Category Archives: Resources
Today I’ve been invited to share a post at Writing With the Top Down BLOG on this method of determining the three dimensional area of origin in bloodstain pattern analysis. I’d love it if you could stop by and take a look.
Dr. Jane Bock is a forensic botanist and researcher from Colorado affiliated with a number of professional organizations. She has been conducting field research for over four decades and has received numerous awards including the Ralph W. Schreiber conservation award and Hazel Barnes Prize. I first met Dr. Bock while working in NecroSearch International. She has worked numerous murder cases across the nation and is very approachable for those seeking additional information. The field of forensic botany is fascinating. From looking at last meal evidence to disturbances from burial, plant material can provide great insight to an investigation. If you’ve never thought of including botanical evidence in one of your novels you might reconsider after reading this interview. Her new book Handbook of Forensic Botany will be released this year.
F4F: Historically, how long have plants been used in forensic investigations?
BOCK: Forensic botany reaches far back in Western history. Plato, in his writing (Phaedo 399 BCE), describes the suicide of his teacher, Socrates, in detail. Socrates chose to commit suicide by imbibing poison hemlock (Conium maculatum). Plato’s description of Socrates’ symptoms fits exactly the pattern of poison hemlock poisoning today in the US and Europe. Forensic botany became ‘scientific’ with the inventions of the printing press (1440 AD) and the light microscope lenses (1590 AD). Using a microscopic lens, Robert Hooke described the cellular nature of cork cells, later published in his book, Micrographia. The earliest books describing plant cell types followed shortly. Forensic botany came of age in the US in 1934 when botanical evidence was used to solve the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s baby boy.
Botanical evidence in courts today is accepted readily through both Frye and Dauburt examinations provided the witness shows competence in botanical knowledge. My cases have involved knowledge from three subdivisions of botany: plant anatomy, plant taxonomy, and plant ecology.
F4F: How are plants used in last meal evidence analysis?
BOCK: Dr. David O. Norris and I fostered the identification of food plant cells in criminal investigations and trials. Plant cells usually are enclosed in cellulose walls. These complex carbohydrate walls are virtually indestructible. They pass through the human digestive tract unchanged in their sizes and shapes. It does not matter if the plant was consumed raw, canned, frozen or cooked. Each food plant has cells that are distinctive in size and shape. We commonly examine plant cells from stomach contents. There is a rough time table for how long each stage of the human digestive process takes, and the time for stomach digestion usually is within a couple hours of consumption, then the material passes to the small intestine. This can be helpful in some homicides in estimating the time of death.
Identifying food plant cells from the digestive tract and feces of a homicide victim may link the victim to a certain place where a meal was taken and may link a suspect’s presence to that same place. Two recent cases involved the plant foods found in the stomach contents of people whose exact diets were known (hospital and prison). When the records of the day’s meals were compared with stomach contents, we learned which meal was the victim’s last even though a suspect claimed the person had been killed after a later meal.
F4F: What are the most common types of analysis you’re asked to conduct for law enforcement?
BOCK: Plant Taxonomy: assigning the correct scientific plant name to a plant or plant fragment. Such identification can link a victim to a suspect through plant fragments found in clothes or vehicles. Such evidence also can show a place where a victim and/or suspect visited. what residences These cases are relatively common. Plant Ecology: the relationship between plants and their environments. Here, you test ideas about where plant materials originated. In a case, a truck contained fragments from a mountain setting, but the trucker claimed the vehicle never had left the prairie. This along with other evidence led to a murder conviction.
F4F: Some of the readers may be unaware of the use of pollen, seeds, and diatoms in forensic investigations. Can you talk a little about how they may be used to link a suspect to a crime scene?
BOCK: Most plants are made up of stems, roots, and leaves, plus reproductive parts (flower parts and seeds). These all have cellulose cell walls. However, other organisms have cell walls comprised of other substances. These plant structures can fall into the forensic botanist’s purview, and include pollen, spores, and certain microorganisms. The presence of pollen in association with a cold case homicide can suggest a season when a crime took place because the shedding of pollen is highly seasonal. Diatoms have cell walls of silica and are virtually universal in all bodies of water from mud puddles to oceans. However, species distribution and relative abundances among species have given strong evidence of the source the water in a case. Here, the water in the victim’s lungs indicated that he had been in a body of water that was distinctive from the location described by the suspect.
F4F: You’ve been involved with a number of high profile murder cases over the years. Is there any one case involving plant evidence that really stands out to you and why?
BOCK: High profile cases can be difficult if the media have publicized widely their decision about guilt. For example, in the defense for the Casey Anthony case, making trips to the courthouse involved running a gauntlet of reporters and other supporters of a guilty verdict yelling my name. Also, e-mail threats for the expert if you are involved with the ‘unpopular’ side. The most renowned high profile murder case I’ve worked occurred over 10 years ago and has not been brought to trial. Therefore, it is an ongoing case and my evidence cannot be discussed here. This continues to weigh heavily on me because of what my partner and I know from our evidence. In a recent cold case in Pennsylvania where the victim was an 80-year old woman, we determined the contents her last meal. It had served as the medium for the poison that killed her. We supplied a deposition and this led to a confession of the persons who killed her. Had it gone to trial it would have been very high profile.
F4F: What’s on the horizon in forensic botany? Are there new technologies that are poised to open areas of inquiry that were previously unknown?
BOCK: A worrisome aspect of this field is that it is underutilized and under represented. The approaches described above are simple, inexpensive, and readily accepted in courts. Many more people with forensic interests must train themselves in botany. DNA can be useful in forensic botany, but our lab does not deal with it. It is not especially useful in plant identifications because there are at least 300,000 plant species., and most of their DNA patterns are not known. What DNA can do is link plant fragments from a single plant to a suspect to a victim, to a vehicle, to a place. This works well. DNA analysis is being streamlined and will become more so. Already some kits are showing up so that a major laboratory may not be required.
I am happy to discuss forensic botany with interested individuals, and also to point them to appropriate scientific literature.
I was just informed about a new resource site for basic information about the forensic sciences. I’ve looked it over a bit and it seems well done. I think the real benefit will be for those non-scientists needing a starting point to understand a particular forensic discipline. The site is called forensicsciencesimplified.org and is run by the National Forensic Science Resource Center in Florida. The home page is very well organized. You simply find the tab for the discipline you want to explore and click on it. Once inside you’ll have options to read about the basics of the science, frequently asked questions, common terms, and common misconceptions, among other topics. They even have additional references you can link to for more information. There doesn’t seem to be a place to ask questions but I suppose you have me for that. In any event, I think it would be wise to bookmark this site. It seems well suited for authors, especially those with limited knowledge of forensics.
The National Forensic Science Technology Center has also launched a YouTube channel to share short videos of forensic science updates. Check out the latest update below and peruse the otehr videos as well. I think you’ll find it informational and a little entertaining too.
F.L.I.R., or forward looking infra-red is process in which a camera, or imager, can detect infrared radiation. It is sometimes referred to inaccurately as “night vision” and has become increasingly popular in movies, television, and novels. More accurately it can be referred to as “thermal imaging”. You’ve probably seen thermal imaging footage from police helicopters or military operations replayed on the nightly news. These cameras are very useful in police operations for tracking suspects at night or in bad weather. You see, infrared cameras do not require any natural or artificial light like night vision goggles. They are also not affected by fog, cloud cover, or smoke. This makes them ideal for operations in nearly any environment. While they are used for certain civilian projects, these cameras are most valued by law enforcement and the military.
These cameras work by detecting temperature variations between objects (like a suspect and his surroundings). These differences are technically changes in the wavelength of the infrared frequency. Cameras can be mounted anywhere but are most often attached to aircraft (helicopters/fixed wing aircraft), ships, or vehicles. They even make hand-held cameras about the size of a camcorder but they are not as common. A camera “operator” monitors a video screen while operating the camera and its settings. In most cases, intensity of “heat” or temperature is represented by a gradient of white light. The hotter the object (like a car engine) the brighter the representation on the video monitor. The “colder” the object the darker it appears on the screen. Some cameras can detect very minute variations between objects created by heat absorption.
F.L.I.R. cameras are most often used in law enforcement to search for fleeing suspects or during high risk arrests and SWAT deployments. They can even be used to look for changes in temperatures of power lines or structures where occupants are conducting illegal marijuana “farms”. However, these cameras can sometimes be used in forensic investigations too. I have been involved in cases where vehicle mounted F.L.I.R. has been used to search for clandestine grave sites. You see, when a grave is dug and then refilled the soil will be less compact. This change in compaction means that the soil will absorb and retain heat differently than the surrounding compacted soil. The theory is pretty straight forward but the application is much more difficult. It requires an operator with extensive experience because the temperature variance may be only a few degrees (shades of grey). These differences may go unnoticed by less experienced operators.
F.L.I.R. cameras are being used by law enforcement more and more each year. This means it’s more likely than ever that your fictional agency or character can avail themselves of this technology. It may be from a vehicle mounted system or a hand held camera but the potential uses are quite extensive. Some possible uses in your novel may include locating buried bodies, secret compartments, hidden passageways in walls, or anything you can dream up that would produce a significant change in temperature. Don’t forget that heat or cold can be directed through ducting and shafts. Your character might see the heat coming from a ventilation duct or window instead of a body. Use your imagination and have a little fun with it.
Join author Marguerite Ashton and I tonight (31st) for an interview on DNA in past and future investigations. This link will take you over to Marguerite’s blog where you’ll find all kinds of helpful information and other interviews she’s done. We may even chat a little on my upcoming novel and sequel to The Scent of Fear!
Do you know anyone who wants to be a CSI? Do you have a student, child, or relative that wants to pursue a career in the forensic sciences but doesn’t know where to begin? If so, I have something that may help. Over the years I have been contacted by thousands of students wanting advice on how to become a real CSI. Those calls were the genesis of my latest e-book Planning Your Career in Forensics. I have helped numerous law enforcement agencies select new employees for their crime labs and I bring that knowledge to the pages of this guide.
- Self evaluation
- Selecting the right position
- Choosing the best university
- Designing resumes and portfolios
- & much, much more!
- Appendix covering recommended university programs, research project ideas, and sample interview questions are included as well.
Planning Your Career in Forensics is an invaluable reference for students, teachers, guidance counselors, parents and anyone who wants to pursue a career as a CSI or knows someone who does. Click here for a free Kindle reader if you need it.
An investigator (William Hurt) on the Moscow police force relentlessly pursues the solution to a triple homicide which occurred in Moscow’s Gorky Park. He finds that no one really wants him to solve the crime because it is just the tip of a complex conspiracy which involves the highest levels of the Moscow city government.
2. Jennifer 8 (1992)
A big city cop from LA moves to a small town police force and immediately finds himself investigating a murder. Using theories rejected by his colleagues, the cop, John Berlin, meets a young blind woman named Helena, who he is attracted to. Meanwhile, a serial killer is on the loose and only John knows it.
3. Switchback (1997)
After discovering his son missing and the baby sitter murdered, an FBI agent tracks a serial killer he’s convinced committed the crimes. His investigation leads him to Texas, where two new murders match the killer’s pattern.
4. To Live & Die in LA (1985)
After ace counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) murders the partner of Secret Service agent Richard Chance (William Petersen), the gumshoe will stop at nothing to even the score. Big problem, though: Masters is, well, a master at the game and outfoxes Chance at every turn. Can Chance outwit him? William Friedkin directs this suspenseful, violent thriller with the City of Angels (a misnomer in this case) as the alluring backdrop.
5. Happy Texas (1999)
Mistaken as consultants to a beauty pageant in the town of Happy, Texas, two escaped convicts go along with the ruse, masquerading as gay lovers Harry (Jeremy Northam) and Wayne (Steve Zahn). In trying to teach Happy’s Junior Misses to win, the two run up against a sheriff (William H. Macy) with the hots for Harry, and a local teacher (Illeana Douglas) catches Wayne’s eye.
6. Clay Pigeons (1998)
Death seems to follow small-town Montanan Clay Birdwell wherever he goes. But the death toll climbs even higher when a fast-talking serial killer forges a friendship against Clay’s will, attracting the attention of a feisty FBI agent.
7. Insomnia (2002)
Sent to investigate the murder of a teenage girl in a small Alaska town, police detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) accidentally shoots his partner, Hap (Martin Donovan), while trying to apprehend a suspect (Robin Williams). But in spite of his guilt, he’s still determined to solve the case. Hilary Swank co-stars as a local detective who hampers Dormer’s efforts based on her suspicions about the circumstances of Hap’s death.
8. Shattered (1991)
A horrific car accident destroys the face and memory of Dan Merrick (Tom Berenger), while his beautiful wife (Greta Scacchi) remains unharmed. Although plastic surgeons repair the physical damage, Dan remembers nothing about his life before the accident. With time, however, Dan begins to realize his wife is trying to hide something from him. But what? It’s a tangled web of deception and intrigue he’s determined to solve. …
9. FEAR (1990)
Psychic Ally Sheedy helps police solve murders by mentally linking with the murderer. Then she discovers a murderer with the same talent – who wants to share the fear of his victims with her!
10. Thunderheart (1992)
When the FBI can’t crack a string of murders on a South Dakota Indian reservation, they send in fresh-faced field agent Ray Levoi (Val Kilmer), who lacks experience but holds a trump card: his quarter Sioux heritage. His cynical boss (Sam Shepard) and the local medicine man (Marvin Thin Elk) try to throw him off the trail. But as he gets closer to the truth, he must choose between upholding the law and honoring his roots.
BONUS: The Presidio (1988)
Murder is afoot at the Presidio, a military base on San Francisco’s perimeter. The civilian detective assigned to the case (Mark Harmon), no stranger to a uniform, must cooperate with an old rival (Sean Connery) — who happens to be the base commander. Personalities clash as the men work toward the same goal but in opposite directions. Meanwhile, the commander’s wild-child daughter (Meg Ryan) becomes an attractive distraction for the detective.
What films would you recommend? Comment below!
Have you ever wondered how evidence is submitted and processed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This link will take you to the current (2007) Handbook of Forensic Services. This is the guide published by the FBI for state and local law enforcement agencies. It is a compilation of their policies and guidelines for submitting evidence. It can be pretty dry reading but you may find some of the information useful. If nothing else, it may give you some insight as to the types of evidence handled by the FBI laboratory.
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.
This posting will be the first in a series of articles providing you a peek inside actual working crime labs. I have been to crime labs all over the United States, big and small, and I can tell you they bear little resemblance to the ones you see on television. First a few things about crime labs in the United States. They can be as varied as the individuals working in them. I have seen “labs” that were nothing more than a short counter top in a small windowless room. Other labs are 20,000+ square feet filled with the latest and greatest equipment costing millions of dollars to operate. Another big difference with abs on television is that access is very restricted.
For our purposes let’s divide them into two broad categories; full-service and varied-service. Full-service is, as it sounds, laboratories offering all the services one might routinely use in a major investigation such as DNA, firearms, chemistry, microscopy, etc. Varied-service laboratories offer some services but not others (like DNA). Typically this is due to cost but it may also be cultural (we’ve never had a footwear examiner so why start now) or due to an inability to justify the cost. For example, if your state crime lab will do all the DNA testing for your organization at no charge some managers may not see a benefit to building a DNA section.
Another factor is jurisdiction. The United States is by design a Federalist system of government. Large municipalities will have higher densities of people, larger tax base, and hence more money for providing services. Small townships or municipalities will have fewer funds and generally less serious crime. We also have State and Federal laboratories having jurisdictions over certain types of crimes and investigations. It sounds very complicated but in reality we make it work pretty well. The point is that a large metropolitan area may have dozens of crime labs (different agencies in different jurisdictions) operating and offering different services. Each state will have a full-service laboratory that will handle the testing the smaller agencies can’t.
In this series of articles I will be showcasing newer facilities having between 2-10 employees. Postings will be from different laboratories but they will represent what you might expect to find in any given modern laboratory. Just remember that when you are describing a laboratory in your area consider your jurisdiction. A small community of 5,000 people will likely not even have a crime lab.
The General Examination Room:
Laboratory space (rooms) is often created to perform certain tasks. The general examination room is a place where evidence is evaluated. It really is a mulch-purpose room where the CSI may take measurements, photographs, notes, etc of the general condition of the evidence. This is a space where evidence is examined before any specialized testing or photography is done. For example, you have to examine a shirt before you’ll know if there are any bloodstains on it requiring testing. Butcher paper is commonly found in these rooms because new sheets are rolled out for each item of evidence examined. This prevents trace evidence from contaminating the work surface.
A good examination room will have large movable tables that can be combined to give a surface area large enough to hold a king sized mattress or sheets. There will also be a lot of counter space. Not just any counters either. Counter tops are typically either stainless steel or made from chemically resistant materials. We work with acids and other hazardous materials that would ruin most Formica type counters. The walls may even be covered with washable plastics similar to what you might see in a restaurant kitchen. There are generally a lot of cabinets to hold all the various equipment and packaging supplies (boxes, bags, containers, envelopes, etc) and tools we use to do our examinations.There will likely be fume hoods and a sink as well as safety equipment like an emergency eye-wash station and shower.
Hopefully the photos will give you a little perspective on how a “real” crime lab looks. Feel free to take some license when describing your laboratory but recognize some of the “function” to each section. In a few weeks I’ll post the next installment and we’ll keep going until you get a pretty good picture of the modern crime lab in the United States.