scenario. If you could prove that someone's sequence matched, then aha, you've got them. But that's not the case. Well, that might have changed, now, because genetics technology is a bit like computers in terms of Moore's Law (that we can expect the speed and capability of our computers to increase every couple of years) in that advancements occur every week, every month. But they could never actually say definitively that this genetic material (this semen, blood, saliva or hair) was from that individual. They would only give you a probability.
After working on Forensics, do you sometimes look at your own house and think of how many traces of yourself a forensics team would be able to find?
Simon: Definitely. I was provoked to think about how every contact leaves a trace – and that is the foundation of forensic science. These days you don’t even have to make contact, you can just be physically in a space and you can secrete DNA. Environmental DNA is the new frontier in terms of forensic science and being able to determine who was where at a particular time. That, to me, is fascinating.
The Forensics producers didn't want to make an instructional on how to commit a perfect murder, though, so what have they done to blur the lines?
Simon: I guess a lot of the secret sauce in terms of the specifics (are left out). In terms of the forensics and the scientists who appeared in the programme, they would give you enough information to be able to understand the theory around how science could be used to build narrative and to be used as evidence in a judicial case. But there's a fine line into also not giving people insights into how to actually commit the perfect crimes.
How does the show avoid being insensitive to the victims and their families?
Simon: It wasn't really my role, but I do know that there were extensive interviews done in the victims' families' homes and the producers had to tread very carefully and with empathy. And there's a mix of catharsis in revisiting the crime and there were times of sadness. The whole production crew was offered counselling, and I think some of the producers took that up because they found it so harrowing having to hold the hands of these victims' families as they revisited these heinous crimes.
You get to take part in demonstrations of aspects of forensic science, which sounds quite exciting!
Simon: Yeah, I get to basically create some evidence and then do some analysis using the latest forensic tools, which is fun. It’s really good, hands-on, practical stuff, and great for me to actually create the data and then go and interrogate the data to see how that's recorded and then used in the judicial process.
What did you find particularly enjoyable?
Simon: I’ve got 2 equally enjoyable aspects. My favourite was blood spatter. It sounds really gory but essentially I got to re-enact hitting someone with an instrument like a hammer multiple times and looking at what happens with blood and where blood gets deposited, and using tools to look at trajectories, volume of blood and the angle of the blood deposited on surfaces, to work out force and to work out the direction of the blow. It was like triangulating, like in the old days, using a compass to physically position someone based on some quite obscure sets of data… blood, essentially. We used litres of pig's blood. It was pretty gory. I was dressed in hazmat suit and full PPE, protective stuff for my face. Once I got over the fact that it was pig's blood, it was actually quite fun. We spattered up this lab quite heavily. The shape of the droplets would so precisely tell you not just the force of the blow, but the direction of the blow, which you could then use to extrapolate that information and work out the point where that individual was when they were hit. When you're dealing with evidence and trying to put together a case, it's incredibly important. It's the same with ballistics in terms of how far away the individual was when they pulled the trigger. Was it self-defence? Well, no it wasn’t, because the guy (the shooter) was behind the bloke (victim) and he was looking in the other direction. The ballistics stuff was great. I got to shoot guns in a controlled police lab at big blobs of jelly, and look at entry points and exit points and that was Boys Own (referring to the old-timey adventure publications), shooting into big bits of green jelly.
Before we say goodbye, if the police seized your computer and phone, what are some of the most incriminating searches they're find?
(Simon laughs) Simon: Oh gosh! Do I be honest or do I lie? Morally incriminating? Legally incriminating? I'm not sure I can answer that. If I am honest, it would be too horrific. I think I might end there. I’ve just got a new phone, so there's probably not too much on there.
We'll keep that in mind. Simon Morton: Incriminating search history.
Inside the episodes
Each episode of Forensics takes us to the scene of a single crime. We then hear from the detective leading the investigation and the lead scientist from the forensics team on the case, along with detectives and scientists managing other aspects of the investigation. Interwoven with their interviews, are talks with witnesses and people who knew the victim to humanise the story, crime scene footage, news reports, police statements, and scientific reports. Here’s a brief look at the cases covered in S1 (episodes may play in a different order):
Episode 1: Operation Edgewater When a taxi driver is stabbed to death, the inside of his cab offers a dazzling array of false leads. To sort through it all, forensics scientists need to draw in analysis of GPS data, CCTV footage along the driver’s route, and DNA analysis. But the case becomes truly complicated when the prime suspect flees to China.
Episode 2: Operation Davis When 15-year-old Marie Davis goes missing after visiting a friend, phone meta-data analysis proves to be the key to finding a suspect. And forensic analysis of everything from soil samples, to electron scanning of objects like rope and gloves is used to positively link the suspect to the body of the victim.
Episode 3: Operation Drake A bludgeoned corpse is found in a car boot and a gigantic finger of evidence points to 1 suspect whose handwritten memo includes buying bleach and cable ties and the words “kill fatty”. That’s not enough to court, though, so scientists analyse fibres, tool markings, and also use handwriting analysis to reinforce the link. And Simon demonstrates and explains how luminol works.
Episode 4: Operation Keppel A young mother goes missing, the blood spatter in her kitchen points to a murder, and her wheelie bin is missing, too, but turns up pretty quickly at her ex-partner’s house with its serial number gouged out. The police and scientists build a case using blood spatter analysis, document analysis, and even a linguistic analysis of texts supposedly sent by the victim from her phone.
Episode 5: Operation Nadia Police retrace the criminal’s steps after a woman is found at home with her throat cut. 1 key suspect is lying about pretty much everything, but scientists who specialise in computer forensics determine that an online profile of a supposed stalker has been fabricated, and cellphone data analysis links the victim and the real criminal. While this is happening, DNA analysis of some fingernail clippings is even able to reveal that they come from a man, not a woman.
Watch Forensics S1 from Sunday, 4 April on CBS Justice (DStv channel 170) at 20:00. Forensics S2 will premiere on Sunday, 9 May on CBS Justice at 20:00.
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