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Category Archives: Crime Scene

Charlie and Me

Manson

No, I never met Charles Manson, one of the many things in life for which I’m grateful. However, he had an effect on my life. I grew up in the South. We never locked our doors. I’m not even sure we had a key. Neighbors looked after neighbors and crime was not a common occurrence. A different world.

Then, 1969 came along. With the Tate-Labianca murders, the American psyche changed and Woodstock died. Flower power took on an entirely different aura.

When it was discovered that a diminutive miscreant named Charles Manson and his so-called hippie Family were the culprits, it sent the chill even deeper into our collective bones. If this strange assortment of losers could wreak such havoc, who was safe? Then, Vincent Bugliosi’s wonderful book HELTER SKELTER came out and the real story was revealed. This group not only committed murders but they prepared for them by doing what Charlie called “creepy crawling.” They would break into people’s homes at night, creep around, maybe rearrange some furniture, and leave. This was training, Charlie-style. This is when I started locking my doors.

My encounter with “Charlie’s World” took place in 1975. I was doing my cardiology fellowship at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston. I came to California for the first time to run in San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers race and then on to Los Angeles to visit my friend Ben, who lived in Marina del Rey. I got in late at night and so the next morning Ben asked what I wanted to do on my first day in LA. The conversation went like this:

Me: Do you know where Benedict Canyon is?

Ben: Sure.

Me: That’s where I want to go.

Ben: Why?

Me: You’ll see.

And we were off. As we wound up into the canyon, Ben asked what I was looking for. My response: Just keep driving and I’ll know it when I see it. We soon came to Cielo Drive and told him to turn. We followed the road to its dead-end. Ben’s little orange Fiat was pointed at a high chain-link gate. I got out and walked to it, gripping the metal with my fingers. The property was only partially visible as was the house.

Tate Gate

Ben asked where we were and what this was. I pointed to the house and said, “Rght there is where Sharon Tate was murdered.”

I had to see it. I had read the stories in the newspapers and of course Bugliosi’s book, but it all read like fiction. It was hard to believe that something like that actually happened. I had to see concrete evidence. And here it was. The scene of the crime.

So Charlie died. Good riddance. I’m just sorry he wasn’t executed long ago. He wiggled through the system thanks to Rose Bird’s court briefly overturning the death penalty in California.

But in the end, Charlie succumbed. AMF.

Charles Manson

Charlie 2012

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Firearm Examinations Go 3D

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People often use the term ballistics when they actually mean firearms examination. Ballistics, in its purest definition, is the flight pattern analysis of things like rocks, bullets, artillery shells, and rockets. But the term ballistics has become the vernacular for firearms examinations.

One of the important analyses that takes place in many homicide investigations, is a comparison of bullets removed from a corpse with those test fired by a suspect weapon. As the bullet travels down the barrel, scratches and grooves are cut into the outside of the bullet by the spiral rifling within the barrel and these apply unique characteristics to the bullet. If the test-fired bullet and the bullet removed from the victim can be matched in this fashion, it suggests that the bullet came from that gun to the exclusion of all others.

But, it’s not that simple. During the manufacturing process of the barrel, a tool is used to mold the shape the barrel’s lumen or to hollow out its interior. This process creates the bullet’s pathway from the firing chamber to the muzzle and also adds the rifling characteristics of the weapon’s barrel. Each is different since the molding or cutting process varies with each attempt.

As a tool is used to manufacture barrel after barrel, the tool itself also changes. It is worn, chipped, grooved, and damaged with each use. Think about your kitchen knives. Over time they become dull and must be resharpening. This is because the tool – – the kitchen knife – – itself is altered with each use. This means that as barrels are produced by a particular manufacturing tool, each will be slightly different. However, if two barrels are made by the same tool consecutively, the differences can be so small as to be undetectable. This could lead to false matches.

The same is true of the gun barrel as it is used. With each firing, the grooves are microscopically altered. If a bullet is obtained from the crime scene and is compared to one test fired from the actual murder weapon, it might not match if the weapon has been fired many times between the killing and its discovery. The barrel is altered each time a bullet passes through it and this can be enough to make a match impossible.

To help examiners, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has developed a database of 3-D images which will hopefully help examiners be more accurate in their assessments. Obviously, this data will be subject to the same vagaries as described above but with these clearer, three-dimensional images some of the confusion might be reduced and matches might be more accurate down the road. This will be interesting to keep an eye on.

 

Can Your DNA Reveal Your face?

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You’ve seen it on TV. The CSI-types plug in a DNA sample and like magic a 3-D, holographic image of the bad guy pops up like a ghost. Or some such stuff. Pretty far-fetched. Or is it?

DNA analysis is primarily used for comparison, meaning that a sample obtained from a crime scene is compared with a sample obtained from a suspect to see if the DNA from the scene belongs to the suspect, or not. This is how many cases are solved. DNA is highly accurate for making such comparisons.

But what if there is no suspect and therefore no DNA to compare with that obtained at the crime scene? The police will then go to databases such as CODIS to see if the perpetrator has DNA on file from previous crimes. Often this helps. Often a match is made this way. But what if the perpetrator is not in the system? The police are back to square one.

DNA can of course reveal the sex of the individual very easily. It can also often determine hair and eye color and other physical features. But can it give a “picture” of the individual who left the DNA behind? Not yet, but things are moving that way.

Here are a few fun articles on this technique:

DNA Phenotyping Recreates the Face of an Alleged Serial Killer: https://www.forensicmag.com/article/2016/08/dna-phenotyping-recreates-face-alleged-serial-killer

First DNA-Phenotyped Image of “Person of Interest” in Double Homicide: https://www.forensicmag.com/article/2015/01/first-dna-phenotyped-image-person-interest-double-homicide

Phenotyping and Cold Cases:
https://www.defrostingcoldcases.com/phenotyping-cold-cases/

 

Is Fingerprint Analysis Becoming More Automated?

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Each person possesses their own unique fingerprint pattern. No two prints have ever been found to be the same. This includes identical twins, who have the same DNA profile but different fingerprints. Not sure why this is, but it is. This means fingerprints are the perfect tool for identification and comparison.

But fingerprint analysis has a problem. It is subjective, in that it depends on the skill and dedication of the examiner. Another important factor is the quality of the print obtained from a crime scene. Those done in the police station, where the suspect’s prints are rolled in ink or obtained by a digital scanner, are clean and clear for the most part. Each of the ridges is easily visible and all of the nuances of prints are readily apparent. But at the crime scene, criminals refuse to cooperate in that way. They leave behind partial, smeared, and unclear prints that make analysis difficult. They also leave prints on surfaces that aren’t the best for retaining latent prints.

This makes the examination process tedious, time-consuming, and difficult. But what if computer techniques could enhance an unclear or partial print to the point that it could be compared by the computer itself? This would narrow the choices and lighten the burden on examiners so they would have more time to focus on the details and make sure the print indeed matched or didn’t.

A new technique for automating fingerprint analysis is under development. It’s pretty cool and promises to be helpful.

 

Bugging Your DNA

Mosquito

 

Everybody hates mosquitoes. They irritate, they bite, and they carry disease. In fact they are likely the most deadly creature on Earth since they spread malaria through many regions of the world. They also spread things like yellow fever and Zika – – – and a host of other nasty little problems.

But can mosquitoes place you at a crime scene? If so, how would this work?

Let’s say investigators come to a murder scene and find a smashed and dead mosquito on the bed sheets near the corpse. It might be reasonably assumed that this mosquito bit someone and that person then killed it, leaving it where it fell. Could that be used to ID the killer?

It appears that human blood can remain in the mosquito’s stomach for up to two days. And if this is extracted, it can be used in DNA profiling. So the mosquito at the crime scene could be collected and tested, and if DNA were found, a profile could be generated and lead back to the killer.

Esoteric, but fascinating.

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2017 in Crime Scene, DNA, High Tech Forensics

 

Holmes, Thorndyke, Locard, Gross, and the Modern CSI

There are no bigger names in the history and development of modern crime scene investigation than French investigator Edmond Locard and his Austrian counterpart Hans Gross. These two men shaped the development of crime scene investigation and even today their techniques create the cornerstone of forensic science. Locard’s Exchange Principle underlies every forensic technique.

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EDMOND LOCARD

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HANS GROSS

They were also great fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke. Locard even suggested that students of police procedure read the Sherlock Holmes stories and learn from his techniques.

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Both the real-life investigators and the fictional ones had one thing in common: the careful and meticulous approach to any crime scene, taking care to collect all useful evidence, while not damaging or contaminating it.

In my book Forensics For Dummies, the methods and techniques used to evaluate a crime scene and collect evidence are explained in great detail. Check it out if you want to know more about the techniques that saw their origin more than 100 years ago.

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DNA Solves the 80-Year-Old Death of Belgium’s King Albert I

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Belgium’s King Albert I was found dead on February 17, 1934. The experienced rock climber was found at the base of a large formation with a gash to his head. Speculation that he was murdered ran rampant. During World War I, he had resisted Germany and attempted to block German troops from entering his country. They eventually did, but he fought them every step of the way. Was Germany somehow complicit in his untimely death?

Many felt that he had been killed elsewhere and his body dumped where it was found. The evidence suggested otherwise. His glasses were found nearly 40 feet above him – – he was very far-sighted – – and his climbing rope was still attached to his body. But, the most important evidence that suggested a fall rather than a murder was blood on the leaves near the King. If this blood was indeed Albert’s, then he must have shed it at that location, meaning he was at least briefly alive when he reached the ground at the base of the rock formation. If he had been killed elsewhere and dumped, there would have been no blood around the body. Dead folks don’t bleed. The leaves were apparently collected and preserved.

Flash forward to 2014. The blood of the leaves was tested. Not only was it human blood and but also it was matched against two relatives of the King. These results suggested that the blood was indeed the King’s blood and it had likely been shed from a head injury he received from his fall. This 80-year-old “murder” case seems to be a tragic accident.

 
 
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