In the discipline of forensics, the field of ballistics is the “study of motion, dynamics, angular movement, and projectile units (bullets, missiles, and bombs). In the context of a criminal investigation, there are a host of possible applications to aid in the facilitation of a criminal conduct. Bullets that are discharged at a crime scene will be inspected in an attempt to discover pieces of evidence and information. Among the pieces of information that police hope to recover from the bullet are the possible type of gun used in the crime, whether the gun was used in a previous crime, and other information that can be used to further the investigation.
The damage that the bullet sustained upon impacting a surface can aid in facilitating the problem of establishing the position of the shooter in the crime scene, the angle that the gun was fired, and the time that the gun was fired. Any debris on the bullet can be examined and compared to any residue that may have been left on the hand of the shooter or on any surface where the debris may have been left (Crime Museum, 2014, p. 1). When a gun is fired, the gunpowder and the primer in the bullet combine to create a gas cloud, or the “plume.” This cloud can extend from the end of the barrel of the gun to a distance of at least five feet. The residue from the discharge can rest on the shooter’s hands, clothes, face and on other portions of the shooter (Orthmann, Hess, 2012, p. 166).
Prior to the age of mass productions, early forms of guns such as flintlocks and matchlocks were individually done by gunsmiths. Each of the guns was distinct; the barrel and the molds for the bullets were distinct from the other rifles and short firearms. These as well as other marks on the gun disclosed the individual artistry and character of the gun smith. These early distinctions allowed investigators to compare ammunition by simple examination. However, by the early 19th century, guns as well as ammunition began to be mass produced. The rifling in the guns were copied by the manufacturers and applied to each gun. Thus, law enforcers were deprived of the ability to be able to match bullets from a particular gun owing to the practices of gun manufacturers.
Analysts believed that there were marks and features that were innate to each gun, but undetectable to the unaided eye, that was left on the weapon during the production process. By amplifying the images, these differences could be detected in firearms produced by one manufacturer, even with guns that were produced one after the other (Steele, n.d., p. 2).
The value of the markings on bullets and cartridge cases to the field of forensics was acknowledged by the latter part of the 19th century; by the 1920s, evidence involving bullet and cartridge case markings were being admitted into court. The initial analyses during these times were limited to the markings that can be examined with the use of magnifying glasses, crude cameras, and basic microscopes. Nevertheless, even with these crude tools, innovative investigators had the capacity to eliminate or affirm matches in several high profile cases.
Forensic science pioneer Calvin Goddard provided “ballistic identification evidence” that secured the convictions of alleged killers Nicola Sacco and Bartolommeo Vanzetti in 1921. In another case, Phillip Gravelle, with the use of “comparison microscope” that was retooled for the activity and Goddard’s partner, provided the evidence that helped in acquitting the Chicago Police District for the St. Valentine’s Massacre (The Educational Fund to Stop Violence, 2004, p. 6).
In the operation of the criminal justice system, the “probative value,” or the weight that the evidence has in determining the outcome of the case, is sufficient if it can significantly aid in the resolution of the case at trial. In this light, the statements of witnesses given under oath that is not considered as giving evidence is irrelevant and inadmissible in court, or will be taken off court records should the defense be able to do so.
In a similar vein, the appreciation of forensic evidence must be also applicable to the case; the forensic evidence must be able to support and affirm or debunk facts in the case to be applicable and beneficial. To cite an example, a finger print has probative worth if the print can be matched to the AFIS in establishing the identity of a person. In the same manner, the prints have probative value if these can prove the presence of a person of interest in a crime scene, or exclude the presence of a person in a particular person from the same scene. Other studies for establishing the probative worth of other forensic evidence-ballistic, narcotics, and others-can be established whether a forensic piece of evidence has investigative worth (McEwen, 2011, p. 7).
In addition, ballistic forensics comes into play when there are cartridges and ammunition that are recovered, but there is no gun at the crime scene. For these types of cases, the ballistic fingerprint permits forensic investigators to link cases where firearms are involved that can appear at first to be unrelated. To cite an example, investigators can examine bullet casings that were taken from two separate sites to establish the possibility that the same firearm was used in the shootings. In the case of the 2002 “DC sniper shootings,” as well as the recent shootings in Ohio, utilized this method in linking the cases (Educational Fund, 2004, p. 7).
Congress in 2005 instructed the National Academics of Science (NAS) to investigate the pressing issues in the field of forensic science. These include contentions that are restraining the forensic science field, including the imbalances and disintegration in the field, the absence of compulsory benchmarking, authentication, authorization, the appreciation of the evidence, the dire need for new research, and the admissibility of the evidence into legal proceedings. These findings were released in a 2009 report of the NAS’ National Research Council entitled “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.”
The overarching message of the report of the NAS is that the discipline of forensic science has by and large fallen short in satisfying the requirements demanded by science. In essence, the panel called for a major restructuring of the policies and procedures in a wide host of forensic sciences, such as the examination of fingerprints, document analysis, the identification and processing and fiber and hair residues, and shoe prints and tire markings (Fish, Miller, and Braswell, 2010, p. 13).
Though the techniques discussed here have long been used in law enforcement, there are two crucial limitations have restricted law enforcement agencies from being able to optimize ballistic fingerprint information in solving cases. One, a great number of gun-related crimes that can be connected remain unresolved owing to the high number of firearm-related cases urban law enforcement authorities have to face on an annual basis. Urban police agencies have to face thousands of shootings on an annual basis; it would be difficult to near impossible that investigators would be able to compare individual ballistic data from each open case.
One of the most significant hindrances to the standard operating use of ballistic fingerprint matches is the tedious nature of manual records systems. For example, the Miami-Dade County Crime Laboratory established in the 1950s a complex system of Rolodex cards with the aid of a consultant who had recently been discharged from the Chicago laboratory of Goddard. In the system, all the marks and features of particular guns and bullets were listed on numerous cards that had to be located and compared with the characteristics of a bullet or cartridge being examined. Though the system did help in resolving a number of cases, the system was laborious and time-consuming (Educational Fund, 2004, p. 7).
Summary and Conclusion
The science of ballistics identification is a significant law enforcement tool that has not received enough support. The cutting edge technology that is accessible today-the IBIS mechanism, the latest in technological advances in forensics-will be effective if utilized properly. The rising technological advances such as “micro stamping,” will need additional capital outlays in the future.
However, it is estimated that within a few years, the technology in the field will be greatly extended to help in the area of forensics to aid in the resolution of crimes. Moreover, agencies that will be able to benefit from the development of databases will be able to derive tremendous benefits in the future. Additional efforts, nonetheless, must be initiated to collectively harness the efforts of all stakeholders in order to optimize use of ballistic forensics in the resolution of crimes (Educational Fund, 2004, p. 17).
Crime Museum (2014) “Ballistics” Retrieved 31 October 2014 from
Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence (2004) “Cracking the case: the crime-solving promise of ballistic identification” Retrieved 31 October 2014 from <http://www.efsgv.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Cracking-the-Case-Report.pdf
Fish, J.T., Millers, L.S., Braswell, M.C. (2010). Crime Scene Investigation. New York: Routledge
McEwen, T. (2009) “The role and impact of forensic evidence in the criminal justice system” Retrieved 31 October 2014 from <https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/236474.pdf
Orthmann, C.H., Hess, K. (2012). Criminal Investigation. Stamford: Cengage Learning
Steele, L., and Drogin, E.Y. (2008). Ballistics. Science for Lawyers. American Bar Association: Chicago