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Category Archives: General Forensics

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.

 

Crime and Science Radio: Working Stiff: An Interview with Forensic Pathologist Judy Melinek and co-author/husband TJ Mitchell

1-30-16: Crime and Science Radio: Working Stiff: An Interview with Forensic Pathologist Judy Melinek and co-author/husband TJ Mitchell

 

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BIO: Judy Melinek, M.D. is a graduate of Harvard University. She trained at UCLA in medicine and pathology, graduating in 1996. Her training at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York is the subject of her memoir, Working Stiff, which she co-wrote with her husband, writer TJ Mitchell. Currently, Dr. Melinek is CEO of PathologyExpert Inc., and works as a forensic pathologist in Oakland. She also travels nationally and internationally to lecture on anatomic and forensic pathology and she has been consulted as a forensic expert in many high-profile legal cases, as well as for the television shows E.R. and Mythbusters.

T.J. Mitchell, her husband, graduated with an English degree from Harvard and worked in the film industry before becoming a full-time-stay-at-home dad to their three children. He is currently collaborating with Dr.Melinek in writing FIRST CUT, the inaugural novel in a forensic detective fiction series. WORKING STIFF is Mitchell’s first book.

LISTEN: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/suspensemagazine/2016/01/30/crime-and-science-radio-with-special-guests-judy-melinek-and-tj-mitchell

Link goes live Saturday 1-30-16 at 10 a.m. Pacific

LINKS:

Working Stiff:  www.drworkingstiff.com

Facebook: www.Facebook.com/DrJudyMelinekMD

Facebook:  www.Facebook.com/DrWorkingStiff

Twitter: @drjudymelinek and @tjmitchellWS

Pathology Expert Site: http://www.pathologyexpert.com

Work Stew Podcast Interview: http://www.workstewpodcast.com/?p=1142

Scribner Books Video Interview: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner https://youtu.be/TWyvqtFnA1M

The Real CSI: UCTV Lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yFPW016ocXI&feature=youtu.be

NPR Science Friday with Ira Flatow: http://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/behind-the-scenes-at-the-city-morgue/

 

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

 

Sisters in Crime Forensics Day Coming 1-24-16

Join Dennis Palumbo, David Putnam, and me for the Orange County Chapter of Sisters in Crime’s annual Forensics Day. It’ll be a fun afternoon as we dig into what makes the bad guys (and gals) do what they do.

Details:

Orange County Sisters in Crime Forensics Day
Dennis Palumbo, David Putnam, and DP Lyle
“What Makes Your Bad Guys Tick? Dark Motivations and Heinous Acts
Sunday, January 24th, 2016, 2:00 p.m.
Irvine Ranch Water District Community Room
15500 Sand Canyon Avenue
Irvine, CA 92618

ocsistersincrime.org

 

Forensics Fest 16 flyer

 

Crime and Science Radio: Bones Tell the Tale: An Interview With Forensic Anthropologist and Best-selling Author Kathy Reichs

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BIO: Kathy Reichs’s first novel Déjà Dead catapulted her to fame when it became a New York Times bestseller and won the 1997 Ellis Award for Best First Novel. Her other Temperance Brennan novels include Death du Jour, Deadly Décisions, Fatal Voyage, Grave Secrets, Bare Bones, Monday Mourning, Cross Bones, Break No Bones, Bones to Ashes, Devil Bones, 206 Bones, Spider Bones, Flash and Bones, Bones Are Forever, and Bones of the Lost, and the Temperance Brennan e-short, Bones In Her Pocket. In addition, Kathy co-authors the Virals young adult series with her son, Brendan Reichs. The best-selling titles are: Virals, Seizure, Code, and Exposure, along with two Virals e-novellas, Shift and Swipe. These books follow the adventures of Temperance Brennan’s great niece, Tory Brennan.  Dr. Reichs is also a producer of the hit Fox TV series, Bones, which is based on her work and her novels.

From teaching FBI agents how to detect and recover human remains, to separating and identifying commingled body parts in her Montreal lab, as a forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs has brought her own dramatic work experience to her mesmerizing forensic thrillers. For years she consulted to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in North Carolina, and continues to do so for the Laboratoire de Sciences Judiciaires et de Médecine Légale for the province of Québec. Dr. Reichs has travelled to Rwanda to testify at the UN Tribunal on Genocide, and helped exhume a mass grave in Guatemala. As part of her work at JPAC (Formerly CILHI) she aided in the identification of war dead from World War II, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Dr. Reichs also assisted with identifying remains found at ground zero of the World Trade Center following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Dr. Reichs is one of only eighty-two forensic anthropologists ever certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. She served on the Board of Directors and as Vice President of both the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, and is currently a member of the National Police Services Advisory Council in Canada. She is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.

Dr. Reichs is a native of Chicago, where she received her Ph.D. at Northwestern. She now divides her time between Charlotte, NC and Montreal, Québec.

LISTENhttp://www.blogtalkradio.com/suspensemagazine/2015/12/05/crime-and-science-radio-with-special-guest-bestselling-author-kathy-reichs

LINKS:

Kathy Reich’s Website: http://kathyreichs.com

Kathy Reich’s Blog: http://kathyreichs.com/category/blog/

Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Kathy-Reichs/e/B000APED9E

Kathy on Twitter: https://twitter.com/kathyreichs

Kathy on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kathyreichsbooks

 

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Are the Brains of Psychopaths Different?

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There has been a long running debate on whether those labeled as psychopaths, or sociopaths, have an anatomical, or perhaps a chemical, basis for their aberrant behavior. It’s actually a debate that has raged for many years. Back to the days of phrenology, and before. Phrenology was the study of the shape of the skull and its use in predicting behavior and personality. It didn’t, it couldn’t, but it was a belief that had its loyal followers.

Dr. Kent Kiehl has spent years studying the possible connection between brain anatomy and physiology and behavior. As part of his research he performed MRI brain exams on thousands of prisoners. His findings have shown that the amygdala—an area of the brain involved with emotions and decision making—-tends to be smaller in psychopaths.

Kiehl

Also he uncovered evidence to suggest that assessing the activity of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), an area of the brain involved in error processing, might be useful in predicting which inmates might be prone to re-offend after prison release. Those with reduced ACC activity were twice as likely to re-offend when compared with those with high ACC activity.

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This, of course, will require further study but it’s an interesting concept and could be useful. It could also lead to the creation of a real “Minority Report.” Remember that movie? A futuristic sci-fi story that dealt with the ability to predict future crime—called predictive policing. The future just might have arrived.

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Muscle Proteins and the Time of Death

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In any homicide, one the most important things, along with the cause and manner of death, that the ME must determine is the approximate time of death. This will help eliminate some suspects—-if they are far away from the scene and with many witnesses, for example—-and point the finger at others—-who might have been in the area at the time the murder occurred.

The problem is that most methods used to determine the time of death are inaccurate at best. They tend to be best guesses. And they are mostly useful only during the first 48 to 72 hours.

Check out my article “Timely Death” for a brief overview of how the time of death is estimated.

Or grab a copy of Forensics For Dummies or Howdunnit: Forensics for an in-depth discussion of this topic.

Researchers at the University of Salzburg are working in a new method that might allow the time of death determination to be accurately made up to 10 days after death. Their research suggests that measuring the rate of muscle protein degradation yields a clue to the time that has lapsed since death. If this technique proves to be accurate and reproducible in humans, it would be a giant step forward in criminal investigations.

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