Today I was invited to guest blog at Criminal Lines about keeping the CSI character “in character”. Stop by and check out her BLOG and other great articles!
I love being out in the woods. I don’t mind walking established trails but it takes no convincing to get me “off trail”. One of the reasons I love getting off the beaten path is that I get to see things most people don’t. Wild critters, small brooks, or hidden canyons. I sit and wonder how long it has been since another person was seeing what I’m seeing.Most of the time I’m not that far away from the rest of those enjoying the outdoors. Maybe just over a hill or around a bend but, it makes all the difference in the experience. I often think “wow”, I would have never seen that bear, bobcat, or elk if I hadn’t come this way.
In the modern world we’re conditioned to follow certain paths. Sidewalks, roads, green belts, subways, etc. Think about it…don’t you take the same path to work everyday? What about the grocerie store, gas station, or your child’s school? Partly this is because we’ve determined the easiest, most efficient, route. But even when you’re going somewhere new you generally stay on some kind of path right? Don’t most of you hesitate to cross open space unless there is a trail? Even then, if there is a sign prohibiting it, most people won’t. This type of thinking limits the world we see and experience. Criminals aren’t restrained by thinking.
One of the toughest things to learn as a new CSI is to stop thinking like everyone else and start thinking like a criminal. You have to divorce yourself from even the most basic and accepted thoughts. Criminals have to conduct their “business” and get from point A to point B but, some of them don’t want to draw attention to themselves (just like animals). At least the successful ones don’t. They like to conduct their business in the “shadows” or “off the beaten path”. There is a whole world of activity going on right now…off that beaten path. These are worlds within worlds and it is the job of the CSI to find them (at least as they pertain to criminal activity).
These are places where most of us have no reason to go. Culverts, abandoned buildings, tunnels, and over grown gulches. Sometimes these places are right under our noses. I remember being a young officer and getting a call about a “satanic” alter being found at a movie theater. Turns out there was a “hidden” room above the concession stand but below the projector room. In the old days they used the room to cut film reels. It hadn’t been used in decades for that reason but someone was using it now. There was no way to tell how long it had been in use but that’s not my point. The point is that the activities were going on right under everyone’s noses because no one ever had reason to go in there. The room was “off limits”.
Don’t forget about these “hidden worlds” in your writing. I’ve made it a point in my novels to include such places and I think it adds a powerful layer of mystery to the settings. These places are even more frightening when your characters stumble upon them for the first time. It may be a detective, teenage runaway, or concerned parent. The possibilities are endless and can be driven by the structure itself. The video below is apparently from an old missile silo. Imagine the types of crimes that could be going on in such a place and how hard it would be for someone to stumble upon it? Might be a good idea for a novel eh?
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.
Real life CSIs sometimes have to find innovative ways to capture evidence. There are a ton of commercial products available for nearly every type of evidence but Murphy has a tendency to rear his ugly head at the most inopportune times (like a homicide scene). Cameras break, your partner forgot to re-stock supplies, or you simply run out. In most cases you can’t just run down to the local Walmart and pick up exactly what you need. Good CSIs learn to develop alternative methods of collecting and preserving evidence (if possible) in the event you need to have a fall back plan. Some purists may scoff at such an idea but in my opinion it’s better to have something collected than nothing collected. The need to use unconventional collection methods is probably more likely for your private detective or amateur detective character. These folks may not have an impressive array of CSI gear because they don’t have to concern themselves with those matters often.
I’ve noted before that footwear evidence is one of the most commonly overlooked categories of physical evidence at a crime scene. Some of that is due to a lack of training, lack of awareness, or simply not having the proper equipment. In real life, the crime lab isn’t called to every crime scene. Usually we just go to the major scenes. Patrol officers don’t carry around electro-static dust print lifters, alternate light sources, and other specialized equipment so sometimes footwear evidence gets overlooked. One of the better surfaces to find two dimensional footwear impressions at crime scenes is paper. Paper may get scattered on the floor during a ransacking or it may just be trash on the floor (like in a warehouse). You can even find these dust prints on broken drywall, carpeting, or doors that have been kicked. Either way it can hold valuable clues. These impressions can be latent (invisible) and need some degree of processing to make visible again.
So what is your amateur detective to do when he/she spots a sheet of paper at the crime scene and thinks there’s a footwear impression on it? One simple process is to use blue carbon paper to make a lift. For some reason, black carbon paper isn’t as good. The process is really quite easy. You start by taking the paper evidence and securing it to a hard flat surface. Taping the corners works well. Then you lay a sheet of blue carbon paper down over the area you think may hold the dust print. Cover that carbon sheet with a manilla file folder or pad of paper and use a 4″ rubber roller to “press” the dust print onto the blue carbon paper. Simply roll the rubber roller firmly back and forth over the area a few times to transfer the image.
Once that is done the detective can flip over the carbon paper and use a strong oblique light (like a flashlight) to see the image in a darkened room. Any windowless room (like a powder room) works well. Voila! The invisible shoe print is now visible. It may be possible to individualize an impression to a particular shoe but even knowing the make and model of the shoe can be helpful in an investigation. If your prime suspect only wears Nike and the shoe in question is a cowboy boot you may need to search for another suspect right? In the end, a professional CSI would probably get better results using a gel lifter or ESDL but keep this trick in mind when writing your scenes. If your “detective” is unprepared then this might be a good option to recover evidence others may have missed.
There are basically two types of blood spatter; forward and back. Notice I didn’t say “splatter“. Blood spatter is caused when an object impacts a body and forces the blood to break up into smaller droplets. The majority of these droplets are then projected either forward (with direction of force) or backward (opposite the direction of force) essentially. Generally speaking, there is more forward spatter than back spatter in an incident and the blood will disperse in a “cone effect”. The amount of back spatter is dependent on both the energy of the impact and the amount of blood already present at the impact site. For example, a gunshot can create back spatter even when there is no preceding injury. This is influenced by other factors too though. Clothing can “trap” much of the back spatter depending on the type and layers of clothing and location of the wound. If the wound area is not covered with clothing (like the head) then you can see more back spatter. CSIs commonly see some degree of back spatter on the shooting hand in gunshot suicides with head wounds.
The degree of back spatter on the subject varies wildly though. A number of factors influence the deposition of the blood such as subject and victim body positions, wound position relative to subject, distance between subject and wound, the amount of energy causing the spatter, intervening objects (like shooting through a window), and the presence or absence of blood at the impact site just to name a few! The size of the resulting blood droplets varies too. Gunshots and explosions can produce very tiny droplets (with a diameter of 1mm or less) while other impact events can produce larger droplets from 2mm up to 10mm and even larger. You may find back spatter on hands, faces, ears, hair, clothing, weapons, furniture, or practically anywhere near the impact event. It can even be found on items that have been moved to another room (as in a staging). With gunshots, you may find spatter up to four feet from the impact site. In theory, you could find them even further away if there is sufficient air current such as high wind or even the close proximity of a fan.
So how would you use this in a novel? Back spatter can be washed from hands and clothing or even the victim (think of a dog or cat licking the victim). Tiny spatter is very difficult to see however. You could easily have a detective, spouse, or dry cleaner find these tiny spots on a garment, vehicle seat, or window blinds. If on clothing, consider putting the spatter on something like socks, undershirt, or underwear that would have been covered during the suspect’s version of events (or denial of events). That not only places them at the scene but could also place them in a state of undress at the time of blood loss. You get the picture. Be creative and use your imagination to produce a big plot twist.
Some of you may have noticed that I’ve been a bit absent lately. I apologize but I’ve been up to my ears trying to get everything ready for the release of the next novel. I will get a new F4F post up soon! It has been a labor of love to write this series and I am already busy at work on the third and final installment of this story (although Sarah & Co. have many more adventures to come)! I don’t want to give any spoilers but Sarah and friends will be tested in new and exciting ways as they try to bring someone to justice for the sniper killings in The Scent of Fear. If you haven’t read the first book, don’t worry. Bloodlines was written to stand on it’s own. Of course, it helps to have some of the back story but I think it’s still enjoyable and easy to follow. You’ll find some really interesting tidbits about Art and some layers of Daniel’s mysterious past will be peeled away. I hope you enjoy it and thanks again for all of the support.
I have to give special thanks to my new editor Brittiany at Written Dreams. She has been such a professional! She worked hard to maintain my voice and gave me a lot of great advice on shaping the characters and scenes. If you’re looking for a great editor I highly recommend her and her staff. I also want to thank Jerry Dorris with Author Support for another great book cover. I can’t imagine anyone better to work on my book covers. As I stated in my last post I add a lot of symbolism in my covers and Jerry has been very patient with me in getting all of my elements “just right”. Lastly, I want to thank Kevin MacLeod with Incompetech for providing a great selection of music to use in my trailer. He is very talented.
I hope to have Bloodlines available by mid-April. In the meantime, here is the blurb. More information to follow soon…
CSI Sarah Richards is back in the heart pumping follow up to The Scent of Fear. Months after the assassination of Governor Hoines, a determined genealogist stumbles upon a conspiracy that threatens to expose a plot to reshape the nation by a rich and cunning family in Colorado. Now the Gerovit, an elite group of Russian assassins returns to destroy any evidence of the conspiracy. As Sarah’s mentor and his nephew Daniel crisscross the nation trying to unravel the genealogist’s coded journal, Sarah must discover how two double murders separated by a century are connected to the most powerful man in Colorado. But with enormous political forces, a team of killers, and her own department working against her, can Sarah unravel the clues before she becomes a part of history herself?
This is a common question CSIs must address with each crime scene. Why this house? Why this victim? Why me? (just kidding!) We don’t always figure it out but understanding what may have attracted the criminal may provide insight into the type of criminal we’re looking for. Of course, each crime is different. The location may be incidental to the victim but, for the sake of this discussion, let’s just focus on location. To answer this question I generally begin by breaking down my options into two categories; Intelligence and Opportunity.
Intelligence doesn’t relate to IQ. By Intelligence I mean information. This may tie in to what is stolen. I remember a residential burglary once where the owners reportedly had several thousand dollars in cash taken. When I asked where the money had been kept the man took me to the master closet and showed me an older sport jacket (among dozens) that he used to stash the cash in. There were no windows and so it was immediately obvious that whoever had stolen the money knew it was there. Nothing else was disturbed and the odds of a burglar stumbling on the right jacket were astronomical! Turns out his teenager had disclosed (bragged about) the information to some “friends” at school. The point is that they knew what they were looking for and where. The same may be true for drugs, guns, counterfeit money, etc. If your victims are professional criminals (sometimes they do call the cops) they will be less than truthful about what was really stolen. They just want the CSIs to figure out who committed the crime. Criminal locations targeted may include rival drug houses, prostitution rings, money launderers, etc.
Is the home adjacent to a greenbelt or park and lacking blinds or curtains? Can the burglar easily “case” the house at night with the lights on? Does the victim have a predictable routine or habit that is easily observed? Is this the only house on the block without an alarm sign in the front yard? Are they the only ones without a large dog? What makes this house or business more appealing than the one next door? Of course, businesses are somewhat different than homes. They type of business may have everything to do with selection. A gas station or pawn shop is more tempting to a robber than a dental practice. Unless, of course, the dental office is a front!
Opportunity is another factor to consider. Most burglars don’t like to enter occupied structures. So they may be on the lookout for evidence of vacancy. Are there newspapers piled up outside? Solicitor advertisements on the door? Have the trash cans been left on the curb when all the other neighbors have brought them in? These are all passive indicators that no one is home. Sometimes criminals will enter a home. This is more tempting when access is easy such as when the garage door is left open. Some people will leave ground floor windows open as well which are very easy to bypass. Some criminals are even bold enough to ring the doorbell. If no one answers (and they don’t hear a dog) they just go around to a secluded spot and force entry.
So why is any of this important to you as an author? Because readers want to understand the “why” of the scene. Why this house? Why this window? Why this victim? It provides a reasonable explanation to the reader for the actions and motives of the characters. So, knowing how to describe and set up the revelation may bring your reader into a deeper appreciation of the scene. This information can be given in any viewpoint, dialog, or observation of the character. The “how” is not nearly as important as the “why”. So when you’re developing a scene try not to just toss out random elements. Ask yourself why your criminal decided on this particular location and then reveal that in some way to the reader. I guarantee you they are dying to know!
Blood evidence is a powerful tool for the crime scene investigator. Whether testing for DNA or examining the bloodstain patterns to reconstruct the events of a crime blood is a powerful witness. This fact is not lost on the criminal. This knowledge is rooted in the old saying “caught red-handed” in which a criminal with blood on his hands was thought to be guilty. So criminals have learned to clean crime scenes and evidence and CSIs have learned ways to recover it. Without getting too deep in the forensic weeds; cleaning efforts usually result in either diluting the blood or masking it. Using a washing machine is an effective way of diluting bloodstained clothing. Criminals also have easy access to washing machines so it’s not too surprising that they may utilize them to wash away evidence.
Some of you may already be asking “why not just throw the clothing away?” It’s a god question but to understand it you have to understand a criminal and what they value. A t-shirt may get thrown away like garbage but if the item is their favorite jacket, sports jersey, athletic shoe, or ball cap then they may just roll the dice. One key thing to remember about all criminals. They will clean a crime scene to a point they do not see the evidence. That doesn’t mean the evidence is gone, it’s just beyond the abilities of the criminal to see it. So…will washing clothes destroy blood evidence? Sort of.
I won’t reveal the current state of DNA detection, suffice it to say that researchers are making breakthrough’s all the time. I’ve written before about the durability of DNA evidence and some of the current case studies and research might blow your mind. On the matter of dilution there are some amazing reagents like Luminol that may detect blood at one part per million. Several years ago I conducted a study to see if we could detect bloodstain patterns on washed clothing. I didn’t have high hopes but I thought it may be possible. The long of the short is that a number of cotton shirts were stained with various bloodstain patterns and then subjected to a series of alternating wash and dry cycles. I used washing detergent with bleach and dried the items in a hot-air clothes dryer. The long of the short is that I was able to detect blood on the clothing after five alternating cycles of washing and drying. At the time I used horse blood and DNA testing wasn’t as inexpensive as it is today so I didn’t address that issue. I just wanted to see if the bloodstain patterns could be detected.
You may want to keep this in mind as you’re developing your story. If your bad guy washes his/her clothing you may want o have your good guy find it. This would also work with victim’s clothing that has been exposed to rain, submersion, etc. If you develop a DNA profile all the better! I certainly won’t criticize you for it.