Monthly Archives: October 2011

Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Style Blunders in Fiction

Jodie is back to discuss how each of us can improve our writing.

Style Blunders in Fiction

No, I’m not talking about the fashion police coming after you. I’m talking about those little errors and bad habits that creep into your manuscript, weaken your message, and add up to an overall feeling of amateurish writing. The good news is that, unlike the more critical creative flow of ideas for plot and characters, these little bad habits are easy to correct, resulting in a much more polished, compelling manuscript.

1–Take out wishy-washy qualifiers like quite, sort of, almost, kind of, a bit, pretty, somewhat, rather, usually, basically, generally, probably, mostly, really, etc. Forget “He was quite brave,” or “She was pretty intelligent” or “It was almost scary.” These qualifiers dilute your message, reduce the impact, and make the imagery weaker. Take them out. Even very is to be avoided – it’s like you’re saying the word after it needs reinforcing. “She was beautiful” packs more punch than “She was very beautiful.”

2–Show us, don’t tell us how your characters are feeling. Avoid statements like, “He found that funny,” or “The little girl felt sad.” Show these emotions by their actions, words, and body language: “Eyes downcast, shoulders slumped, head down, she refused to answer as she pushed her food around the plate.”

3–Avoid colorless, overused verbs like walked, ran, went, saw, talked, ate, did, got, put, took. Get out your thesaurus (or use the MS Word one. Hint: look up the present tense: walk, run, eat, say, etc.) to find more expressive, powerful verbs instead, like crept, loped, stumbled, stomped, glimpsed, noticed, observed, witnessed, spied, grunted, whimpered, devoured, consumed, gobbled, wolfed, munched, or bolted.

4–Avoid –ing verbs wherever possible. Use -ed verbs instead – they’re stronger and more immediate. “He was racing” is weaker than “He raced.” “They searched the house” is more immediate than “They were searching the house.” Rewrite -ing verbs whenever you can, and you’ll strengthen your writing and increase its power.

5–Keep adverbs to a minimum. Instead of propping up a boring, anemic verb with an adverb, look for strong, descriptive, powerful verbs. Instead of “He walked slowly” go for “He plodded” or “He trudged” or “He dawdled.” Instead of “She ate hungrily” say “She devoured the bag of chips,” or “She wolfed down the pizza.” Instead of “They talked quickly,” say “They babbled.”

6–Use adjectives sparingly and consciously. Instead of stringing a bunch of adjectives in front of an ordinary, overused noun, find a more precise, expressive noun to show rather than tell. Overuse of adjectives can also turn your writing into “purple prose” that is melodramatic and overly “flowery.”

7–Dialogue tags – Stick with the basic he said and she said (or asked) wherever possible, rather than “he emphasized” or “she reiterated” or “Mark uttered,” etc. These phrases stand out, so they take the reader out of the story, whereas “said” is almost invisible. However, I like dialogue tags that describe how something is said, as in he shouted, she murmured, he grumbled, she whispered. You can often eliminate the dialogue tag altogether and just use an action beat instead: He picked up the phone. “That’s it. I’m calling the cops.”

8–Describe the stimulus, then the response: When writing an action scene, make sure your sentence structure mimics the order of the actions. The reader pictures the actions in the order that she reads them, so it’s confusing to read about the reaction before finding out what caused it. So describe the action first, then the reaction:  Instead of “He yelled when the dog bit him,” write: “The dog bit him and he yelled.”

9–Avoid the passive voice: For greater impact, when describing an action, start with the doer, then describe what he did, rather than the other way around. Use the more direct active voice wherever possible. Instead of “The house was taped off by the police,” write “The police taped off the house.” Also, avoid empty phrases like “There is”, “There was,” “It’s,” “It was.” Jump right in with what you’re actually talking about.

10–Avoid negative constructions wherever possible – they can be confusing to the reader. Instead of “I didn’t disagree with him,” say “I agreed with him.”

11–Avoid frequent repetition of the same word or forms of the same word. If you’ve already used a certain noun or verb in a paragraph or section, go to your thesaurus to find a different way to express that idea when you mention it again. Also, avoid repetition of the same imagery. Whether you’re describing the setting, the weather, or the hero or heroine, vary your wording.

12–Avoid formal sentences and pretentious language. Rather than impressing your readers, ornate, fancy words can just end up alienating them. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “if a reader is constantly consulting a dictionary when reading your prose, you’re dragging him from the story. Words in manuscripts such as capacious, accretion, plangent, occluded, viridian, arboreal, sylvan, obdurant, luculent, longueur, rubescent, and mendacious always pull me from the story. Just say no to showing off.” As Morrell points out, “Simple words are close to our hearts and easily understood…. simpler words are unpretentious, yet contain power and grace….Pompous words are alienating, boring, and outdated.”

Resources: Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, by Jessica Page Morrell; Manuscript Makeover, by Elizabeth Lyon; How NOT to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman.

Jodie Renner is a freelance manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, and other crime fiction. Check out Jodie’s website at and her blog, dedicated to advice and resources for fiction writers, at, as well as Crime Fiction Collective, of which she is a founding member.


Posted by on October 30, 2011 in Guest Blogger, Writing


Q and A: What Obstetrical Problems Might my Pregnant Puritan Wife Encounter That could Result in Her Death?

Q: In the novel I’m working on, one of the characters is a Puritan whose wife dies during childbirth. I’ve been unable to find any information concerning medical practices in 17th century New England and I’m hoping you might be able to assist. What were the specifics of obstetric practices at that time. Were midwives used? Were husbands present for delivery as they very often are today?


A: In the 1600s there were no hospitals and doctors knew very little. How little? It wasn’t until 1628 that Sir William Harvey (1578-1657) published “De Motu Cordis,” his famous treatise, outlining his discovery that the blood actually circulated through the body. Prior to this, physicians lived under the erroneous assumptions espoused by Aristotle, Galen (approx AD 130-201), and Andres Vesalius (1514-1564). The Germ Theory of infectious diseases wasn’t even a flicker in the minds of scientists. It wasn’t until 1870 that Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch developed this concept. Vaccination as a means of preventing disease was over a century away: Smallpox (Edward Jenner, 1796), Anthrax and Rabies (Pasteur, 1881 and 1882, respectively), Tetanus and Diptheria (Emil von Behring, 1890), and Polio (Jonas Salk, 1952). Antibiotics such as penicillin (Alexander Flemming, 1928) did not exist and surgical anesthesia (Crawford Long, 1842) wasn’t around.

Needless to say, childbirth in the 17th Century was a risky proposition. Mothers often died as did the infant. Most commonly from bleeding and infection, since methods to control bleeding were crude and treatment of infections was non-existent. The problems of breech or other abnormal births led to death more often than not.

At that time, few doctors existed, especially in America, and the population was predominately rural. Most people lived on farms or in very small communities and the large majority of these areas did not have a doctor for miles if at all.

Though trained midwives were common in Europe, there were few if any in America during Puritan times. Thus, deliveries were often performed by a member of the community. Perhaps one of the older women, who became a de facto midwife. She would likely travel by horseback or on foot from farm to farm and attend the births.

The deliveries would take place in the home, usually in the bedroom. If the home was a single room cabin, family and friends would wait outside until the ordeal was over. Hot water, freshly washed cloths, bare hands, and a healthy dose of fear and anxiety were the only available tools. An understanding of post-partum infections (called Puerperal Sepsis) wouldn’t be delineated until Ignaz Simmelweis developed sterile delivery techniques in 1847. If severe bleeding or infection occurred, prayer and comfort were the only salves. And if the infant entered the birth canal in an abnormal fashion, such as a breech (butt first) or footling (foot first) presentation, death of the mother and the infant was likely. Obstetric anesthesia and analgesia consisted of a piece of wood or leather the mother could bite down on. Perhaps in some communities alcohol or tincture of opium would be available. Interestingly, both alcohol and opiates tend to diminish uterine contractions with the net effect of prolonging the mother’s ordeal.

The husband would not likely be present during the delivery. That is a more modern invention. The 1600s were very puritanical. Even a physician wasn’t often allowed to undress a female patient for his examination. If he needed to listen to the patient’s heart or lungs, he would place his ear against the patient’s chest. With a female patient, this was rarely allowed. Thus, Rene Laennec invented the stethoscope (1816) to circumvent this problem.

All in all, childbirth was a dangerous, bloody, and noisy affair. Also immensely rewarding, since the very survival of the community depended upon it.


Posted by on October 27, 2011 in Uncategorized


Ecstasy and PTSD

Can the illicit drug ecstasy help those who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? It seems like an odd pairing to say the least. A drug that induces psychedelic experiences to treat a disorder that is fraught with psychiatric abnormalities seems counterintuitive at first glance. But a recent article in the Journal of Psychopharmacology seems to suggest just that.

They took a group of 20 patients who suffered from chronic PTSD and who had failed the normal psychotherapeutic and pharmacological treatments. They randomize them to placebo and ecstasy (MDMA) and each group received two 8 hour psychotherapy sessions in which they were asked to relive their trauma multiple times. The purpose was to allow them to re-experience the events in an unthreatening environment and hopefully help them overcome the PTSD symptoms the original event created. This is a process known as extinction learning. It seems to have worked, at least to some degree. Those that were given the ecstasy fared better than those that received the placebo by an 83% to 25% margin.

Hopefully this treatment will pan out.

My book Stress Fracture deals with the treatment for PTSD and how it can go horribly wrong.



Guest Blogger: Jodie Renner: Creating a Worthy Antagonist

I want to welcome back Jodie for a discussion of the all-important bad guys.


by Jodie Renner

You’ve outlined a plot and created an appealing, complex protagonist for your thriller or other crime/action fiction — great start! But what about your antagonist? According to James N. Frey, “the villain is your best friend, because the villain creates the plot behind the plot — the plot that has to be foiled by the hero.”

The hero or heroine of your suspense novel needs a worthy opponent who is standing in his/her way and threatening other innocent people. As James Scott Bell says, “Without a strong opponent, most novels lack that crucial emotional experience for the reader: worry. If it seems the hero can take care of his problems easily, why bother to read on?”

And thrillers and other crime fiction need a downright nasty bad guy — but not a “mwoo-ha-ha” caricature or stereotype. If your villain is just a wicked cardboard caricature of what he could be, your readers will quickly lose interest. As Hallie Ephron says, “Characters who are simply monstrously evil can come off as old-fashioned clichés.”

To create a believable, complex, chilling villain, make him clever and determined, but also someone who feels justified in his actions. Ask yourself what the bad guy wants, how he thinks the protagonist is standing in his way, and how he explains his own motivations to himself.

How does your villain rationalize his actions? He may feel that he is justified because of early childhood abuse or neglect, a grudge against society, a goal thwarted by the protagonist, a desire for revenge against a perceived wrong, or a need for power or status — or money to fund his escape. Whatever his reasons, have them clear in your own mind, and at least hint at them in your novel. Like the protagonist, the antagonist needs motivations for his actions.

To give yourself the tools to create a realistic, believable antagonist, try writing a mini-biography of your villain: his upbringing and family life, early influences, and harrowing experiences or criminal activities so far. As Hallie Ephron advises us, “Think about what happened to make that villain the way he is. Was he born bad, or did he sour as a result of some traumatic event? If your villain has a grudge against society, why? If he can’t tolerate being jilted, why? You may never share your villain’s life story with your reader, but to make a complex, interesting villain, you need to know what drives him to do what he does.” Creating a backstory for your antagonist will help you develop a multidimensional, convincing bad guy.

Many writing gurus advise us to even make the antagonist a bit sympathetic. James Scott Bell says, “The great temptation in creating bad guys is to make them evil through and through. You might think this will make your audience root harder for your hero. More likely, you’re just going to give your book a melodramatic feel. To avoid this, get to know all sides of your bad guy, including the positives.”

Bell suggests that, after we create a physical impression of our antagonist, we find out what her objective is, dig into her motivation, and create background for her that generates some sympathy — a major turning point from childhood or a powerful secret that can emerge later in the book.

Not everyone agrees with that approach, however. James Frey, on the other hand, says “in some cases, it is neither necessary nor perhaps even desirable to create the villain as a fully fleshed-out, well-rounded multidimensional character.” Many readers just want to a bad guy they can despise, and are not interested in finding out about his inner motives or his deprived childhood. That would dilute our satisfaction in finally seeing him getting his just deserts.

Frey does feel it’s extremely important to create a convincing, truly nasty villain, one who is “ruthless, relentless, and clever and resourceful, as well as being a moral and ethical wack job,” and one who is “willing to crush anyone who gets in his way,” but doesn’t feel it’s necessary to give us a great deal of information on the villain.

As kids, we loved to see good prevail over evil, and the nastier the villain, the harder they fell — and the greater our satisfaction. Perhaps Frey’s “damn good villain” hearkens back to those times, and his ultimate demise evokes greater reader satisfaction. Forget analyzing the bad guy — just build him up, then take him out!

On the other hand, many readers today are more sophisticated and want to get away from the caricatures of our popular literary heritage… hence, advice from writers like Ephron and Bell to develop more multidimensional antagonists with a backstory and clear motivations.

I’d say there’s room for both approaches in modern fiction, and probably the thriller genre favors the “just plain mean and nasty” villain. Never mind the psychological analysis of the bad guy—we just want to see Jack Reacher, Joe Pike or [fill in your favorite thriller hero or heroine] kick butt!

What do you think? Make the villain nasty, evil and cruel through and through, or give him some redeeming qualities to make him more realistic? Show some of his background and motivations, or just stick with his current story goals and plans?


Hallie Ephron, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel

James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller

James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing



Jodie Renner is a freelance manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries, and other crime fiction. Check out Jodie’s website at and her blog, dedicated to advice and resources for fiction writers, at, as well as Crime Fiction Collective, of which she is a founding member.


Posted by on October 20, 2011 in Guest Blogger, Writing


Can Paternity Testing Be Done With a Simple Maternal Blood Test?

Paternity testing in a pregnant female can be problematic because to perform a definitive paternity test you must have DNA samples from the mother, the father, and the child. After birth this is simple since easily obtainable buccal swabs can be used to obtain DNA from all 3 parties.


But what if this is prenatal? Obtaining fetal DNA requires amniocentesis, an invasive procedure where a needle is inserted through the woman’s abdomen and into the uterus. Amniotic fluid, which contains fetal cells and DNA, can then be removed for testing. This is a safe and easily performed procedure but isn’t without complications such as inducing premature labor, introducing infections, and rarely directly damaging the fetus.

Now it seems that the folks at DNA Diagnostics Center in Fairfield, Ohio, a company that is a major provider of paternity testing materials, has come up with a technique that might preclude the need for amniocentesis. During pregnancy some of the fetal blood sneaks into the maternal circulation and therefore can be sampled along with the mother’s blood with a simple blood test. This new technique then allows the “subtraction” of the maternal DNA profile from the DNA profile found in the blood leaving behind what must be the fetal DNA pattern. Then sampling DNA from the suspected father would give the needed DNA from all 3 individuals to perform the paternity testing.

If this technique works and passes further scrutiny it promises to change prenatal paternity testing for the better.


Posted by on October 16, 2011 in DNA, High Tech Forensics, Medical Issues


Guest Blogger: Eleanor Sullivan: 19th Century Medicine, Part 2

I want to welcome back Eleanor Sullivan with the second of her two-part series on the state of medical care in the 19th Century.


Medical Care in the 19th Century-Part Two


Previously I blogged about the illnesses that 19th century people suffered along with what they thought caused them to become sick. This blog will reveal the treatments they endured.

Because illness was believed to result in internal weakness (or sin) or that the external environment had invaded the body, aggressive treatment was designed to rid the body of its noxious incursions. Blood-letting, purging, and puking were the preferred treatments.

Blood letting, Purging, and Puking

Blood letting relieved excess blood and returned the flow to normal, it was thought. This was such an accepted belief that the reason women were believed to have fewer illnesses is because they bled regularly. To relieve pressure in the blood, the doctor lanced a blood vessel and often used glass cup to produce a vacuum to draw the blood out. Blood-sucking leeches might also be used. Often the patient would faint from the blood loss, assuring the patient and the doctor that the treatment was indeed successful.

The goal of purging was to evacuate the bowels, another way of ridding the body of unwelcome invaders. If a cathartic, using such body-damaging medicines as mercury (called calomel), wasn’t successful, enemas would be given until the body had been flushed of all contaminants.

Puking was induced by several means. Ipecacuanha root (known today as ipecac) crushed into a powder or lobelia bark, also powdered, were administered in a tincture. If nothing else was available, warm salt water could induce vomiting. Again, every bit of disease must be eliminated from the body.

Medicines and Pain

Powerful medicines were believed to be necessary to combat powerful illnesses. Mercury again was a favorite. Producing dramatic effects, such as headaches, tremors, and loosened teeth, patients were certain that they were receiving potent care. Mercury poisoning was not unusual. In fact, Louisa May Alcott is believed to have died in 1888 of mercury poisoning from the mercury she’d received for a bout of typhoid in 1863.

Pain was another sign that the medicine was potent. Patients persisted in downing medicines even realizing they suffered from its ill effects. Thank goodness for opium! Opium, and its form in a tincture, laudanum, was commonly and legally available. Opium masked symptoms so patients felt grateful relief.

Opium and alcohol were also the basis of patented medicines, promoted to cure every ailment, including venereal diseases, tuberculosis, or “female complaints.” It wasn’t until 1906 when Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, forcing manufacturers of patent medicines to reveal their ingredients and discontinue false advertising claims, that the widespread use of patent medicines ceased.

Herbs and Homeopaths

Medical treatment in the unsettled parts of America (and most of the country was unsettled in the early 19th century) was especially arduous, albeit they were often spared the rigorous administrations of medical doctors (licensed as early as 1811 in Ohio). Care often fell to a local midwife who administered herbal substances. Recipes were handed down through families and communities and often helped. My character, Adelaide, is a midwife and herbalist in 1830s Ohio.

Homeopaths also treated 19th century patients. Homeopathy was promoted by a German physician, Samuel Hahnemann in the 18th century. Hahnemann observed that cinchona bark, used to treat malaria, induced symptoms of malaria. Thus, he surmised that inducing symptoms with highly diluted preparations would cause the patient’s own vital force to expel the disease. He called this the law of similars. There is no scientific evidence that the treatment was effective. Again, patients were spared energetic medical treatments and may have recovered on their own. The leader of Zoar, Joseph Bimeler, who appears in my stories, was trained in homeopathy in Germany before emigrating to America.

Surgery, Anesthetics, and Antiseptics

Surgery in the early 19th century was crudely done (usually by a barber), often unsuccessful (that is, the patient died), and excruciatingly painful. As the century progressed, however, use of anesthetics emerged to sedate the patient during the operation, carbolic acid was used as an antiseptic to prevent infection, and German surgeons used steam heat to sterilize instruments. Surgery continued to advance as the 20th century dawned.

In the end, the people who survived were sturdy stock. Many of us owe our good health to our robust ancestors.

Eleanor Sullivan is the award-winning author of books for nurses, the Monika Everhardt mystery series, and her latest, Cover Her Body, A Singular Village Mystery.


Guest Blogger: Eleanor Sullivan: 19th Century Medicine, Part 1

I want to welcome Eleanor Sullivan to The Writers Forensics Blog. She will post a two-part series on the state of medical care in the 19th Century.

Medical Care in the 19th Century—Part One

As a nurse for more than 25 years, I’ve seen my share of changes in medical care. From starched white uniforms, paper files, and long hospital stays to casual scrub suits, electronic records, and one-day surgeries, change has characterized the medical and nursing professions. But, as I began my quest to learn about 19th century medicine, nothing prepared me for the difference between then and now.

Let’s start with what diseases were called. You might not recognize these today. According to a mortality schedule, the causes of death in Tuscarawas County, Ohio in 1850 included dropsy, flux, canker, apoplexy, spasms and my favorite, “no opening.” Other than the last one (I can only guess at that!), here’s what we call those diseases today:

Dropsy—edema, usually from cardiac failure

Flux—diarrhea caused by dysentery

Canker—inflammation caused by infection (remember, no antibiotics existed then)

Apoplexy—unconsciousness caused by a stroke



So we’ve come a long way. Now we have diagnoses confirmed by symptoms, lab tests, x-rays, CT scans, and MRIs. We know what causes most diseases, how to prevent many (vaccines anyone?), and how to treat most others. We’re not perfect. Cancer, heart disease, and strokes still kill.

But we think we’re pretty smart. Just knowing the cause directs researchers to the cure. Back then people thought they knew what caused illness, too.

Internal Causes

The cause of disease, it was believed, was inside the person. Those who became ill were weak. Or unclean. Or they sinned and God brought on their illness to punish them. Remember Job of the Bible? God tested him. With that example in mind, religious folks admonished the sick to admit their sins and ask God for forgiveness. But what if they didn’t get well? I guess God wasn’t satisfied with their confession.

External Causes

The outdoors brought on many illnesses, according to 19th century Americans. The night air was filled with miasmas, poisonous, foul-smelling, dark-colored vapors that held malevolent power. Mists rose from the ground (or more likely, stagnant water) like wicked sprites to creep over the land and threaten the populace with their toxic fumes.

Nineteenth century Americans lived in fear of the miasmas. The solution was to keep inside with tightly-closed windows no matter how hot it was. (I wonder how many died of heat stroke instead.) Miasmas weren’t everywhere, though. Some locales were known for them and travelers were admonished to take care to avoid any place where they saw fog.

What illness did they fear miasmas brought? Everything! Any illness after exposure to night air was thought caused by it.  What 19th century people didn’t believe was that illness traveled from person to person. It rose up out of their surroundings instead.

But they were wrong.

Though not entirely. Germ theory evolved during the late 19th century but antisepsis to prevent diseases from germs lagged behind. Florence Nightingale, the founder of contemporary nursing, insisted on cleanliness, especially rigorous hand washing, when caring for the wounded during the Crimean War in 1854. Her patients improved but still it would be years until the medical community would be confined that they could prevent the spread of disease by something as simple as washing their hands. (This problem still exists today in modern hospitals where lack of adequate hand washing, among other safety problems, causes thousands of deaths each year, according to the Institute of Medicine.)

But don’t be too quick to dismiss 19th century beliefs. Blame the victim is still true today. If he hadn’t smoked, drank, overate,  etc., he wouldn’t have cancer, cirrhosis, or heart disease. That’s not entirely wrong but, remember, even people who never smoked, exercise, and eat healthy still die. There’s no getting out of it.

You think what you’ve read so far is bad? This is the first part of a two-part blog on medical care in the 19th century. Come back next month to hear how they treated illness. Then you’ll be exceedingly glad to be living in the 21st century!


Eleanor Sullivan is the award-winning author of books for nurses, the Monika Everhardt mystery series, and her latest, Cover Her Body, A Singular Village Mystery.



Posted by on October 9, 2011 in Medical History


Sniffing Out the Time of Death

You’ve seen a paramecium before. It was that little football-shaped (actually a prolate spheroid) critter that you viewed under the microscope in high school biology class. These tiny creatures are covered with microscopic hair-like oars known as cilia, which they use to move around in water.


Similar cilia line your nose and airways. They help you remove inhaled dust and dirt from your lungs and nose. Apparently they continue moving, at a progressively slower rate, for up to 20 hours after death. Biagio Solaria and his colleagues at the University of Bari in Italy have studied this phenomenon and found that the this decline in mobility is predictable and observing the beating rate of cadaver cilia might provide an accurate time of death in the first 24 hours after death. They will report their results in the upcoming International Symposium on Advances in Legal Medicine in Frankfurt, Germany.

Since all methods for determining the time of death are fraught with inaccuracies, a new method is always welcome. Hopefully, this one will pan out.


Posted by on October 5, 2011 in General Forensics, Time of Death


Guest Blogger: Lisa Black: Expert Witness Testimony

My guest today is Latent Print Examiner and CSI Lisa Black. She will discuss some of the rules for expert witness testimony in the courtroom.



How does a judge decide which expert witnesses should be allowed to present evidence to a jury? Fingerprint identifications are admitted; lie detector tests are not. What is the basis for this decision?


For any body of knowledge to be accepted in court it has to pass either Frye or Daubert standards. Frye vs. U.S., (1923) held that expert testimony must be based on scientific methods which are sufficiently established and accepted to have gained general acceptance in its particular field. About 21 states use the Frye standard. The remaining states have adopted the 1993 Daubert vs. Merrell Dow (1995) suggestions (not requirements, though they are treated as such): Has the technique been tested in actual field conditions (and not just in a laboratory)? Has the technique been subject to peer review and publication?  What is the known or potential rate of error? Do standards exist for the control of the technique’s operation? Has the technique been generally accepted within the relevant scientific community?

Fingerprint science easily satisfies all these factors except for one possible sticking point — the error rate. Examiners say there is no error rate, which sounds to non-examiners as if we’re insisting upon our own infallibility, but we say that because as mentioned before, the methodology always corrects the errors, so there might be errors by people but not by the methodology. In a more basic sense an error rate is impossible to concoct, and not only because we can’t agree on what an error would be. Do clerical errors count? Do non-identifications count, where the prints really did match but the examiner didn’t want to say so, either because they rushed through too fast to see it or because they didn’t feel comfortable testifying to it? We encourage examiners not to go out on a limb if they’re not willing to put their job on the line for a statement made in court, but should this considered an error just as saying the prints match when they don’t? And would the number of any errors be divided by the number of identifications—in which case the error rate would be miniscule—or by the number of comparisons, in which case the rate would be incomprehensibly infinitesimal. And the only times we know that an examiner has said prints match when they don’t is when another examiner catches this error—and therefore the methodology works, therefore it’s not an error of the methodology. And we certainly can’t base an error rate on assumed errors that we didn’t catch, because we have no proof that they exist. Hence, no error rate.

So if your manuscript revolves around evidence presented in court, you might want to check out whether you live in a Daubert state or a Frye state!


Lisa Black’s fourth book Defensive Wounds was released by Harper Collins on September 27. Forensic scientist Theresa MacLean battles a serial killer operating at an attorney’s convention. Lisa is a full time latent print examiner and CSI for a police department in Florida.



Posted by on October 3, 2011 in Uncategorized

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