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A Short History of Criminal Evidence

Criminal courts have been around as long as human civilization. Since the days of ancient Babylon, criminal suspects have been brought before judges to determine their guilt or innocence. But while the concept of criminal justice is at least 5,000 years old, what kinds of evidence lawyers can use to prove guilt or innocence has changed significantly over the years. Many methods used in past are inadmissible today. At the same time, technology has given modern investigators tools that were unimaginable just a century ago.

Here’s a short history of the types of evidence used in criminal cases over the past 5,000 years.


Eyewitness Testimony (Ancient Times – Present)

The oldest type of criminal evidence is classic eyewitness testimony. As experts will tell you, it’s also one of the least reliable. While we all think we can “believe our own eyes,” the human brain is programmed to “fill in the blanks” when not enough information is available. In other words, we often make things up, even if we’re unaware we’re doing so.


Voluntary Confessions (Ancient Times – Present)

The Bible tells us that confession is good for the soul. Many accused individuals, consumed by guilt (or a compulsion to get credit for their “accomplishments”), give themselves up of their own free will. Voluntary confessions are generally considered “slam dunks” for prosecutors, since they are rarely challenged.

Involuntary Confession

Involuntary Confessions (Ancient Times – mid-20th Century)

Confessions or other evidence extracted through torture or intimidation is again as ancient as criminal justice itself. It was certainly a favorite technique of state and church officials during Europe’s Middle Ages. In the United States, it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that confessions gained through beatings were finally outlawed nationwide.

Saliva Test

Saliva Tests (Ancient Times – 19th Century)

In many ancient cultures, a “saliva test” was used to determine a suspect’s guilt or innocence. In China, an accused would be required to fill his/her mouth with rice, then spit it out. In the Middle East and Africa, it was common for an investigator to put a red-hot poker or knifeblade onto a suspect’s tongue. Regardless of the tool involved, it was assumed a guilty person would be so nervous he/she would get “dry mouth,” leading to incriminating results.

Written Evidence

Written Evidence (19th Century – Present)

The written word has been around for 5,000 years. However, for most of that time, only noblemen, government officials, clergy and scholars could actually read and write. In the mid-19th century, books and paper finally became cheap enough for the masses to afford, and literacy rates skyrocketed. With this literacy explosion came more and more criminal cases in which suspects were found to have recorded their exploits, often in private journals. Which goes to show you that just because you’re educated doesn’t mean you’re smart.

Hair, Skin and Fabric Evidence

Hair, Skin and Fabric (Late 19th Century – Present)

The invention of the compound microscope around 1850 gave law enforcement an important new tool in their fight against crime. By the late 19th century, crime labs throughout Europe and the United States were using microscopes to match bits of hair, skin and clothing found at crime scenes to samples taken from criminal suspects.


Fingerprints (1892 – Present)

Fingerprints being unique to their owners has been known since the days of the Babylonians. However, it wasn’t until 1892 that a fingerprint was successfully used in a criminal prosecution. It took another 30 years for the FBI to establish its own fingerprint filing system.

Blood Analysis

Blood Analysis (1966 – Present)

Blood spatter and blood typing has been used in forensic investigations since the early 20th century. But in 1966, science took a huge leap forward when English biologists Margaret Pereira and Brian Culliford discovered that blood proteins were as unique as fingerprints, helping to make specific identifications possible.

DNA spiral

DNA Analysis (Mid-1980s – Present)

The structure of human DNA was identified in the early 1950s. By the mid-1980s, DNA science had been refined to the point it could be reliably used to identify — or exonerate — suspects, often from evidence gathered decades earlier.

Crime Video

Video Evidence (Mid-1980s – Present)

In the late 1970s, home videotaping systems like Sony’s Betamax and Phillip’s VHS hit the consumer market. By the mid-1980s, videotaping equipment had become cheap and reliable enough that it could be installed as part of closed-circuit surveillance systems. Since then, video surveillance has become universal, and with it a new source of evidence to use in the prosecution of criminals. After all, cameras don’t lie. They don’t have memory lapses, and they don’t make things up.

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Everest University Online

Criminal evidence is just one of the many topics you’ll study as you earn a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from Everest University Online, a division of Everest University.

Everest University Online’s Criminal Justice bachelor’s degree program can be completed in as little as four years with you attending classes during the evenings, on weekends, or whenever your schedule is free. This makes the online education program perfect for working adults and people taking care of a family.

In addition to criminal evidence, other topics you’ll study as you earn your bachelor’s degree include:

  • Criminal procedure and the Constitution
  • Criminal Investigations
  • Corrections
  • Interviews and interrogation
  • Terrorism
  • Criminal justice communications
  • Gang activity and drug operations
  • Alternatives to incarceration
  • Catastrophic event response planning
  • Computer crime
  • Women, crime and criminal justice
  • Victimology
  • Criminal justice ethics and liability

When you graduate, careers you can pursue with this degree include:

  • Case worker
  • Corrections officer
  • Evidence clerk

For more information on the Criminal Justice bachelor’s degree program from Everest University Online, contact Everest University today.

Financial aid is available for those who qualify.

Tagged with: Articles, Criminal Justice

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