Monthly Archives: October 2010

Guest Blogger: Forensic Science in South Africa by Jade Scully

We see it on TV all the time; cops swab dried patches of blood or roll a cotton bud inside a suspect’s cheek, pop the specimens into a test tube, shake them up and within hours they’ve matched DNA to missing people and/or murder suspects, and cases are closed in time for evening drinks. Unfortunately for victims and cops, forensic science isn’t that easy or fast in real life. Technology, knowledge and skills are evolving rapidly but the gap between fictional and factual CSI abilities still exists, and in some countries the gap is bigger than others.

In South Africa, for instance, the gap is more like a chasm. It’s an open secret that the state of the country’s (two) forensic laboratories are appalling. Equipment is out of date and in disrepair, there are chronic staff shortages and what staff there are lack the skills and knowledge to operate functioning equipment properly. Administration is just as bad, with valuable evidence being lost, contaminated or stored and forgotten for so long and in such bad conditions that samples are no longer viable. Backlogs can be measured in months and in some cases years.

There is some good news on the horizon, however, on 12 October the Ministry of Police released a statement to the effect that the backlog is slowly being whittled away and that we have a turnaround strategy to thank for more efficient prosecutions and more accurate convictions. The strategy involves upgrading equipment, developing skills and addressing staff shortages.

According to the statement, overall there was a 19 per cent decrease in the backlog of cases handled by the South African Forensic Science Laboratories (FSL) for the year 1 April 2009 to 31 March 2010. When going into specifics it was revealed that the backlog in ballistics had decreased by 39 per cent, in biology investigation by 33 per cent, and in questioned documents by 21 per cent.

This turnaround, which can be attributed to a joint effort by the South African Police Service (SAPS) and a number of international experts, may seem like a drop in the ocean, but for rape victims who have been waiting for years to see justice, the drop is a godsend.

When looking at recent developments, though, it seems like a matter of one step forward two steps back. On 22 October, West Cape News reported on a brand new DNA machine capable of matching a suspect’s DNA with samples on a database within four short hours. The machine would make little difference to South African forensic investigators, however, as the country has yet to establish a fully functioning DNA database. There is a database of sorts, but it has samples from just over 100 000 convicted offenders, as opposed to the millions in the UK and US.

One of the key problems here is the lack of legislation allowing for the creation of such a database. A bill (Criminal Law Amendment Bill (DNA Bill)) was actually drafted two years ago, but it is still under review.

There are also other problems that need to be overcome if South Africa’s forensic backlog is to become a thing of the past. Staff need proper training and that starts with education. There are currently very few tertiary opportunities to study forensics, let alone specialise in certain areas. Most experts are self-taught, and because there are not enough experts to learn from many mistaken assumptions go unquestioned. Basic education of police officers is short on the ground, as many trample important forensic evidence before the experts arrive on the scene. Proper care is also not always taken when cataloguing and preserving evidence.

This is why the turnaround strategy, of which the Ministry of Police is so proud, is so important. Upgrading equipment and facilities is well and good, but skills need to be developed in order to put them to good use.

Jade Scully is a copywriter, blogger and online marketing enthusiast who has published her work on a series of online publications and websites including Africadventure, Entertain SA, Technifrique, The Greenery, Youdidit, Firstpage as well as  Leeulekker who provide a range of medical health resources for Southern Africans.


Posted by on October 28, 2010 in General Forensics, Guest Blogger


Q & A: Can the Bruise Patterns on My Victim Be Matched to the Attacker’s Hands?

Q: In a new book, my heroine is framed for a murder that involves a beating through martial arts techniques followed by a fatal push. Are there wound specifics that help authorities determine whether someone was pushed? Could the bruising left by the attacker’s knuckles, hands, or feet be compared to a suspect’s foot or hand?

J. Pearce, Toronto, ON, Canada

A: Pushing almost never leaves bruises that would help distinguish a push from an accidental fall. If the victim were restrained by hand, then bruises that matched the attacker’s fingers might be found on the victim’s arms or legs. It takes a great deal of pressure to restrain someone and this can cause bruising.

The ME might be able to determine whether the bruises and injuries on the victim resulted from a fall or a series of blows with hands or other objects. Rocks and concrete and other objects that the victim might have fallen on can leave bruises just as hands and bats and other weapons do. Often ME can discern a distinctive pattern that would distinguish exactly what made the bruises. Or not. It can go either way.

For example, a rope or a chain used for strangulation or to restrain the victim can leave behind bruises that reveal the braid or link pattern. A blow from a baseball bat or a flat board would leave different bruising patterns—the bat a narrower bruise with diffuse edges and the board a wider bruise with sharper edges. Bite marks often leave bruises that reflect the teeth pattern of the biter and these can sometimes be used to match to a dental impression made from a suspect.

Knuckles could leave a row of round bruises. The size and spacing could be used to rule out certain hands as having delivered the blow while leaving those of a similar size and spacing on the suspect list. The same could be true for the edge of the hand or foot. Either could leave a linear bruise that reflected the thickness of the side of the hand or foot. This would be less clear than would be the knuckles. Again, this could exclude certain suspects.

If the attacker wore a ring with an initial or other distinctive pattern, this pattern could be reflected in a bruise that could be matched to a suspect’s ring.

In your scenario, if knuckle or hand edge bruises were found that did not match the size of your character’s hands then she might be excluded as having made them. If the bruising pattern matched the size of her hands, this would not be conclusive evidence against her but would not remove her from the suspect list.
For more info on trauma patterns, check out HOWDUNNIT:FORENSICS



Dead Babies and Stolen Identities

Here’s a hint: if you plan to run for parliament, don’t steal someone’s ID. Apparently David Garrett didn’t get the message. Apparently he needed to clean up his past record and therefore decided he would become someone else. In 1984 he visited a cemetery and found the grave of a child who had been born around the same time as him. He took the child’s name, obtained a birth certificate, and from there was able to reinvent himself complete with passports and a seat in the New Zealand Parliament. Recently however, his chickens came home to roost and his deceit was uncovered.

Writers often use false identity in their stories. There are many ways to accomplish this but visiting an old graveyard to find a dead child is one of the most common methods. It’s not as difficult as it might sound. A child that has been dead for several decades is usually not on any of the governmental roles. If the name and city can be uncovered by sniffing around graveyards, it is a small step to obtain a birth certificate. Often the child’s death and birth are not filed together and therefore no one is the wiser. People need to obtain copies of their birth certificates all the time in this service is readily available. Once a birth certificate is in hand the sky is the limit for building a new persona.

11-1-10: Today I’ve received a couple of comments regarding this post from apparent defenders of Mr. Garrett. The IP address for two of them suggests that they are associated with the Parliament in NZ so the possibility that they are political buddies of Mr. Garrett looms large. The issue was that, according to them, I should not have said that by stealing a dead baby’s ID Mr. Garrett was trying to hide a shady past when indeed he wasn’t. I don’t know what his motives were but from the articles I read he apparently did steal a dead baby’s ID, he did pay a 2002 fine for assault, he did mislead a court about his criminal record in  2005, and he did resign from parliament. So maybe the passport deal wasn’t to hide a “shady past” but the misleading a judge just might have been. Apples and apples. Lying about your past to gain or hold a seat in government is still lying about your past.

And I’m still trying to come up with an innocent reason for needing a fake passport. Any ideas?

My intention with this post was to show fiction writers how one of their characters might change his/her identity. I don’t know Mr. Garrett and in fact had never heard of him until I saw the newspaper article on his having stolen a dead baby’s ID. I in no way meant to harm Mr. Garrett anymore than he already has done himself. Had that been my intention I might have linked this article to Mr. Garrett’s Wikipedia page. But his other “achievements” weren’t germane to the post.

Of course you can’t always trust Wikipedia but then again there is that smoke and fire deal.


Lee Goldberg’s Movie and Bouchercon 2010

I just got back from San Francisco and Bouchercon 2010. Always a great conference and this year was outstanding. Saw many old friends and made a few new ones and that’s what conferences are all about. One of the highlights came on Saturday night when Lee Goldberg debuted his short film REMAINDERED. It is the laugh-out-loud-funny story of a once successful and now failed writer who murders his only fan and then attempts to clean up the crime scene after referring to FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES.

Unfortunately this film was not made for commercial release but rather was an independent, amateur film done by Lee, a couple of local universities, and the amateur actors he assembled in Kentucky. It might come to a film festival near you and if so don’t miss it. It’s that funny.

Keep up with Lee on his blog:


Posted by on October 18, 2010 in Writing


Date Rape Drugs: Stealthy and Dangerous

The so-called date rape drugs are dangerous and treacherous. For the most part they are tasteless and odorless and can easily be added to food or drink without the victim knowing. Andrew Luster used GHB. Others used Rohypnol or ecstasy. Still others have employed the rave drug ketamine. Each of these has the potential to render the victim very compliant while appearing more or less normal. That’s the danger. Their friends at the bar, where the victim has surreptitiously received one of these drugs, might not know that she is anymore intoxicated than a couple of drinks might do. They might think she’s simply having fun. They might think the guy she walks out the door with is harmless. That’s not always the case.


Andrew Luster


Such a situation might be part of the alleged gang rape of a 16-year-old girl in Pitt Meadows, Vancouver, Canada. It turns out that the girl was at a party, a rave, where she might have been slipped one of these drugs. Regardless, she was apparently assaulted by several boys and suffered significant trauma. If that weren’t bad enough photographs of the assault were shared on Facebook where they went viral across the Internet. The rape victim was thus raped again.


Then yesterday, I came across a similar scenario that occurred at Central Washington University this past weekend. Apparently some substance was slipped into the drinks of as many as 12 students at a party and many became ill. Was this a stupid prank? Was this part of some planned sexual assault? It’s too early to know the motive or if the substance employed was one of these drugs, but it surely is suspicious. It will be interesting to follow this one.

I have an article on these drugs on my website but here are a few details about these dangerous chemicals:

Rohypnol (Street Names: Roofies, Roaches, Rope, Mexican Valium) is a benzodiazepine sedative in the same family as Valium and was developed to treat insomnia. It is no longer manufactured nor approved for use in the US, but is available in Mexico and many other countries. It is typically found as white tablets that can be crushed and dissolved in any liquid. Roofies cause sedation, confusion, euphoria, loss of identity, dizziness, blurred vision, slowed psychomotor performance, and amnesia. The victim has poor judgment, a feeling of sedated euphoria, and poor, if any, memory of events. Victims may suddenly “wake up” or “reenter reality” hours later with vague or no memory of what has happened.

Ecstasy (Street Names: E, X, XTC, MDMA, Love, Adam) was originally patented in 1914 as an appetite suppressant but was never marketed. It is made in underground labs and distributed in pill or capsule form. It has amphetamine (speed-like) as well as hallucinogenic effects. The user has enhanced sensations and feelings of empathy, a mood lift, increased energy, and occasionally profound spiritual experiences or an equally profound and irrational fear reaction. As with Rohypnol the victim is often compliant and has no memory for what transpires while under the influence of the drug.

GHB (Street Names: G, XTC, E, Liquid Ecstasy, Liquid E, Easy Lay, Goop, Scoop, Georgia Homeboy) was developed over 30 years ago and was sold as a “natural” food supplement and muscle builder. It comes as a white powder that easily dissolves in water, alcohol, and other liquids. Currently, it is often found as “Liquid E,” a colorless, odorless liquid that is sold in small vials. Often when someone buys ecstasy, they are given GHB instead. And vice versa. The buyer often does not know exactly what he or she is getting.

The effects of GHB appear quickly, five to 20 minutes after ingestion, and typically last for two to three hours. It causes loss of inhibitions, euphoria, drowsiness, and, when combined with alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and many other drugs, increases the effects of these drugs. Many kids use it to enhance the effect of alcohol for a “cheap drunk.” Users report that GHB makes them feel happy, sensual, and talkative. They might experience giddiness, drowsiness, amnesia, an increased sense of well-being, enhanced sensuality, and sometimes hallucinations. And as with the other drugs in this group, memory might be impaired.

Ketamine (Street Names: K, Special K, Kit-Kat, Purple, Bump) is a rapid acting intravenous or intramuscular anesthetic agent that causes sedation and amnesia. It was a common surgical anesthetic agent in the 1970’s but fell from favor in part due to its unpredictable hallucinogenic and psychiatric side effects. It is still occasionally used medically in burn victims since it tends to “dissociate” the patient from the pain, making the intense discomfort of burns more bearable. It is popular in veterinary medicine as an animal sedative, leading to another popular street name, Cat Valium. Ketamine is often stolen from animal hospitals and clinics.

Ketamine comes as a liquid, which when injected acts as a general anesthetic. It is often heated in a microwave or on a stove top to evaporate the liquid, leaving behind a white powder residue. This powder can then be added to any liquid, compacted into pills, or snorted, which is the preferred and most common method of usage. Its effects appear very quickly and last for a couple of hours. They include dissociation from reality, hallucinations, compliance, and loss of memory for events that occur under its influence.

A question I often get from mystery writers is what drug could be used to overpower someone or make them compliant so they can be kidnapped or taken away or what ever the story requires. The date rape drugs are always a good choice for the writer in the circumstances. While narcotics can render the victim unconscious, this requires that the perpetrator carry the victim and this is often not possible in the story. These drugs make the victim very compliant yet ambulatory and therefore work well for this purpose.

In the real world, the treachery lies with the same effects. The victim might appear normal, might laugh and joke with friends, might seem to be in full control of her faculties, when in fact, the opposite is the case.


Posted by on October 12, 2010 in Interesting Cases, Poisons & Drugs


Religious Rite and Darwinian Evolution

Darwinian Evolutionary Theory encompasses such tenants as natural selection, survival of the fittest, and environmental adaptation. Simply put, those members of a species who were best equipped to survive whatever environment they faced did so while those less well equipped perished. The survivors then passed on the genetics of whatever adaptation they had been blessed with and the entire species evolved and thrived.

Nature is full of examples.

The bigger, stronger, and faster gazelles avoided becoming cheetah food while the slower ones did not. They passed along their added speed to the next generation. Longer necked giraffes could better reach the tender leaves of certain trees so could survive where those with shorter necks could not. This adaptation was likewise passed along. Snow leopards blessed with a winter white coat avoided predators, while those that didn’t were easy targets. Soon all snow leopards carried that genetic advantage.

These are the basic tenets of evolutionary change.

We see this in medicine on daily basis. Bacteria are constantly adapting to survive the antibiotics that are used against them. Those bacteria who can avoid death by penicillin are free to procreate and pass on this resistance to the next generation. The very deadly infection known as methicillin-resistant staph aureus (MRSA) is an example of this. Staph aureus is a nasty little dude. Infections of the skin, the lungs, and particularly the cardiac valves by these bacteria often prove deadly. Methicillin is a form of penicillin originally designed to attack these very organisms but with time they developed resistance to all penicillins, including Methicillin. This is one of the reasons antibiotics should be taken until completion of the prescription but unfortunately many people feel better after two or three days and stop whatever antibiotic they were prescribed. This allows those bacterial organisms, which might ultimately have been killed, to survive and adapt to the presence of the antibiotic. This is passed on from generation to generation and nasty little bugs like MRSA are created.

So what does all this have to do with religious rites?

It seems that every year the Zoque of Southern Mexico gather at a particular cave known as Cueva del Azufre for an annual ritual. The cave is inhabited by molly fish. A portion of the ritual is to impregnate the water of the cave with the mashed root of the Barbasco plant. This root contains a powerful anesthetic that stuns the fish so that they can then be used in the religious ritual.

A recent study by Mark Tobler of Texas A&M University showed that over time the fish in this cave have become more resistant to the anesthetic toxin. They have adapted to the traditions and religious practices of the Zoque. Not consciously of course, but from the fishes’ point of view the drug is an environmental stress that has resulted in some change in the biochemistry of the species so that they can survive in this altered environment. This adaptation has been passed from generation to generation.

The irony of a religious rite promoting evolutionary change is thick to say the least.


Q&A: Buried Alive or Bleeding Corpse?

Q: Crime author Lee Goldberg responded to my tweet and said you might be able to help. I’m also an author and am writing a series of mystery stories for kids called The Western Mysteries. During my research I came across this real-life account in a diary entry from 1861:

Nov 5 1861 – Campbell came this AM & got my pick to dig a grave – Miss Abby nash died this morning around 9 oclock, of typhoid fever… She was 17 yrs old –

Nov 6 – Cloudy – Morning I rode Ben to Peacock’s – learned that Miss Nash is to be buried at 10 AM – rode home – hitched Ben & Poncho to wagon – got ready – David and I rode to Peacocks – Took Mrs Peacock & Annie and a gentleman friend of theirs on board – drove to Nash’s – friends & neighbors had assembled – Mr Barquay from Berreyessa officiated as clergyman – he read from the Bible, prayed, exhorted & we sang a hymn to the tune of Wyndham – four of us brought out the coffin & put it in Jim Smith’s spring wagon – She looked very natural – procession moved to grave which was dug over next the fence on the line between Nash’s and Valpy’s farms – a very lonely out of the way place – opened the coffin that all who wished might take last look at corpse – her head was not properly pillowed so that in crossing the rough field I heard it knocking against side of coffin, and a large quantity of blood came from the right nostril – I helped lower her into the grave – funeral over – drove round & left our Peacock passengers & drove home – This funeral was got up on the very cheapest possible scale, and cost old Nash very few dimes – quite a saving

Was she buried alive?

Caroline Lawrence

A: Corpses do not bleed and I doubt she was buried alive. She could’ve been since the determination of death at that time wasn’t all that easy but most likely she was dead and what came from her nose was not blood.

She could have had trauma to her face and blood could have collected in the sinuses. Blood initially clots and then begins to break down and separate into a contracted clot and serum. The serum, the liquid part of the blood, is usually tinged reddish brown in this circumstance and when they altered her position some of this could have leaked from her nose. This would simply be separated blood following the dictates of gravity but could easily have been confused with active bleeding.

Also this could have been purge fluids. These appear as part of the decay process. These fluids result from decay of the tissues within the head, are blackish in appearance, and flow from the nose and often the mouth. They usually appear a couple of days after death since it takes that long for the decay process to get that far. There are circumstances under which this process is sped up such as in a very warm environment. Another is when someone has an infection. Here bacteria are already scattered throughout the body and therefore the decay process does not depend upon the intestinal tract breaking down first and releasing the bacteria within the bowel into the system. The young lady in this case would already have bacteria in her bloodstream from her typhoid fever and therefore the decay process would proceed much more rapidly.

So she was not buried alive and she did not bleed but rather this was either a broken down clot from her sinuses or purge fluid.

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