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New research could help nurses and police detect bruising on dark-skinned people

For many assault and domestic violence cases, investigations begin with finding evidence. But for victims with darker skin, it can be difficult for nurses and police to detect bruising.

This difficulty can hinder the care and justice these survivors receive. But now, new research is looking to make this 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 wounds.

Those medical records often become evidence for criminal investigators.

“Bruises tell us a lot about what happened to a particular patient who was abused and unfortunately if I can’t see the bruise clearly, it really limits my ability to what to document and what to record in the medical record,” said Scafide.

Scafide and his team at GMU found that blue or violet light was up to five times better at detecting bruising on those patients.

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

“I think this speaks to the racial disparities embedded in a lot of the research we do to this day, that all these very traditional methodologies have been developed to identify bruises on white skin,” said Nancy La Vigne, director of the National Institute of Justice, who funded the study.

The search continues. Scafide is now developing a set of guidelines for forensic nurses on the use of blue or violet light to detect bruising. This is of particular interest to Nancy Downing, an associate professor at Texas A&M University’s Center for Excellence in Forensic Nursing.

“It’s really important to me that we’re not promoting something to be used without people understanding how to use it properly,” Downing said.

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

Chris Fabricant, an attorney with the Innocence Project, agrees.

“The front-end use of unreliable or untested forensic evidence to secure convictions really makes it nearly impossible to reverse wrongful convictions unless you have conclusive DNA,” Fabricant said.

DNA is often not available at crime scenes, despite its prominence in popular culture, which makes developing objective standards for bruising assessment all the more important, he said.

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