Research Improves Detection of Bruises in Assault Cases

Crime and Justice News

Shannon Johanni, Research Director, Academy for Justice – October 3, 2022

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has announced study results and further funding for cutting-edge techniques of forensic trauma analysis.

In 2016, NIJ awarded Katherine Scafide at George Mason University a grant to study the use of alternative light sources to better detect trauma induced bruising. The research focused on using different wavelengths — colors other than white light – for improved bruise detection.

The research trial looked specifically at which wavelengths allowed for better detection based on skin color, injury depth, and injury age, and showed that alternative light sources aided detection in a variety of ways.

Using yellow goggles while viewing an injury in violet (415nm) or blue (450nm) wavelengths improved detection probability across skin color, and through injury age up to 4 weeks post incident, particularly for strongly pigmented skin.

Scafide and her colleagues further expanded the reach of their results by building an ongoing “translation-into-practice” project to bring ALS skin assessment and documentation to the forensic nursing community.

This researcher-practitioner partnership focused on the development of evidence-based guidelines for practice, procedure, implementation, and evaluation of ALS skin assessments in the forensic nursing sphere.

Now, with a 2022 NIJ grant, Scafide is leading the way in applying machine learning, or deep learning, for bruise assessments. This new line of research looks to determine whether image analysis by computers can provide a quantitative, objective assessment of the presence of bruising, and if it can assist in understanding how bruises change over time.

This research is impactful for forensic trauma analysis overall, but more critically, it has the potential to remedy some of the racial and gender disparities that exist in criminal justice response to violence against communities of color and intimate partner violence.

When bruises aren’t visible, it is easier to dismiss or minimize a victim’s account of assault. Lack of visible injury has also been demonstrated to reduce victims’ willingness to participate in the criminal justice process.

Injury severity on darker skin tones is more difficult to detect, resulting in under response (criminally and medically) or no response at all. Strangulation – a not uncommon experience for many victims of intimate partner violence – rarely results in signs of injury on the skin, again resulting in inadequate criminal and medical system response.

Discussing the study results with NBC, Scafide noted that “[b]y relying just on our eyes to see a bruise, unfortunately, we are creating a disparity in how we are able to detect injuries across diverse populations that can lead to differences in legal outcomes.”

Arrest, charging, and conviction for injury related assaults all rely on the ability to see an injury. As Dr. Scafide and her colleagues note, “[u]ltimately, incorporating an ALS illuminated examination into forensic clinical practice may help to reduce the health and criminal justice related disparities experienced by patients of color who report interpersonal violence.”