Soil is a biogeochemical material found on the outermost layer of the earth’s crust. It is composed of various layers where the distribution of constituents is not uniform. The heterogeneous nature of the soil is due to the variation in weathering, climatic and anthropogenic factors which vary with respect to distance. That’s why it is concluded that the soil of a specific area is individual to that area in respect of its chemical, physical and biological characteristics (Law of Individuality).

Trace evidence is one of the important pieces of evidence present at a crime scene under the radar of a crime scene investigator since they are difficult to erase and easy to solve a case if analyzed properly. They are admissible in court as evidence and soil is one of them.

Though the soil is not connected directly to any human yet they still help in the examination of the crime scene and link many unsolved mysteries.

What is Soil?

The soil found in nature is composed of components that are divided broadly as clay, silt, and sand depending upon the size of the particles of soil.

Clay has the smallest-sized particles, silt has moderately sized particles and sand has the largest particles.

The different types of soil found on earth vary according to the soil compositions in different percentages. Also, the particle nature of the soil is responsible for its transfer from object to object (Law of Exchange).

The transfer may take from the crime scene to items like shoes, garments, or tires and subsequently from that item to another surface. The former is called primary transfer and the latter is secondary transfer.

The value of soil as evidence relies on its prevalence at crime scenes and its transferability between the scene and the criminal. The physical, chemical and biological characteristics of the soil contribute to its forensic examination in a criminal investigation

Soil is divided into 6 layers depending on its composition:

  • O-horizon – It is made up of dead and decaying organic matter called humus.
  • A-horizon – It is a mixture of humus and minerals and is known as topsoil.
  • E-horizon – It is composed of sand and silt.
  • B-horizon – This layer is made up of clay and minerals.
  • C-horizon – It consists of broken rock pieces and very little humus.
  • R-horizon – Last layer of soil made up of solid rock.

Soil can be acidic or alkaline in nature depending upon the factors like- mineral composition, water salinity, fertilizers, pollution, rainfall, etc. The pH of the soil is considered one of its identifying characteristics.

Also, soil shows variation in its color due to the presence of various minerals in different percentages which is unique to each location.

In 1856, Professor Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg (1795–1876) a natural scientist at the University of Berlin, acquired samples of sand from stations along railway lines and used a light microscope to compare the sand with the station from which the sand was most likely to have come from. He is considered the founder of both soil microbiology (a discipline of soil science) and microgeology (i.e. micropalaeontology, which is a discipline of geology). 

Examination of Soil

The examination of soil requires the collection of two types of soil samples i.e., questioned and controlled.

A questioned sample is collected from the objects present on the crime scene like the clothes of the victim, footwear, tires, digging tools, etc. while the controlled sample is collected from the area under the vicinity of the crime scene for comparison.

The questioned soil samples present to the mobile objects like shoes, clothes, etc. should be collected as it is along with the objects in separate bags. If the soil sample is present on the immobile objects then it is scraped out using a scraper.

The controlled soil sample is collected from the ground using a spatula or spoon. It is seldom necessary to go deeper than ½ or ¾ of an inch of the surface for the collection of controlled soil samples.

Wherever footwear or a tire mark is found, tire control samples should be collected from as close an area to the impression as possible. It is advised to collect the samples in separate plastic or glass containers that are properly labeled with the initials and the chain of custody should be maintained. 

Methods of Soil Examination

The analysis of soil is based on the comparison of the questioned and controlled soil samples. The methods of soil examination are :

1. Side-by-Side Visual Comparison

It compares the soil according to its color and texture, which is a preliminary examination method.

2. Density Gradient Method

This method uses the density of the soil as the comparing quantity. It involves the use of two organic liquids which differ in their densities and are filled in the glass test tubes (6-10mm in diameter and 25-40 cm in length).

The liquids form two layers in the test tubes due to their difference in density (density gradient– heavier liquid being at the bottom and the lighter one on top). The soil sample is then added to the test tubes where the component particles of the soil get settled in the liquid having the same density as that of the particles.

This gives rise to a density distribution pattern of soil which can be compared with various soil samples. Usually, bromoform and bromobenzene are used to form the density gradient.

3. Microscopic Methods

This method reveals the particle structures and types of minerals present in the soil samples. Binocular microscopes give information about the minerals present in the soil. Petrographic microscopes reveal information about rock particles, minerals, and biological matters.

Further, more fine examination, like structures of the particles can be deciphered by the use of scanning electron microscope(SEM) and transmission electron microscope(TEM).

4. XRD method

The X-Ray Diffraction method uses X-Rays to elucidate the unique structure of the mineral particles present in the soil samples.

5. DRIFT (Diffuse Reflectance Infra-Red Fourier Transform) Method

The Diffuse Reflectance Infra-red Fourier Transform method is a nondestructive method that identifies organic matter, clay minerals, and quartz in soil by virtue of the peaks of vibrational frequencies pertaining to the functional groups present in these naturally occurring substances.

Soil is a piece of trace evidence that establishes a link between the crime scene, victim, and suspect. The soil of one location is different from that of another location not only in its chemical constituents like ions, polymers, and carbonaceous deposits but also in physical parameters like color, texture, and density.

Such diverse characteristics serve as identification markers for different units of landscape and make the soil valuable evidence to link a suspect to the crime scene

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