Welcome to the Crime Lab

The Mob Museum creates interactive experience focused on forensic science


Death Investigation is one of the stations in The Mob Museum’s Crime Lab Experience.

The Crime Lab offers guests a  hands-on exploration of real-life forensics techniques where you can engage in interactive activities while learning about various methods of forensic criminal investigation, led by a Museum facilitator.

Forensic science is a complex discipline that encompasses more than a dozen distinct fields. Except for a few recent additions to the investigative tool kit such as DNA analysis and computer forensics, most fields trace their origins to the 19th century or before.

Within most crime labs, scientists have highly specialized expertise. Unlike what is portrayed on television, it is rarely one individual who investigates the crime scene, processes the fingerprints, analyzes the DNA and examines the trace evidence. Instead, highly specialized experts focus on one field. This leads to more efficient and effective lab results.

The Mob Museum’s Crime Lab is an immersive experience in which guests will explore five forensic fields in depth: crime scene investigation, death investigation, DNA profiling, fingerprint analysis and firearms examination. Videos, graphics, artifacts and interactive activities provide guests with a glimpse behind the curtain at the tasks and challenges that forensic crime-fighters face every day.

A forensic expert takes a picture of a bullet as she conducts investigations at the scene where a man was found shot dead and five wounded in front of a restaurant. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION
Crime scene investigation is the collection and examination of physical evidence found at a crime scene in order to gain objective, scientific understanding of a crime. Meticulous crime scene investigation is the first step in the process of conducting successful forensic science. To understand how evidence is packaged and prepared for the lab, it is important to appreciate how it is collected at the scene of a crime.

Investigators survey the crime scene, document what they see and collect evidence as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Once a crime scene is released, it is challenging — if not impossible — to collect additional evidence that is not contaminated.

DEATH INVESTIGATION
Death investigation is the original forensic science field. Humans have studied the body after death since ancient times. The guiding principles for an autopsy remain nearly identical to those established by German scientist Rudolph Virchow, the father of modern pathology, in the 1880s.

When a body is found at a crime scene, it is taken to the coroner. Forensic pathologists perform an autopsy and collect DNA and toxicology samples. They identify any unknown information surrounding the individual’s death — the cause, manner, mechanism and time of death. Like so many forensic fields, death investigation is time sensitive. Autopsies are best performed within the first 24 hours of death, before organs and tissues begin to deteriorate.

Death investigation provides victims with one final opportunity to tell their side of the story. Forensic pathologists help piece together the victim’s final moments and provide valuable insight for the investigation as well as closure for the victim’s family.

Alec Jeffreys, a British geneticist, developed the techniques for DNA profiling in 1984. Since his initial discovery, a series of developments have made it possible to automate the process and analyze smaller, less complete samples. NLM / SCIENCE SOURCE

DNA PROFILING
DNA evidence revolutionized forensic science in 1984 when British geneticist Alec Jeffreys developed the techniques for DNA profiling. It has had the greatest impact on criminal investigations since the classification of fingerprint patterns in the 1880s. It can prove, with a nearly absolute degree of certainty, whether a suspect was at the scene of a crime.

The discovery of DNA is relatively recent. Scientists did not understand the structure of DNA, or its role in genetics, until the 1950s. DNA profiling continues to change and advance at a rapid rate — from the ability to analyze “touch” DNA to rapid DNA testing to direct-to-consumer genetic testing.

One drawback of DNA evidence? Basic public knowledge of DNA is limited. According to a 2015 study, more than 30 percent of Americans did not know that all living organisms, including vegetables, contain DNA. Since DNA evidence is presented as a statistical probability, a jury’s understanding of math is equally important. A 2004 study found that mock jurors were more impressed when presented a match with the probability 0.1 in 100 than with 1 in 1,000, even though they are mathematically identical. The Crime Lab introduces guests to what DNA is as well as its forensic applications.

A member of the forensic section of the French gendarmerie brushes a table to take fingerprints at a police station in Beauvais. PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images

FINGERPRINT ANALYSIS
Fingerprints are a great example of one of the guiding principles of forensic science. In the early 1900s, Dr. Edmond Locard formulated the principle that “every contact leaves a trace.” Every time a crime is committed, trace evidence is left behind that links a crime to a person, place or object.

One of the most common things people leave behind? Fingerprints. Human hands are covered with skin that has patterns of hills and valleys, known as ridges and furrows. This friction ridge skin leaves impressions on any surface that it touches. People leave latent prints — ones created by the sweat and oil on their skin and not clearly visible to the naked eye — everywhere.

Before DNA profiling, fingerprint analysis was the most effective way to establish whether a suspect was present at the scene of a crime. Individual fingerprint patterns are unique — even identical twins have different prints.

FIREARM EXAMINATION

When firearms are manufactured, unique spiral patterns known as rifling form inside the barrel. Each time a gun is discharged, rifling produces markings on the bullet as it passes through the barrel. Firearm examiners study these markings to determine the firearm used to fire a bullet. Much like the analysis of DNA and fingerprints, firearms examination involves comparing details between evidence and known samples to determine a match.

Test-fired bullets are compared with bullets recovered from a crime scene using a comparison microscope. If the rifling patterns match, the gun likely was the same one fired at the crime scene. But many evidence bullets are badly deformed or distorted, so establishing a match requires a highly trained eye. PATRICK LANDMANN / SCIENCE SOURCE

The Crime Lab is not the first exhibit at the Museum to consider firearms examination. One of the first high-profile cases that employed the techniques of the field was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 in Chicago. In the 1920s, Dr. Calvin Goddard, who worked on the Massacre, modernized the field of firearm examination. He worked with chemist Philip Gravelle to create a specialized comparison microscope that could analyze two bullets at once. More information about Dr. Goddard and his ballistics work can be found on the Museum’s third floor St. Valentine’s Day Massacre Evidence Exhibit.

HANDS-ON ACTIVITIES
Guests in the Crime Lab will engage in digital and hands-on activities that simulate real forensic work, including:

  • Learning how to conduct gel electrophoresis in order to separate DNA molecules for analysis.
  • Examining their own fingerprint to understand the characteristics that distinguish one fingerprint from another.
  • Exploring the process of death investigation through the use of an interactive touch screen that simulates an autopsy.
  • Using a comparison microscope to compare markings on bullets.

Guests also may participate in other forensic activities, such as examining bones. Did you know that a forensic anthropologist can arrange all 206 bones of a human skeleton in about 15 minutes? They also can determine the sex, age and stature of an individual by observing and measuring their bones. Crime Lab facilitators will show guests how to identify bones and the techniques used to determine the cause of death.

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