Research casts light on bruises in people with darker skin to help prosecutors New scientific research is making it easier to detect bruises on people with darker skin, which has big implications for assault and violence cases that go to court.

Law

New research could help nurses, police detect bruises on people with dark skin

New research could help nurses, police detect bruises on people with dark skin

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A new study funded by the National Institute of Justice, the Justice Department's research arm, could help forensic nurses shed new light on bruises suffered by people with darker skin, which could be a boon for prosecutors. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images hide caption

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Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

A new study funded by the National Institute of Justice, the Justice Department's research arm, could help forensic nurses shed new light on bruises suffered by people with darker skin, which could be a boon for prosecutors.

Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

For many cases of assault and domestic violence, investigations begin with a search for proof. But for victims with darker skin, it can be hard for nurses and police to detect bruises.

That difficulty can stymie the care and the justice these survivors receive. But now, new research is trying to make that process more rigorous and effective.

Katherine Scafide, an associate professor at George Mason University, worked as a forensic nurse for eight years. During that time, she noticed something about survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence with black or brown skin: it was hard to see their injuries.

Those medical records often become evidence for criminal investigators.

"Bruises tell us a lot about what has happened to a particular patient who's experienced violence and unfortunately if I can't see the bruise clearly it really limits my ability of what to document and what to report in the medical record," Scafide said.

Scafide and her team at GMU found that blue or purple light is as much as five times better at detecting bruises on those patients.

The Justice Department praised the work as a model of inclusive research.

"I think this speaks to the embedded racial disparities in a lot of the research we do to date, that all of these methodologies that were so traditional were developed to identify bruises on white skin," said Nancy La Vigne, director of the National Institute of Justice, which funded the study.

The research continues. Scafide is now developing a set of guidelines for forensic nurses on using blue or purple light to detect bruises. That's of special interest to Nancy Downing, an associate professor at the Center for Excellence in Forensic Nursing at Texas A & M University.

"It's really important to me that we are not promoting something to be used without people understanding how to use it correctly," Downing said.

Juries want to see evidence of injuries. But there need to be scientifically validated standards for using these technologies to help prevent wrongful convictions.

Chris Fabricant, a lawyer at the Innocence Project, agreed.

"The use on the front end of unreliable or untested forensic evidence to secure convictions makes it really almost impossible to undo miscarriages of justice unless you have conclusive DNA," Fabricant said.

DNA is often not available at crime scenes, despite its prominence in the popular culture, which makes it all the more important to develop objective standards for evaluating bruises, he said.