Forensic logistics: this crime ‘howdunit’ is sexier than it sounds

The painting of the Sistine Chapel was an exercise in logistics, which can be analysed for insights into who and what was involved in its creation. The same goes for any crime requiring some organisation. EPA

Mention the word “logistics” and most people would probably think of trucks or the shipping of freight at a mundane best. A more textbook definition might be that logistics is the managed movement of resources, goods and/or services. In the 21st century, it is the precise choreography of commerce.

Waxing ever more lyrical though, English novelist Tom McCarthy in his first novel, [Remainder]( (Alma Books, 2006), had this to say:

… all great enterprises are about logistics. Not genius or inspiration or flights of imagination, skill or cunning, but logistics. Building pyramids or landing spacecraft on Jupiter or invading whole continents or painting divine scenes over the roofs of chapels: logistics.

Michelangelo’s transformation of the Sistine Chapel ceiling being an act of logistics is indeed a different way to imagine that particular pinnacle of creativity. The protagonist of McCarthy’s story is an accident victim whose trauma results in memory loss, which compels him to physically reconstruct vaguely recalled scenes and situations from a damaged past. With the help of a logistics expert, these elaborate re-enactments become more obsessively detailed with each further attempt to achieve authentic representations.

Logistics in this sense is problem solving that is embedded with modelling techniques, scheduling algorithms, rules of thumb, scenario planning and good, old-fashioned intuition.

Logistics of crime is open to analysis

Logistics involves the planned transportation of goods from source to destination. In business parlance, this sequence of processes involved in the production and distribution of a commodity is known as a supply chain. Criminal activity can infiltrate legitimate supply chains or have their own covert versions emerge through organised behaviour.

With this in mind, I seek to launch a new sub-discipline entitled forensic logistics. The adjective “forensic” describes that which pertains to, is connected with, or used in courts of law. Forensic science is the broad category of scientific knowledge - be it medicine, chemistry, biology, linguistics, psychology or anthropology - applied in a jurisprudence context.

The ‘reasoning backwards’ Sherlock Holmes first employed in A Scandal in Bohemia can be applied to the logistics of a crime. Wikimedia/Sidney Paget (1860-1908)

Since criminology is a sub-field of sociology that principally examines social theories of the criminal mind, its use as a practical discipline may have at times seemed rather limited. This was especially true if such ideas focused too much on social levels of crime rather than individual aspects. To counter this, a discipline dubbed “criminalistics” was introduced in the 1960s to apply rigorous scientific methods to determine the unique individual nature of evidence in analysing criminal acts.

Criminalistics was once described as reasoning backwards in the practice of criminal law. If a crime is committed, then this is a goal from which one thinks in reverse to determine the culprit who is the cause. The aim is to determine a sequence of optimal criminal initiation actions or the probable “how” factors of the perpetrators.

As Sherlock Holmes famously said in A Scandal in Bohemia (via Sir Arthur Conan Doyle):

It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.

What Sherlock Holmes is referring to here is the interpretation of general conclusions from particular examples, which is reasoning from the bottom up. This is referred to as inductive thinking rather than his more famous art of deduction. But it could also be thought of as a kind of abductive reasoning, a problem-solving strategy where one works out from an observation a guess as to what is the most likely hypothesis for that observation.

A ‘howdunit’ approach to solving crime

Take the assassination of John F. Kennedy. There are many different vantages for what happened (i.e. a plethora of conspiracy theories) but the most likely proposition is that Lee Harvey Oswald was responsible as a lone gunman. The facts of a criminal case become the catalyst for causal theories couched in narrative, with one of them perhaps being what actually happened. Additional support for this could come from Occam’s razor: the simplest answer is often the correct one.

The practical application of abductive reasoning is one motivation for adding forensic logistics to the arsenal against crime. This budding sub-discipline will identify and categorise applicable “what-if” scenarios in commodity movement. It will then use this wisdom to analyse and stop illicit supply chains, possibly even designing mismanagement strategies as planned impediments to similar crimes in the future.

At a conceptual level, forensic logistics will deal with hypothetical situations of criminal organisation to solve the case, so to speak. This sets it apart from the application of chemistry in forensic science, say, where empirical evidence is of primary concern. In the case of forensic logistics, if a crime is committed then the task is to work out all possible scenarios involving movement of goods or services related to the illicit activity.

As an evolving paradigm, it is envisaged that the principal activity of forensic logistics will initially be the collection and scrutiny of relevant case studies of criminal incidents. These would be subjected to retrograde analysis to determine possible planning behaviours in movement patterns during a criminal act. Rather than an obsession with whodunit, the goal will be to offer howdunit options that seek to unpack the organisation of a crime.

For example, the Warren Commission Report is a classic, though contentious, forensic document about the Kennedy assassination which could be probed in this way. Compare this official tract with Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film JFK, which features a variety of conspiracy-based scenarios but also contains, albeit briefly, the Oswald-acted-alone viewpoint.

Correlation may not imply causation but a constellation of possible scenarios is a narrative buffet that could yield an acceptable solution. What was the logistics of the Kennedy assassination?