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Category Archives: General Forensics

Guest Blogger: Lisa Black: Predators and Prey

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PREDATORS AND PREY

When my husband and I were buying our second home, the bank we went to suggested an adjustable-rate mortgage. It had a nice rate, much lower than the 30-year fixed, which “couldn’t go up more than 2% per year,” and we “could lock it in at any time.” Period. For some reason I cannot recall, something made me check into this further. I was not good at math and certainly had no head for business, which had always bored me silly, but I did have a job as a secretary, which meant I had a phone, an office in which to use it all day long, and time. I wound up talking to four different people at three different banks before I got the situation clear. The rate that could be “locked in” was a completely different rate—not the adjustable rate at all, but the prime rate plus whatever the bank currently tacked on, a rate that was already higher than the 30-year fixed. When we met with the loan officer I reconfirmed this, and she said only, “But the adjustable rate might go down.” (As it turned out, it did, but still—I’m going to base thirty years of payments on “might”? I don’t think so.)

We passed on the ARM.

But questionable, risky and downright deceptive loaning practices went on, and my hometown, the setting of my books, suffered greatly. As a consumer activist explains to my detectives in Perish:

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“If you remember the housing bust, 2008, thirty percent of Slavic village homes went into foreclosure, Cleveland led the country in vacant homes, etcetera etcetera?”

Riley said only, “Yes.”

“Because mortgage originators like Sterling made loans to people they knew bloody well could never pay them. They set it up, collect their fees for doing a little paperwork, the investors get monthly payments, borrowers begin paying off their house, everybody’s happy.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“You know how that Greek guy said everything had to be in moderation?”

“Yeah?”

“When there’s money being made, moderation goes out the window. Even people with bad credit don’t want to pay high rates and, obviously, don’t have the money to pay high payments, so . . . creative math. Adjustable rates that you can ‘lock in’—except the rate you’re locking in is a completely different rate, prime plus whatever the bank feels like tacking on, so from day one this will already be higher than a thirty-year fixed. Low rates with balloon payments, which would work out fine if you know you’re going to win the lottery in three years. Interest-only payments, in which you aren’t paying a penny of the principal until the payment leaps up by one or two hundred percent in, say, seven years.”

“But—” Riley began.

“Exactly. Why make loans you know are going to fail? Because Wall Street compensation is based on that year’s performance. All the higher-ups get bonuses based on a percentage of profit—for CEOs this can be millions, double- and triple-digit millions. So when they will make more in one year than most people could make in several lifetimes, they don’t think in the long run.

“These firms—Ameriquest, Long-Term Capital, Long Beach Mortgage, and now Sterling—they don’t care if they falsify paperwork, whether they let their clients lie about their income, whether they flat out defraud their clients by pretending to sign them up for a fixed rate and then fake the papers to put them in an adjustable rate—because by the time their monthly payment suddenly triples and they default, the original firm is long out of it and the borrower is arguing with a company that never knew them and only knows what the original firm told it.” Ned went on, using both hands for emphasis. “People have to fight back. Cleveland and a bunch of other cities sued the lenders, but the mortgage banker’s association donated a few million to the state political parties and the lawsuits were thrown out. The Federal Reserve, the SEC, Congress threw up their hands and said there was nothing they could do. In 2008 the music finally stopped and some dancers collapsed, the government bailed out the rest, and our lawmakers were supposed to make laws so this couldn’t happen again.”

Jack’s legs twitched, aching to move, to do something.

“Except with caps on their compensation the investment banks and mortgage banks had plenty of money to keep up the kickbacks to the political parties, so the new laws wound up watered down into trickles.”

“Wait,” Jack said. “Are you protesting things that happened ten years ago, or things that are happening now?”

“The past is preface,” Swift said, but wiped away the smug tone when he saw Jack’s lack of appreciation for it. “The behavior I protested in 2008 slunk away for a while, laid low but never went away. Mortgage securities were a cash cow, and just because we slaughtered the cow doesn’t mean people lost their taste for milk. The big firms reined it in because no one, not even them, wants to go through that again, but little places like Joanna’s saw opportunity. Have you noticed commercials for instant credit and cold calls from barely legal sharks offering anyone who answers a no-collateral, pick-a-payment loan? They’re baaack—doing all the bad things they did before, but this time having the sense to get out before someone blows too hard on their house of cards.”

Borrower beware.

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Lisa Black has spent over twenty 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 six languages, one reached the NYT Bestseller’s list and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series.

www.lisa-black.com
@LisaBlackAuthor

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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.

 

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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Luminol and A Malarial Drug Team Up to Find Hidden Blood

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Sometimes blood shed at a crime scene is easily visible but at other times less so. Maybe it’s a very small amount, or perhaps soaked into a patterned carpet, or secreted in the gaps between tiles and baseboards. Perhaps the killer has cleaned up the crime scene, thinking that if the blood is not visible, it’s not findable. Maybe he even washed the blood off is hands and watched it circle down the drain. Gone forever.

Or maybe not. Things such as luminol can uncover these hidden stains.

Luminol is actually quite sensitive for finding blood. Spraying it on a wall that has been wiped clean of visible blood, or often even if painted over, and then turning out the lights will reveal the glowing pattern of the blood splatter. This helps not only to locate the blood but also to identify patterns, which, in turn, might help re-create the crime scene. Such reconstructions are critical in bloody homicide investigations.

From FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES:

Reconstructing the crime scene from bloodstains 

Contaminated evidence is no evidence at all, so investigators have to document bloodstain and spatter patterns in a timely and logical fashion. Police, fire, and rescue personnel can alter or contaminate the blood evidence, as can any unnecessary foot traffic at the crime scene. For that reason, investigators need to take control of the scene immediately and consistently. 

Unless they’re high‐traffic public places, indoor scenes usually can be preserved long enough for investigators to obtain needed information. Outdoor scenes, however, are subject to environmental influences, and public places require investigators to gather information more urgently. 

Investigators carefully photograph bloodstains. Initial photographs capture an overall view of the scene. Subsequent pictures gradually move in on individual stains. The photographer takes pictures of individual stains close enough to reveal all needed detail, and should include a ruler or other measuring device to provide a scale reference. In homicide cases, investigators check out the body and any associated bloodstains or spatter first. After the body is removed, investigators turn their attention to other spatters. 

Some bloodstains are latent (invisible to the naked eye). Investigators often use luminol to expose these hidden stains. Luminol is a chemical that reacts with the hemoglobin in blood to produce a complex substance that luminesces (glows). Luminol is extremely sensitive, detecting blood in concentrations as low as one part per million. Investigators darken the room and spray luminol over areas where they suspect blood to be. When blood is present, stains glow a bluish‐white, and the photographer takes pictures of the glowing pattern. 

Luminol also can reveal bloody tracks that indicate the perpetrator’s movements or escape route and drag marks that show whether anyone moved the body. Luminol is so sensitive that it can uncover blood in cracks, crevices, and even areas where someone has tried to clean it. 

It’s important to note that many substances can interfere with or confuse luminol pattern analysis. Bleach and other cleaning agents, certain paints and varnishes, and even some fruit juices are examples. 

After photographers take an adequate number and variety of photographs, crime‐scene analysts complete their analyses and create a report that may include implications of the victim’s and assailant’s locations at each stage of the crime, the number and types of injuries inflicted, and the exact sequence of events (see the next section to understand how analysts gather this information).

But, as mentioned above, there are things that interfere with this chemical process. Certain fruit juices, bleaches, horseradish and turnips, and other chemicals will also react with luminol and this can confuse the issue.

A recent study reported in Science Daily suggests that a new method might help solve some of these problems. Combining luminol with the antimalarial drug Artemisinin seems to reduce this cross-reactivity and therefore more specifically display the true blood spatter pattern. Obviously, more research is needed, but this is a potentially useful tool.

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Webinar: What Were They Thinking? The Planning of the Perfect Murder

Join me for a fun Webinar hosted by Sister in Crime-Atlanta on Tuesday, June 13, 2017 from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time. You must be a member of that chapter to join is but if you’re already a SinC National member it’s only $20.

Here is the info on the event:

When your character plans and executes “The Perfect Murder,” he always, ALWAYS makes a mistake or two. These errors ultimately lead your sleuth to the solution. In this session, Dr. D.P. Lyle deconstructs the planning, execution, and post-crime behavior of two headline-grabbing murderers–O.J. Simpson and Scott Peterson—to help mystery writers and fans better understand fictional killers from social, psychological, forensics, investigative, and motivational points of view. Q & A follows a 1-hour presentation. Forensic questions welcome!

Webinar: https://www.meetup.com/Sisters-in-Crime-Atlanta-Chapter/events/239240813/

SinC-Atlanta: https://www.sincatlanta.com

 

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