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Category Archives: Crime Scene

Guest Blogger: Lisa Black: Everything Old Is New Again

EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN

My character, Cleveland forensic specialist Maggie Gardner, is unrealistic in one respect—she still spends a lot of time at her microscope looking at tiny bits of trace evidence, hairs, fibers, paint, and glass.

No one does that any more. Well, maybe Abby on NCIS, but she’s the most unrealistic forensic person on screen, even though she’s so cute we don’t care.

Sure, on old episodes of Dragnet you can see some nerdy guy in a lab coat explain how these pollen spores are only found in one quadrant of the city, but that art had already died before I started in forensics in 1994. We got spoiled by DNA, by ‘absolutely yes’ or ‘absolutely no’ answers. No one wanted to hear that this red nylon was ‘consistent with’ the suspect’s shirt, because they wouldn’t be hearing how many red nylon shirts were manufactured, how many were sold in this area, and while we’re at it let’s hack into Macy’s sales figures and find out who they were sold to. Unlike television, forensic labs do not have databases of all this information and would probably be violating a few important laws if they did. Nope, ‘consistent with’ was all you got. Take it or leave it.

 

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POLYURETHANE FIBERS

They left it. Microscopic analysis became more or less a thing of the past. Forensic techs today wouldn’t recognize a pollen spore or know what to do with it if they did. Fibers are ignored. Hairs are examined only to screen out candidates for, well, DNA.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I peruse the latest Journal of Forensic Sciences and stumble on an article about using something called palynological scanning to rapidly evaluate suspect and victim testimony.

 

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POLLEN

Palynology, it turns out, is a fancy name for…pollen. Pollen and spores and other ‘microscopic entities’ of trees, shrubs and herbs. No hairs, fibers or paint, but you get the idea. This analysis proved useful in some cases of rape or assault, in situations where the victim and suspect both contacted the ground and pieces of the ambient flora could attach to their clothing.

 

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In one case the suspect said he and his victim engaged on a lawn behind a public building. The victim said he attacked in a heavily wooded area, the spot surrounded by beech, birch and sycamore trees. Each site had a distinct mix of items—palynomorphs– with complicated Latin names. The suspect didn’t deny that he had made contact with the victim so willingly gave up the clothing he’d been wearing at the time, and sure enough, all those little palynomorphs indicated that he had been in the woods and not on the lawn. This did not prove that he had committed the crime. It only proved that he had lied about the sequence of events, and that was sufficient to prompt a confession. Otherwise this case would have languished in an eternal hell of ‘he said vs. she said.’

Of course had this guy listened to legal counsel before he made a statement, he probably would have figured out to come up with an alternative, and innocent, reason to have been rolling on the ground near the crime scene, and all these spores would have been for naught. As it is, surely the defense will bring out statistics regarding the vast number of beech and sycamore trees in the area, perhaps in the suspect’s own neighborhood, and the idea that maybe he had been doing some gardening earlier in the week in that same pair of pants. This is why things like pollen analysis fell out of favor with the courts…but the spores are still out there, voluminous, distinct and quite concrete little buggers that will stick in all sorts of places one might wish they wouldn’t. So are hairs, fibers, and paint. Maybe ‘consistent with’ is all you can get out of them. But maybe, sometimes, that’s enough.

So in my books Maggie still looks at all this stuff because it’s more visible and visceral than yet one more DNA sample. Let’s face it—you’ve seen one cotton swab, you’ve seen them all. Bright clothing fibers are much more entertaining.

And this trace evidence will lead her down a number of roads—some of which, it turns out, she’d be better off avoiding.

Wiltshire et al. “A Rapid and Efficient Method for Evaluation of Suspect Testimony: Palynological Screening.” Journal of Forensic Sciences, Vol. 60, #6, Nov 2015, pp 1441-1450.

 

L Black

Lisa Black has spent over 20 years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into 6 languages, one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series.

Lisa’s Website: http://www.lisa-black.com

 

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Hello! Just a quick note to let you know that my new book, That Darkness, is now available wherever books are sold!

It seemed like a typical week for crime scene specialist Maggie Gardiner–a gang boss shot in an alley, a lost girl draped over an ancient grave, a human trafficker dumped in the river–nothing all that out of the ordinary for the Cleveland police department as spring turns toward summer along the Erie banks. The methods are usual, the victims unsurprising–but when she notices a pattern, a tenuous similarity among the cases, she begins to realize that her days will never be typical again. How much of her life, her career, her friends, will she be willing to risk to do what’s right?

Jack Renner is a killer who does not kill for any of the conventional reasons…no mania, no personal demons. He simply wants to make the world a safer place. He doesn’t think of himself as a dangerous person–but he can’t let anyone stop him. Not even someone as well-meaning as Maggie Gardiner.

Maggie has the self-sufficiency of a born bit-of-a-loner. She works with a bevy of clever experts surrounded by armed police officers. She is both street smart and book smart, having seen the worst the city has to offer.

But Maggie Gardiner is not safe. And, until she can draw Jack Renner into the light, neither is anyone else.

Jeff Lindsay, author of the Dexter series, says: “Lisa Black always delivers authentic characters in riveting stories. That Darkness takes things to a spellbinding new level with a taut and haunting story that will stay with you long after you finish reading it.”

Publisher’s Weekly says: “The intriguing forensic details help drive the plot to its satisfying conclusion.”

“Black is one of the best writers of the world of forensics, and her latest introduces Maggie Gardiner, who works for the Cleveland Police Department. Her relentless pursuit of answers in a dark world of violence is both inspiring and riveting. Readers who enjoy insight into a world from an expert in the field should look no further than Black. Although Cornwell is better known, Black deserves more attention for her skillful writing – and hopefully this will be her breakout book.”– RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars (Top Pick)

 

Crime and Science Radio: Things That Go Boom in the Night: An Interview with Weapons and Explosives Expert and Author John Gilstrap

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BIO: John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom.  Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen.  In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris.  He will co-produce the film adaptation of his book, Six Minutes to Freedom, which should begin filming in the spring of 2016 for a 2017 release.

A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution.  Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior.  John lives in Fairfax, VA.

LISTEN: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/suspensemagazine/2016/03/09/crime-and-science-radio-with-special-guest-bestselling-author-john-gilstrap

Link goes live Saturday 4-23-16 at 10 a.m. Pacific

LINKS:

John’s Website: http://www.johngilstrap.com

Weapons Resource: http://www.nssf.org/newsroom/writers/guide/ (a great 40,000-foot resource for writers who write about weapons)

Weapons Used in Movies: http://www.imfdb.org/index.php/Category:Movie (This site allows you to pull up a movie title and see all of the weapons used.)

 

Friendly Fire

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Crime and Science Radio: Research, Education, and the Future of Forensic Science: an Interview with Dr. Katherine A. Roberts, Director of the CSULA Graduate Program in Criminalistics

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Research, Education, and the Future of Forensic Science: an Interview with Dr. Katherine A. Roberts, Director of the CSULA Graduate Program in Criminalistics

 

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BIO: Dr. Roberts is the Director of the California State University, Los Angeles Graduate Program in Criminalistics. She has served as the Director of the Master of Science degree program there since 2002,and played a leading role in the university’s FEPAC accreditation. Her research interests cover a wide array of forensic disciplines, but focus primarily of trace evidence analysis, sexual assault evidence, and mitochondrial DNA analysis. Dr. Roberts was the PI of a National Institute of Justice-funded study to investigate the use of samplematrix™ to stabilize crime scene biological samples for optimized analysis and room temperature storage from 2009-2011. She is the PI for a National Science Foundation grant that was awarded to CSULA in 2015 to establish the Center for Interdisciplinary Forensic Science Research as a research site within the NSF Industry-University Cooperative Research Center (I/UCRC) program. The Center will enhance research training and education in multiple forensic science disciplines, including Forensic Microscopy, Trace Evidence Analysis, Forensic Science Research Methods, Forensic Chemistry, and Applications of Forensic Science.

Dr. Roberts is currently collaborating with a consortium of European universities to develop a portable, inexpensive, and rapid method of dating latent fingerprints. Her publications are on topics related to trace evidence analysis, forensic examination of sexual assault evidence, and mitochondrial DNA analysis.

She was an elected member of the Technical Working Group for Education and Training in Forensic Science (TWGED) that was convened by the National Institute of Justice. The Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) uses the report issued by TWGED in order to evaluate the academic standards of undergraduate and graduate forensic science programs.

Dr. Roberts is currently serving as the  Interim Executive Director of the California Forensic Science Institute.

Education

PhD     Forensic Science, Graduate School & University

Center, City University New York

M.Phil  Criminal Justice, Graduate School & University

Center, City University New York

MSc     Forensic Science, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

BSc     Chemistry, King’s College, University of London

 

LISTEN: Link Goes Live Saturday 3-26-16 10 a.m. Pacific http://www.blogtalkradio.com/suspensemagazine/2016/02/23/crime-and-science-radio-with-special-guest-dr-katherine-roberts

 

LINKS: California Forensic Science Institute http://www.calstatela.edu/hhs/cfsi

CSULA School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics http://www.calstatela.edu/hhs/crim

LA Times article, “Cal State L.A. graduate students hone crime scene expertise,” http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jul/27/local/la-me-cal-state-criminalists-20130728

Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) http://www.fepac-edu.org

 

Dirty DNA

microfluidic

 

One truth in forensic DNA testing is that you must have a sample to test. That, of course, should be self-evident. But sometimes crime scene DNA isn’t readily available. There are no blood or semen stains on the floor or bed sheets or any location where they could be easily sampled. What’s the crime lab to do?

New methods are under development that allow for extracting useable DNA from some unusual places, even dirt. GEMBE (gradient elution moving boundary electrophoresis) grabs DNA hidden in the dirt by employing a molecular “tug-of-war.” Cool.

For more about DNA sampling and testing, grab a copy of my updated, 2nd Edition of FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES.

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INFO/PURCHASE

 

FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES Release Day

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Forensics For Dummies Updated 2nd Edition is now available.

Get it through your local Indie Bookstore or here:

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Forensics-Dummies-Douglas-P-Lyle/dp/1119181658

B&N: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/forensics-for-dummies-douglas-p-lyle/1013991421

 

The Mystery Readers Journal Forensic Mysteries Issue is Out

2016 MRI Forensic Issue

 

The Mystery Readers Journal Forensic Mysteries Issue is out and it’s excellent. Filled with wonderful and informative articles by some really fun folks. Janet always does such a wonderful job and this issue is a testament to that.

If you don’t belong to Mystery Readers International, you should.

Details and links to join are here: http://mysteryreaders.org

Here is my contribution:

THE QUESTION I GET

Every writer knows that creating an engaging and believable story is the primary goal of fiction writing. Taking readers into the story world and holding them there isn’t all that easy. And making basic errors in fact can all too often snap the reader right out of the story. A writer’s job is to make sure that doesn’t happen.

I have been consulting with authors and screenwriters on medical and forensic science story issues for the last 20 years and over that time have answered around 6000 questions. I am constantly amazed by the creative mind of an author. This is particularly true in the crime fiction and thriller genres. Equally impressive to me is that these are the authors who do the research, who try to get it right.

So, what are the most common things that I get asked? Poisons and rendering someone unconscious for varying periods of time are near the top of the list.

Many great murder mysteries, past and current, deal with poisons. Why not? They’re excellent tools for fictional murder. They require no physical confrontation and can even be set up so that the deed occurs days, weeks, or months later, when the perpetrator is far away. Clean and simple. No mess to clean up.

But poisons do possess limitations. Let me dispel one myth right up front—-there are no untraceable poisons. It might not be found but if it is looked for diligently enough and with the available sophisticated techniques, it will be found. Common poisons such as narcotics, amphetamines, barbiturates, and sedatives of various types are part of virtually every drug screen and therefore are easily found by the toxicologist. Others such as plant toxins, and many unusual chemicals, are more difficult. These require that the medical examiner and the forensic toxicologist have a high “index of suspicion” that a particular toxin is involved before taking the time and expense required to uncover it. These suspicions are often aroused by the symptoms that surround the victim’s death.

Often, for plot reasons, the author would like for the victim to receive the toxin but not have any symptoms until the next day and then suffer a quick and dramatic death. The problem? Poisons don’t have timers. Those that kill quickly and dramatically do so quickly and dramatically. Right here and right now. Not tomorrow, or next week. There are of course toxins that require several days to work their mischief but the victim almost invariably will become ill and spiral toward death over a period of time not suddenly collapse on cue.

In other scenarios, the author needs for a character to be struck in the head and to remain unconscious for an extended period of time. You’ve seen it before. The character is whacked on the head, placed in the trunk of a car, taken to some remote hideaway, remains unconscious for hours, and finally awakens when someone throws water in her face. Hollywood has been doing this for years. Unfortunately, medical science dictates that this is extremely unlikely. A blow to the head that causes unconsciousness but without significant brain damage is called a concussion. Boxers face this with every bout. The key here is that there is no significant brain damage in a simple, single concussion. The victim might go out but usually awakens very quickly and certainly by 10 or 15 minutes. Think about that boxer. He gets knocked unconscious and two minutes later he’s complaining that he was struck with a lucky punch. In order for the victim to remain unconscious for hours, there must be some degree of brain injury. A cerebral contusion (brain bruise) or an intracranial hemorrhage (bleeding into or around the brain) are two situations where unconsciousness can last for hours, days, or much longer. But here, the victim is truly injured and typically requires medical treatment in short order. A simple splash of water won’t do it.

So as you sit at your desk pounding out your next story, don’t assume that what you believe to be true is indeed true. This is particularly problematic if you don’t have a scientific background or if you get your understanding of science from television. Do your research. Seek out credible sources, Ask questions. Never underestimate the power of the word author. People like to talk about what they know so give them the opportunity.

Regardless of how you do it, get the facts right. That’s your job. And your readers will greatly appreciate it.

 

Forensics For Dummies, 2nd Edition Coming Soon

 

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Just got the new cover for Forensics For Dummies, 2nd Edition.

It will be released from Wiley on 2-29-16

Pre-Order now

 
 
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