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Crime and Intrigue: a Review of Forensic Files

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I grew up around Nancy Drew, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, and Sherlock Holmes. No, I have never met any of them, but I read about plenty of their adventures. I spent hours in the library picking out mystery novels, fascinated by the fictional detectives’ astute reasoning and resolute pursuit of justice.

My interest in true crime and detective work persists. Last summer, eager to discover new stories about true crime, I began watching the series “Forensic Files” on Netflix.

“Forensic Files”, first aired on The Learning Channel in 1996, consists of short stand-alone episodes that depict real-life crimes solved through adroit forensic work. So far, “Forensic Files” has more than 14 seasons with a total of 406 episodes.

While most episodes feature crimes within the U.S., there are occasional episodes about crimes in foreign countries, such as Switzerland and the U.K. A few episodes focus on cases where ultimately no foul play was found, whereas some others describe how convicted suspects were proven innocent. Each standard episode is around 20 minutes long, the perfect length for taking a break between homework assignments or other campus obligations.

From cold-blooded murders to bizarre illnesses and suspicious automobile accidents, “Forensic Files” covers a diverse range of crimes, some more complex than others. Episodes are cleverly named to hint at the salient clues in each. “Jean Pool”, a season 12 episode, describes how advancement in DNA testing helped police to analyze the DNA evidence on a pair of jeans left at the crime scene and capture the murderer of a college student.

What remains common across all episodes is the unique skill of various experts dedicated to seeking the truth behind heinous crimes. In every episode is an extensive array of interviews featuring pathologists, medical examiners, police officers, attorneys, blood spatter analysts, or even forensic artists and linguists.

Unlike readers of detective stories full of twists and turns, viewers of “Forensic Files” can usually identify the actual criminal among the pool of suspects presented to them. The satisfying part, however, is listening to all the experts describe how they gathered sufficient evidence to press charges in court. Some viewers may be put off by the formulaic structure of each episode, but for me, the different details in each episode help sustain my interest season after season.

To help viewers visualize what happened during the crimes, “Forensic Files” includes animations, models, and reenactments of the crime scenes. There are also photographs and videos of the original crime scenes, as well as the evidence collected, in each episode. These materials help viewers to interpret the crime scene through the perspective of forensic experts, enhancing their understanding of the methods used in forensic science.

“Forensic Files” also highlights the resourcefulness of those involved in crime investigations, even if they are not experts or professionals. The season six episode titled “Hunter or Hunted?” stands out in this regard. It describes an unorthodox solution to find the fatal bullet that killed Judy Blake Moilanen in the woods of Ontonagon, MI, in 1992. Dan Castle, an Ontonagon resident, used a slingshot to launch marbles at the spot on a tree where the bullet had ricocheted and left a mark. He followed the marbles’ trajectory to a grassy spot, where he found the bullet after much searching. Thanks to Castle, experts matched the bullet to a gun owned by Judy Blake Moilanen’s husband, Bruce Moilanen, who was eventually found guilty.

Despite the sensational nature of the serious crimes featured, “Forensic Files” steers clear of luridness. Instead of appealing to viewers’ morbid curiosity and schadenfreude, “Forensic Files” portrays the victims and their family with sympathy and sensitivity. Every episode shows photographs of the victims, usually taken during happier times, to remind us that behind many true crime stories are precious lives lost to premature, often brutal deaths. The interviews with the victims’ loved ones tug at our collective humanity; each victim lived their own joys and sorrows. Even the interviews with police officers and investigators — individuals hardened by careers in law enforcement — reveal their kindness towards the victims and their long-suffering loved ones.

For anybody with an appetite for true crime, “Forensic Files” is an intriguing peek into the often enigmatic world of forensic science. Behind every case of justice served is the work of countless scientists, law enforcement officers, attorneys, and even ordinary members of the public who serve as witnesses or searchers. But behind every crime also lies a lot of pain and grief. Although forensic science cannot heal the emotional scars inflicted on the victims’ loved ones, it can — at the very least — provide a sense of closure and an aide for justice. Among all the possible evils of the world, “Forensic Files” offers some reassurance that no matter how long it takes, wrongdoing can never escape the long arm of the law.

 

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