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Using Your Smart Phone for Metal Detection

Searching a stream with a modern metal detector

Searching a stream with a modern metal detector

First, let me apologize for being absent of late. Between promoting my new novel Bloodlines and writing the third book of the trilogy I’ve been neck deep in projects. I’m also trying to get my annual snow casting class put together and research as well. Plus it’s summer and what can I say…

I came across a little smart phone app a while ago that could make for an interesting scene in your novel. Did you know that your smart phone could be used as a metal detector? You see, modern phones have a magnetic sensor used primarily for navigation. But with a little tweaking that same sensor can be used to detect ferrous metals. There are dozens of apps available for both Apple and Android products. One I like is from Phase 2 Media. These apps are geared for the weekend treasure hunter or beach comber but they could come in very handy for your character.

Most CSIs have access to high quality metal detectors rated for both terrestrial and aquatic use.  In fact, metal detectors were born from a need to find forensic evidence.  That’s all well and good but sometimes CSIs aren’t available. With this app a private detective, security guard, soccer mom, or adventurous baby sitter can tap into the same technology to find a crucial clue! How cool is that! Now these phone sensors have limitations. You won’t find a gun buried in ten feet of clay soil but you could find one buried in a few inches. Your character could even use this app to sweep a person for a hidden weapon (just like a security guard does). Or maybe they vacuum seal their phone in a plastic food bag and use it underwater (I wouldn’t try this in real life :)).

The possibilities for this technology are limited only by your imagination. Whether writing a police procedural or a cozy your characters can wow their “peers” and your readers with this high tech app. If you already have a scene using a metal detector, consider rewriting it to include this app. There may be some kind of hurdle that dooms the case until your character overcomes the problem by downloading the app.  If you have a smart phone read the reviews and try playing with one in your yard or better yet…at the beach!

For those who have submitted questions bear with me. I will get to you soon. If you haven’t had a chance to check out Bloodlines watch the trailer below. To those who have purchased it, my deepest thanks!

Ever Wondered if an AK-47 Will Fire Underwater?

I’m a sucker for these types of videos and I figured a few of you might be too.  Some people question whether a gun will fire under water and what the effects might be.  As you’ll see in the below video, the gases released during discharge react differently in water than they do in air but the video does give you some idea of where and how the gases and GSR are expelled from the firearm. Obviously you could never recover GSR from a suspect firing a gun under water but the video is neat nonetheless. I thought it was especially interesting to see the cycling of the weapon was faster under water than in air too. Enjoy.

Laser Mapping a Crime Scene

Leica_ScanStation_P20_PIC_180x180I have been a bit AWOL lately.  Every now and then I need a vacation and this last one turned out to be quite a little adventure. So today I thought it would be interesting to talk about the next generation of crime scene mapping. When I first started crime scene work we used metal tape measures and did our crime scene sketching on large pads of paper. While paper isn’t obsolete, the next generation of crime scene mapping offers many advantages. Tape measures are a pain in the butt. They bend, they come loose, and sooner or later you drag one through a pool of blood (yuck!).

Over the years CSIs have been utilizing various laser based measurement devices. They vary from small hand held range finders (great for inside measurements) to Total stations (like the ones you see surveyors using). Near the top of that list is the automated laser based scanner. These types of units gained international exposure during the reconstruction of the car accident claiming the life of Princess Diana. These units are not in common use yet due to the cost (some in excess of $100,000.00) but more and more agencies are beginning to use them.

The above video demonstrates one such unit from Leica instruments. I’ve used a number of Leica products and found them to be top notch. The scanner is about the size of a small trash can and mounted atop a surveyors tripod. Once activated the unit will bombard the crime scene area (up to a distance of nearly 1000 feet)  with millions of laser pulses which bounce off various surfaces and return to the unit. It will scan a full 360 degrees and 270 degrees above and below the unit. Basically everywhere except the unit location. A typical room can be scanned in a few minutes. CSIs can also link the unit with GPS which is really handy in outdoor crime scenes (especially ones in remote locations). The units can even operate in complete darkness.

Those millions of points create an exact three dimensional map of the scene that can be represented in a rotational diagram. It even records color. Utilizing the scanner software this virtual map allows CSIs to determine distances between any objects in the scene. No more missed measurements and the accuracy is phenomenal. The CSI can also zoom and pan around the image to view evidence from different perspectives. As you can see in the video, certain points can be hyper-linked to crime scene photographs or even text reports. This is a powerful tool for the reconstructionist and can be useful for prosecutors as well.

This is cutting edge stuff and you may want to consider using this technology in your next novel. Remember, this unit will record everything visible to the laser so it may even “find” a piece of evidence missed by your detective. Maybe your scene was mapped at night (dumped body or car accident) and a crucial piece of evidence wasn’t seen by the on scene responders. Then your protagonist can go back and find the crucial clue. Use your imagination and have fun with it!

Stringing Bloodstains: The Old School Method

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.

Introducing the M-Vac DNA Vacuum

I love introducing you to cutting edge technologies that may turn your reader’s heads and make them turn the page. Forensics has never been a stagnant science. Dozens of researchers are pushing envelopes and making the imaginable come to fruition. One such device is the M-Vac.  This recent addition to the CSI tool kit may revolutionize how we search for evidence and recover DNA that was previously unrecoverable. Vacuums are nothing new to the collection of trace evidence. I need to write a post on the history of the trace evidence vacuum which was introduced at early as the 1930’s.  The M-Vac is the next generation trace evidence vacuum designed specifically for DNA collection.

Forensic scientists have made great progress in the collection, analysis, and turn around time of DNA testing in the last decade. The M-Vac uses a wet-vacuum method to release stubborn cells from evidence like clothing, textured pistol grips, and other surfaces where the samples may be hard to get at with swabs. It uses a DNA-free buffer solution that is applied and then recovered in one step through the application wand. The solution carrying the DNA samples is then deposited in a sterile collection bottle that can be tested for DNA profiles. The wand allows the CSIs to cover large areas and get into nooks and crannies that prove too difficult for swabs. Validation studies have indicated that the M-Vac collects 39 times more DNA than swabbing!

I’ve included a short video below that demonstrates some collection methods. One sampling procedure that wasn’t covered was the autopsy. I’m not sure what possible roadblocks may exist (if any) but it seems to me that this sampling method may prove very valuable in sampling certain areas of the victim’s body.  Imagine sampling the neck in a strangulation case, genitals or breasts in a sexual assault, the wrists or ankles in a body dump where the victim was dragged, or even the victim’s hair. You may also get results from the outsole of a shoe used in a stomping or the hood of a vehicle in a hit and run. As the video indicates, this tech may open up new leads in cold cases as well. The possibilities are pretty endless it seems.

If your next novel deals with DNA evidence you might consider using a device like this. I suspect there are a number of CSIs and detectives who may be unaware of this technology. Imagine their surprise at reading about it in your novel.

An Experiment in Observation

The art of observation is critical to every CSI. We have to be able to see things that others can not. Contrary to popular opinion we don’t always “see” everything that we see. To steal an example from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; close your eyes and say out loud how many steps it takes to get from your bedroom door to your kitchen. Easy right? I mean, you probably walk that route several times a day don’t you? Why would you have trouble describing the number of steps it takes? It’s the difference between “seeing” and “observing”. We may see things but we may not observe them.

As authors, we have to describe scenes for our readers. We have to do it in such a way that they feel a part of the scene. This is easier when we feel a part of it ourselves. I’m sure you’d agree that your writing is much better when you’re describing a place you’ve actually visited. But even if you’re familiar with the setting…how well do you really know it? Here is a simple exercise to help you develop your skills of observation. The more you practice such exercises the more vivid and detailed your scene writing will likely become.

Where ever you are right now, get a sheet of paper and a pen. Pick a room on the other side of your home (or your office). Imagine yourself standing in the doorway facing into the space.  Now I want you to describe the room. Start on your left and begin writing down everything I would see if I were standing where you are. Spare no detail. Give yourself ten minutes to complete the task. Then try to draw a “birds-eye” diagram of the furniture in that space. When you’re done, take the notes and diagram to the room and see how you did. Did you capture all the detail? The colors…the sounds…the smells?

If you live in a dorm room or one bedroom apartment you can try something a little different. Think of a picture in your place of employment or relatives house. Got it? Now describe it and draw it. What are the colors? How many elements (people, animals, buildings, etc.) are in it? What color is the mat board? How about the frame? Where is it on the wall?

I’m not suggesting that CSIs have photographic memories. We don’t observe everything either but, we develop our skills of observation to “see” more than the average person. I’m betting that, as authors, you see more than you think; more than most others.  Exercises like this are what we use to train new CSIs to observe details others may miss. I hope that you’ll find it an interesting first step in enhancing your observation skills.

Hidden Paths to Hidden Worlds

out buildingI 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?

Interview with Forensic Geologist Jim Reed

DSCF8200_1_2Enhancer_ppI have a special treat for you today F4F readers. Jim Reed is currently the Director of Research & Development for RockWare Incorporated, a geological software company based in Golden, Colorado with a European office in Lugano, Switzerland.  Jim began studying geology at the University of Wyoming and ended up at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.  His career as a geologist began in 1973 when he worked for NASA on the Mars Viking Lander project while moonlighting for Arch Minerals computing coal reserves in the Illinois Basin.  He then went on to work as a project-level field geologist for Freeport Exploration (copper, gold, silver) in the Mojave Desert and southern New Mexico.  From there, he became a regional-level field geologist for AMAX Exploration (molybdenum) in the Sierra Nevada of Northern California and the Trans-Pecos regions of southwestern Texas.  He then became a senior geologist at Wold Minerals (uranium & talc) based in Austin, Texas.  Since founding RockWare in 1983, Jim has worked in China, Africa, Cyprus, Russia and Papua New Guinea.  His expertise includes environmental site contamination characterization, hydrogeology, mining, petroleum, and geotechnical volumetrics (computing the shape and mass of buried objects). I have known and worked with Jim for a number of years in NecroSearch and he’s the real deal.

F4F:  Tell us a little about how you first became involved in forensic investigations?

REED: About 20 years ago, I got a call from Clark Davenport, a crazy geophysicist and soon-to-be mentor and lifelong friend, who was one of the co-founders of NecroSearch, a newly-formed, non-profit organization made up of volunteers from a variety of disciplines, many of which I had never even heard of.  Entomology?  What’s that?  They were looking for a geo-nerd to apply geological software to their investigations.  The timing was perfect because I was looking for something civic to become involved in.  So I showed up at their next meeting and was absolutely captivated by the idea of working with real cops on real crimes.  As a kid, I was always in trouble with the cops, so this was my chance to flip things around.  Personal computing was fairly new at the time so I was considered a god.  Nowadays, everybody in the group just thinks of me as an obnoxious computer geek.

 F4F:  Can you tell the readers the difference between forensic geology and geophysics?

REED: Geophysicists are just geologists who could pass calculus and physics.  Geophysics always involves complicated-looking electronic gizmos with lots of blinking lights that measure things like soil conductivity (e.g. moisture) using outrageously simple concepts that are disguised by fancy jargon.  I’m not exaggerating.  Really.  Consider a “resistivity” survey.  Connect a wire from the positive end of a battery to a voltmeter.  Then run a wire from the other pole of the voltmeter and stick it into the ground.  Run a wire from the negative side of the battery into the ground, and voila, you’ve got a “resistivity meter” or a “soil conductivity meter”.  By comparison, geologists are typically limited to rock hammers, colored pencils, and a compass, albeit a fancy compass.  The term “forensics” has been muddied over the years to essentially apply to any endeavor that involves lawyers.  If somebody’s house slips off its foundation, the homeowner’s attorney may hire a “forensic engineering geologist” to testify in the lawsuit with the contractor.  The forensic engineering geologist, as opposed to a plain ol’ engineering geologist, knows to look at the jury and the judge when he/she answers a question rather than looking at the person who asked the question.  That’s about it.  In regards to crime-fighting, I consider a “forensic” prefix to mean that you know how to conduct yourself at a crime scene (drinking coffee, eating donuts, and swapping jokes), collect evidence, and provide expert testimony at the trial.

F4F:  Most, if not all, forensic geologists are employed by private industry or universities. What do you see as the biggest challenge for a geologist working a forensic case for the first time?

REED: Wow, “for the first time”?  That’s tough.  I think the biggest challenge is to act like you know what you’re doing.  Seriously.  You may be at the top of your game geology-wise, but I can guarantee that you’ll fall apart on your first case.  Here’s why; methodical, well-planned field methods fall apart when Channel X turns on the bright lights, sticks a microphone in your face, and the cutie asks a question that is so outrageously stupid that your brain locks up in an infinite loop, unable to come up with an answer that doesn’t come off as smartass, condescending, or extremely nerdy.  In the end, you just come off as an idiot.  Most geologists are used to working in remote locations by themselves where there’s nobody to see you screw up the first three times.  It doesn’t help when you overhear law enforcement guys laughing amongst themselves, saying “Damn, I could have dug up this site with a backhoe in the time that it’s taking that geo-guy to figure out his GPS.”  My advice to a geologist who’s working their first case is to find a mentor and mimic their every move.  Another problem is that most science curricula beat young students over the head with the concept of the “observer effect” which essentially states that you can’t measure anything without effecting the outcome of the experiment.  On a crime scene, the geologist becomes overwhelmed with this principle.  How can I measure soil compaction if all of these crimes scene technicians are stomping all over the place?

F4F: What are some of the most effective technologies in remote sensing for law enforcement in your opinion?

REED: Oh boy, how much space do I have to answer this one?  Well, let’s start with the least “invasive”, meaning techniques that don’t screw up the crime scene.  First off, there’s conventional satellite imagery.  Google Earth is the starting point, especially if you use their historical imagery capability to compare images before and after the date when the evidence was buried.  Next comes higher-resolution imagery, typically from the local tax assessor or the utility companies.  An infrared camera is a great tool because you can look for ground that has a weird thermal “signature”.  I don’t mean ground that’s glowing with heat because a body is decomposing, but rather subtle differences related to how the disturbed soil is heating up or cooling off during a 24-hour period.  From here, we start in with the geophysics, measuring things such as soil moisture because anybody who’s ever planted a garden knows that turning the soil increases its ability to hold moisture.  Then comes ground penetrating radar (GPR) in which we’re looking for disturbances within the natural layering of the soil layers.  If there’s reason to believe that ferrous metals (anything that can rust) are buried along with the victim, we might use a magnetometer which measures the magnetic field produced by elements such as iron.  An invasive gizmo called a “cone penetrometer” can be used to measure the compaction of the soil.  This is essentially a very expensive metal rod that you push into the ground.  The penetrometer measures the pressure required to push the rod point to various depth levels.  Once you start in with these types of “geo-technical” tools, you’re disturbing the site, so it’s import to start with the least invasive methods and then progress towards the destructive.  Sort of like medicine.  Start by asking about the symptoms, suggest some changes to diet, exercise, etc. before you pull out the scalpel.

F4F:  I can’t think of anyone that has used technology more effectively to advance our abilities to locate clandestine graves. Can you talk about how you’ve adapted RockWare technology to forensic science?

REED:  Thanks.  I’m blushing.  Mostly, I’ve added a bunch of programs to RockWorks for merging the data from the different disciplines and boiling it down to a single target.  This means “normalizing” the data from the botanists, the remote sensing (e.g. thermal), geophysics, etc. so that we can compare apples with apples.  The next step is to “standardize” these spatial (map) data sets such that they’re expressed in terms of “standard deviations from the mean”.  That’s a fancy way of saying that we’re converting the data to units that represent weirdness relative to undisturbed terrain.  Finally, these programs boil all of this disparate information into a “dig here” map.  The technical terminology for this type of analysis is “N-dimensional, multi-variant, weighted spatial analysis” – a great term to throw out when you want to intimidate a cross-examining defense attorney.  Another big improvement, thanks to the on-site forensic experience involves ease-of-use.  It’s one thing to write a program that you can use if you’re sitting in a quiet office with the luxury of silence and a user manual.  It’s another thing to create an interface that is useable on the hood of a squad car when everybody around you is making you nervous.  We’ve also added one-click export to Google Earth thereby eliminating the coordinate conversion hassles that drive investigators away from computers.

F4F:  You worked on high profile cases all over the world. What was your most memorable experience?

REED:  There have certainly been some cases that impress my friends, like going to Russia to look for Anastasia Romanov, but the ones that I remember the best are the ones that I’d really like to forget.  Don’t get me wrong; the rewards from this type of work are profound.  Directly helping to put the boogie-man away, providing “closure” to family members, working with world-class scientists, befriending some of the greatest law enforcement people – these are the some of the many benefits.  But … in the last few years I’ve been paired up to work side-by-side, in the field, with cooperative perpetrators including serial murderers.  Being nonchalant and friendly with these guys has taken a toll.  In one instance, I left the group for about a year until the nightmares went away.  Eventually, I realized that there was a hole in my life that NecroSearch filled so I became active again and sure enough the nightmares started right back up.  The difference is that I now accept them as “normal” costs well worth the benefits.  Part of the job.

F4F: You’re on the forefront of new technology. What do you see emerging in the next five or ten years that may help law enforcement find clandestine graves?

REED:  Ground-based LIDaR (Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging) is going to absolutely and unequivocally revolutionize crime scene investigations.  Most law enforcement folks haven’t even heard of it yet, but trust me, it will change everything.  Here’s how it works; You arrive at the scene, set up a tripod, mount a clunky gizmo on top, turn it on, and walk away.  The LIDaR laser/camera sweeps up and down while rotating, recording the location and color of everything at the site.  Every blade of grass.  Every twig.  Everything.  You pull out the memory card, plug it into a laptop and you’ve got a color “point cloud” that exactly reproduces the crime scene in three dimensions.  Right now, LIDaR is incredibly expensive, but so was GPS twenty years ago and now every cop has one.  For NecroSearch, I see LIDaR allowing us to create micro-topographic surfaces that will show the slightest disturbance (e.g. subsidence).  Anybody who has ever visited an old graveyard knows what happens to the ground surface over time.  You don’t even need to bury something to create a topographic “anomaly” – just dig a hole, backfill it, and return in a year.  You may now be able to see it, but LIDaR will.

 For more information about RockWare and their flagship product, RockWorks, visit:

Interview with a Forensic Botanist: Dr. Jane Bock

plantDr. 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. or

A New Forensic Resource Website for Writers!

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 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.


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