Monthly Archives: January 2012
Today I have a new posting on the Crime Fiction Collective on some of the little things that can annoy a criminalist and how to incorporate little challenges into your character development. You can find the posting here.
“Trace Evidence” is a term that is commonly used by detectives and forensic scientists but may not be widely understood by others. The term gained prevalence in a series of three papers written by Edmond Locard in 1930 and published in the American Journal of Police Science. The papers define what has become known as the Locard Theory of Exchange. Basically, the theory holds that whenever two things come into contact with one another they will likely leave “traces” of their presence with each other. Imagine a man walking across a muddy field. He leaves behind shoe print impressions and in return the muddy soil will cling to his shoes. That scenario creates an “exchange” between the scene and the suspect. obviously, the more activity and participants in a given crime scene, the greater the potential for such exchange.
I’m not wedded to any particular definition but I think many criminalists would agree that when they think of “trace evidence” they imagine small items normally examined with a microscope. Others might also include impression evidence from shoes and tires but, as an author, you needn’t concern yourself with parsing it all out. I have previously described how criminalists “touch” evidence to minimize any exchange and/or destruction of this valuable evidence. But, detectives rely on this exchange to prove connections between the suspect, victim, and crime scene. As authors you can use various types of trace evidence to drive an investigation and challenge your characters. Trace evidence can be divided into several categories. Here are a few (of many) examples:
- DNA (blood, semen, saliva)
- Hairs (human, pet, livestock)
- Stomach contents (vomit)
- Synthetic fibers (clothing, carpet)
- Paint chips
- Safe insulation
- Glass fragments
- Botanical (pollen, seeds, plant fragments)
- Geological (soil, sand)
I will soon post some articles describing how and where CSIs search for this trace evidence so keep checking back!
Some fiction writers like Stephen Hunter, Vince Flynn, Brad Thor, C.J. Box, or Tara Janzen are very knowledgeable about firearms. Others; not so much. Not a big deal, we all have to learn and research a variety of topics for our novels and even knowledgeable authors need to look up the specifics from time to time. You might need to know how many cartridges a particular gun will hold, the rate of fire, or the muzzle velocity. Sometimes authors aren’t even sure what they want to put in their protagonist’s hands and want to “shop around” to narrow down their choices based on features or looks.
Introducing the Steves Pages website. Steve offers over 2,500 .pdf manuals for hundreds of firearms. He even has manuals for cameras, flashlights, optics, and metal detectors! It is a fabulous and FREE resource for authors looking to get some specifics about the guns they are writing about. His main page has even more materials from out-of-print books and magazines, Army field manuals, and much, much, more! If you want to add some additional details about the guns your characters are using you might want to see if he has a manual listed that can give you the information you need.
A common question writers ask me is “where do criminals hide things?” It is a question that detectives and CSIs have pondered throughout their careers and we continue to learn as we encounter more crime. The answer to that question depends largely on two critical components; sophistication and planning. Professional criminals look for ways to hide the evidence of their criminal acts. Police look for ways to find that evidence. It’s an age-old dance where sometimes you lead and sometimes you follow. For both the criminal and the cop a lot depends on the capabilities of your dance partner. I’m not sure how I stepped off on this dancing metaphor but I’m leaving it .
The sophistication of the criminal is one major factor influencing their choice of hiding places (of course, a lot depends on what it is they are trying to hide but I’ll get to that later). Is the criminal savvy or a punk? An inexperienced or novice criminal will likely have an unsophisticated hiding place. They usually operate under the “out of sight” premise. Similar to a teenager they may “hide” items under the bed mattress, couch, the freezer, etc. Police usually just have to open a container and look inside to find what they are looking for. Some criminals, however, are more sophisticated. It may be from personal experience, from education by other criminals, or a combination of both. These criminals may choose more sophisticated hiding places that may be missed by casual observation. This may include hidden compartments, burial, fish tanks, empty spaces of appliances, etc. The most effective hiding places are those that don’t draw undue attention and can pass casual scrutiny. Ideally, the item remains “hidden” in plain sight. Think about diamonds mixed in with crushed ice. Finding the items requires greater scrutiny by detectives and, unless they are specifically looking for that item, the evidence may go un-noticed. This plays into the second criteria; planning.
There is a big difference between a criminal who gives a lot of thought to a hiding place as opposed to one who casually takes on the task. A criminal hiding a gun as the police are battering the front door obviously chooses a hiding place out of expediency. This might lead to the gun being hidden in an obvious spot like beneath the couch cushions. A sub-component of this issue is whether the criminal wants quick access to the item. Some criminals need quick access to guns, drugs, money, etc and thus can’t “afford” a sophisticated or complex hiding place. But what if the criminal doesn’t need to access the item quickly? A drug runner moving a load of cocaine 1,500 miles will likely create a hidden compartment in the vehicle, while a guy dealing drugs out of his car may not have that luxury and may have to use a more accessible place. Planning also indicates premeditation. If a killer hides their victim under the foundation of a new swimming pool they are building there’s a good chance they had planned out the crime.Obviously all of this depends on the size of the item being hidden. Stolen diamonds are easier to hide than a stolen car. So when planning a hiding place for your criminal character consider how quickly they may need access to the item. A killer likely won’t want or need access to a dead body. In contrast, a thief wanting to pawn stolen guns or jewelry will need better access. There is no absolute rule but give some consideration to how sophisticated your character is. Look around your home and ask yourself “where would I hide something?” Keep in mind that criminals may choose a location away from home (like work or a girlfriends house) because of the increased risk of their home being searched.
A lot of researchers have studied what examiners refer to as “ejection patterns”. This is the arrangement and dispersion of fired cartridge casings found at a crime scene. The theory is pretty straight forward; cartridge casings will be ejected from a firearm in a predictable manner that will provide insight into the shooter’s position when firing. Unfortunately, the chaism between theory and reality can get pretty wide. Semi-automatic, or self-loading, firearms are designed to extract and eject fired cartridge cases to make room for the next live cartridge in the magazine. Most modern firearms are designed for right-handed shooters and will eject the cases to the rear and right of the shooter. Having said that there are some weapons designed for left hand shooters which eject to the left and still others that eject downward out the bottom of the weapon. The key function is to keep the spent casing from hitting the shooter.
The problem with the use of ejection patterns is that there are a lot of things that can and will influence the manner in which the casing comes to a final rest. First, the manner in which the weapon is held during the firing process. If the gun is held “sideways”, sometimes referred to as “gangster style” with the ejection port facing up, the casing will eject differently than if the weapon was held normally with the sights pointing up. The elevation of the weapon is another consideration. Is the person shooting from the hip or shooting with the weapon at eye level (or both)? Then you have to consider the movement and orientation of the shooter. Is the shooter firing straight ahead of them or to their right or left? Are they moving (running and shooting) or are they stationary? You may never know these things with certainty, especially if the weapon isn’t recovered. All of this is bad enough but we haven’t even begun consider the many factors.
Aside from the weapon design and how the shooter fires and moves there is the environment. Is the shooting indoors? If so, the casings may be hitting other objects like walls, furniture, chandeliers, etc. that can alter the “flight path” of the casing. If the shooter is outdoors are there over-hanging branches from a tree? Is there a strong wind? We also have to consider the surface the casing lands on. Surfaces like snow or a lush green lawn may help to “catch” the casing and allow for very little movement. Other surfaces like cement, linoleum, or tile may allow the casing to “bounce” and change direction. Then there is the slope of the surface. Envision a casing that hits a roadway versus one that hits on the sloped area of the sidewalk leading to the gutter. Think of a cartridge casing like a little football. We all know how unpredictable a bouncing path for a football can be right? Well, casings can act in a similar manner.
When all of that is said and done we still have to consider any “post-shooting” processes that may change the resting position of the expended casing. Cartridge cases are small and can easily be moved if they are kicked, stepped on, driven over, or by other actions. There are a lot of first responders like police, paramedics, medical examiners, even by-standers or family members that may also inadvertently move these casings before the CSI shows up on scene.
The above video shows both slow motion and normal speed ejections. Notice how varied the flight paths are for the same weapon with a static (stationary) shooter. Also, about half-way through the clip you will see one casing actually hit the camera and bounce back towards the shooter.
You might read references to police using ejection patterns in novels or see them on a television show but the analysis is not nearly as straightforward as they might seem. In fact, some studies have shown as much as 25% of casings don’t even eject in the manner or direction as designed. That’s not too surprising actually. Gun manufacturer’s don’t really care about exactly where the casings eject or how consistently they eject in the same manner as long as they stay out of the shooter’s face. Now ejection patterns can provide some general insight into the general location of the shooter but you just have to be very careful about how far you take the reconstruction. So the key is to recognize the many influences that can vary the resting position of the cases. If you want to have some fun with it you could have an expert rely too much on the locations of the casings only to find out later that they had been moved through some other action. That could really throw your analysis into a tailspin.
Today I have a post at the Crime Fiction Collective on “showing” evidence of motive, means, and opportunity to your reader. I hope you stop by here to check it out!
Microdots are extremely small (usually round 1mm or less) “films” containing information. They were first designed and employed for espionage during World War II as a means to pass sensitive information in an inconspicuous form. These small dots could be placed in a typewritten letter and appear as a period (.) or dot in various letters or punctuation. It was a marvelous technology. The photograph at right shows an actual CIA camera used to create microdots. The recipient of the secret information would use a microscope to retrieve the information. Like many great developments in the military it wasn’t long before the technology was adapted to civilian law enforcement.
“Tagging” evidence is not a novel idea in crime detection. Beginning in at least the late 1960′s microdots began to see use as a means of tagging personal property. The theory was quite simple. If you owned something of value like a television, stereo, jewelry, even a vehicle, you could send away for a set of microdots to affix to your property. These microdots were serialized and associated with your personal information (much like your vehicle identification number (VIN) or warranty information card with a product serial number) and placed in an inconspicuous location on your property. Then, if the police recovered your property, even if the thief had damaged the serial number, you had proof that the item belonged to you. Some modern microdots are even reflective to ultra-violet light making them very easy for CSIs to find.
You might consider using microdot technology in your novel to help identify certain objects, even when criminals have taken steps to destroy traditional means of identification like serial numbers. It adds a cool technology that harkens back to the early espionage days of WWII when the goal was the preservation and passing of evidence in plain sight, right under the bad guy’s nose.
This is the second installment of The Armchair Detective series. Remember, there are no “wrong” answers. This exercise is designed to get your creative juices flowing and hopefully pull you out of any creative ditch you may be stuck in. Here is the fictional scenario;
There have been at least three rapes over the Winter months wherein the suspect forcibly enters the victim’s ground floor apartment. The male suspect enters by prying open sliding windows after removing the screen. Once inside he makes his way to the bedroom and covers her mouth with whatever he can find (victim’s clothing). He then rolls them over and presses a “weapon” into their back. The women couldn’t identify the weapon but said it was cold, heavy, and solid like steel. The women were not injured by that object and showed no “marks” on their skin. The victim’s report that the man wore all black including a face mask and leather gloves. The suspect has worn a condom and the rape kits have come back with negative or inconclusive results. One woman remembered a strong cologne but didn’t know what brand it was. Two of the women originally didn’t report the rape but revealed the crime to friends days later. Detectives are sure there are other rapes not being reported but they don’t really have much to go on.
The police set up a tip line and one unknown woman called in to say a man she dated acted strangely including wanting to “role play” a rape. The man did live within a five mile radius of the victim’s homes so detectives decided to pay him a visit. They found the man working on his car in the garage and he invited them in to talk. The man vehemently denied having anything to do with the rapes. While the detectives talked to him they spotted some strange marks on the garage floor and took a quick photograph before being asked to leave. The marks had general class features but no identifiable marks. Here are some questions. Do you have a theory as to what caused the marks, are they important, and can they be used to search for other similar cases? The ruler in the photograph is 13″ (32.5cm) long
Leave your comments below and I’ll chime in after a few days.
Today I have a special treat for you. I’m interviewing Sarah Saile with the Arapahoe County Coroner’s Office in Colorado (USA). I have know Sarah for many years and had the pleasure to work quite a few death scenes with her. Sarah is a registered Medicolegal death investigator & Diplomat with the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators, a Charter member of the Society of Medicolegal Death investigators (SOMDI) and member of several professional organizations. Sarah has a Bachelor’s Degree in Biological Anthropology and began her career as a pathology assistant. I hope her experience will provide you with some small insight into her occupation for your character development.
F4F: Tell the readers a little about your duties. How is your job different than that of a police detective?
SS: There are many duties of the Medicolegal Death Investigator and they are varied. Most are related to determining the cause and manner of death of anyone who dies in the county. When I am on call all deaths in my jurisdiction are reported to me and I need to know how to handle each case. Some cases can be as simple as taking a basic report and letting the decedent’s physician sign the death certificate or it can be more complex requiring a scene investigation. I need to document all of the details surrounding each case. Some of these duties include making a death pronouncement (if it wasn’t done by a physician), taking photographs of the body and scene, conducting an examination of the body, collecting and preserving evidence, taking the body into custody, fingerprinting the body, obtaining height and weight of the deceased, taking X-rays when necessary, making a positive identification of the individual, taking an inventory of medications and personal property that were collected, obtaining medical records and speaking with physicians, identifying and notifying the legal next of kin, working with mortuaries, and sometimes testifying in court. At the end of the day all of the information I gathered is written up in a report for the Forensic Pathologist to review. Then they will decide if the case warrants an autopsy or an external examination.
A police detective’s job is to determine whether or not a crime has been committed. The goal of our office is to determine the cause of death and the manner of death. It is important to understand that the Coroner’s Office does not work for law enforcement or any other agency. We are a separate entity. This can be crucial especially when we are dealing with deaths in custody or police involved deaths. According to Colorado State Statute 30-10-601 once death pronouncement has been made no one can disturb the body or any article on or surrounding the body except the Coroner or with the Coroner’s authorization. When I arrive I will work with police on collecting these items and then I will conduct a body exam. I will inform police of my findings and conversely they will give me any information they have as well. It is crucial that I maintain a good working relationship with all outside agencies. In order to be effective we need to know what each others duties and responsibilities are. Future litigation could depend on it. Good communication will help everyone in the long run.
F4F: A lot of readers want to know about the process of “next of kin” notification. How does that process work? Is there a hierarchy to the notification? How many family members do you have to notify?
SS: First it is important to understand that there is a hierarchy in determining who the legal next of kin is. In the state of Colorado, State Statute 15-19-106 defines the hierarchy as follows: 1. An individual(s) that the decedent has appointed through a declaration instrument (i.e., Will and Testament); 2. Spouse (legal or common law); 3. Adult children; 4. Parents or legal guardians; 5. Adult siblings; 6. Public Administrator. In cases where there are multiple people who would classify as legal next of kin the majority are given the authorization to handle arrangements. It is also very important to keep in mind that common law marriage in the state of Colorado has no minimum time requirements of cohabitation of the couple. If they perceive their relationship as a marriage then it will be upheld as such. If this status is challenged then proof of their common law status must be provided. This can include holding property as joint tenants, joint checking accounts, listing each other as spouses on insurance forms, etc. One caveat to common law marriage is that it does not include same sex partnerships. The state of Colorado does not recognize same sex marriages so a same sex common law marriage has no legal standing. Another important factor to consider is if the legal next of kin is arrested on suspicion of or if they are convicted of involvement in the death they cannot make arrangements for the decedent. The next person in the hierarchy would be given authorization.
When a death has occurred it is the Medical Investigators job to determine who the legal next of kin is. Sometimes it is very clear cut and the family will be on scene. Other times it can be extremely challenging. There are individuals who have lost all contact with their relatives. Their close friends may not even know that they have any family. In these scenarios the investigator needs to be diligent and look for clues on scene. Address books, phone records, mail, emergency contacts in medical records, etc. can all be very useful tools. We also have access to various websites that will allow us to enter minimal information on an individual to access marriage records, voter registration records, previous address where the subject lived, possible relatives, criminal records and other pertinent information. Then the process of elimination begins.
In general we prefer to make death notifications in person. We will often be accompanied by law enforcement and a Victim’s Advocate. When the notification needs to be made outside of our jurisdiction or if we are backlogged with caseload, we refer to law enforcement and Victim’s Advocates to do this for us. We will supply them with the basic information and then have the family get in touch with us for the details. There are instances where notification by phone does happen. An investigator may only have a phone number for the next of kin that cannot be linked to a physical address so it is the only way we may know how to reach them.
F4F: What would you say is the most challenging aspect of your job?
SS: I think the most challenging aspect of the job is investigating child deaths. No matter what the circumstances are they are never easy. The level of emotion and stress is often palpable. When the death is violent it will linger with you if you let it. You have to stay very focused and not let emotions dictate how you handle the case. It can be very easy to get distracted by the family’s grief. You have a very important job to do and if you don’t stay on track you could miss very important details. When I work with these families it is important for me to be able to communicate what coroner procedures are and to address their questions and concerns. I need to be the grounded part of the unfolding events. I don’t think families would benefit from me crying and getting overly emotional in fact, I think it could be detrimental. I do care I just “turn it off” when I am on the clock.
F4F: What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
SS: There are a lot of rewarding aspects but if I were to pick one it would be when my investigation reveals something about the death or the circumstances leading up to it that could have been missed. I had a case where the family of a deceased man was suing a hospital because they released him from the Emergency Department with what the family claimed were obvious cardiac symptoms. The hospital denied that he complained of those symptoms. My interview with the family contradicted the hospital claims but it was still not enough evidence to win the case. When our office met with lawyers to discuss our findings one photograph that I took proved without a doubt that the hospital had treated the decedent for cardiac symptoms. The family won the case. When I had taken the picture I had no idea how important it would be.
F4F: There are a lot of fictional characters in your line of work. Do you have any favorites? What about them do you like?
SS: I guess I am one of the very few who don’t get into the fictional characters that are based in this line of work. I have tried to watch a few of the shows and read some of the books but I have never gotten past one or two episodes or books before I feel annoyed. The only show I liked that dealt with death was HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and that was about funeral directors. Do you suppose I would hate it if I was in their line of work? I prefer true crime books and television shows.
F4F: Do you have any “pet-peeves” or see recurring errors regarding your line of work in fiction or on television? If so, what are they?
SS: Where to begin?! I think that the glamorous death investigator who oversteps his/her bounds on a regular basis is so irritating. It can be very unrealistic and nothing like what I do. Have they ever done an episode where the investigator ruins a pair of shoes on scene or spends the rest of the day smelling so bad of decomposition that their co-workers comment? Not only that, but the “CSI effect” can be an obstacle when I am working. The biggest discrepancy is the estimation of time of death. I have had people ask me what time did their loved one die and expect an exact time down to the minute! I simply collect information about when they were last known alive, collect evidence that they could have been alive after that, and compare that to the physical findings of the body (rigor mortis, livor mortis, algor mortis). There are so many factors that can effect those estimations such as ambient temperature, clothing, internal body temperature, body mass, etc. It is not an exact science. The other big one would be the state of the art technology that the investigators use. The budgets for their offices must be incredible. I am just glad we recently upgraded to higher quality digital cameras!
F4F: Are there certain traits that a good death investigator possesses? What are they?
SS: There are a lot of different types of people in this field and they all have something different to contribute to a death investigation. I think one’s abilities are more important than a particular trait or characteristic. An individual’s ability to communicate clearly with outside agencies and families is crucial. Miscommunication can hinder an investigation and cause added stress to a family who is grieving. You also have to be able to document your findings in a well written report. The Forensic Pathologist is rarely going to respond to a death scene so you have to be their eyes and ears. It can help put the pieces of the puzzle together. These skills combined with medical knowledge can be the best tools of the trade.
F4F: You see a lot of terrible things in your work. What do you do to relieve the stress?
SS: For me the best stress relief is exercise. My first love is running but I also love biking, rock climbing, and swimming. Every year two of my girlfriends and I plan a “girl’s only” trip. This year’s trip we will be competing in the San Juan 70.3 Ironman race (we will be racing the relay). Both of these women have worked or currently work in the same field so they have been pivotal in my stress reduction! When I say I had a bay day at work they know what I am talking about. Besides, my husband is squeamish!
One of the F4F readers posed this question to me and I thought it would make an interesting post. I have written before about criminals using trash cans to dispose of evidence. Sometimes they do it out of habit or routine but most of the time criminals think that disposing of a body or other evidence in a dumpster is the best way to get rid of it. Truthfully, CSIs routinely look in all trash cans at the crime scene or surrounding area. They will likely even search dumpsters around the suspect’s home and work (and in between) or anywhere else they may frequent. This can include a school, girlfriends house, or relative’s neighborhood. Sometimes police get called by someone who finds the evidence while using the dumpster. This can include scavengers, garbageman, or other users just throwing out their trash.
Searching a dumpsters sucks. It is one of the least desirable tasks assigned to a detective or CSI. Most of us would sooner attend an autopsy. Maybe it’s the fact that the garbage is in a small enclosed space. Or maybe it’s that you never know what you’re going to encounter. You might “dive” in looking for a used condom and come up with a dead body! You also run the risk of getting stuck with a used drug needle or rusty nail. At the very least you’re going to smell like garbage and, at worst, look like you lost a food fight! Trash can also be very unstable and it’s pretty easy to slip and tumble while trying to walk or stand on it.
There are a couple of ways to search a dumpster. If you’re looking for something relatively small you may just have one person standing inside handing bags or boxes out to another CSI. The items can then be spread out over new, clean, tarps to be examined and photographed. If you’re lucky you’ll find the item your looking for right on top but I was never that lucky. Removing a body is a bit more complicated. Most Medical Examiner offices won’t have the facilities to store and sift through a dumpster. If the body is just laying in the trash the CSI will probably just bring a body bag into the dumpster and place the victim into it. The bag is then sealed and hoisted out of the dumpster. This technique will minimize the amount of contamination that could occur during the removal of the body (not that it won’t already be contaminated with trash).
If the dumpster has been emptied into a trash truck your problems have just been amplified a hundred-fold. The trash truck is really just a much bigger dumpster on wheels. Much of the trash may be compacted but hopefully your characters will get to it before then. If not, expect the evidence to be heavily damaged by crush force. It may still be valuable as evidence but the damage may be extensive enough to minimize its value for reconstruction. If the evidence makes it all the way to the landfill you may have months of work ahead of you but I’ll save that for a later post!