A couple of years ago I visited Monterey for my very first Left Coast Crime. At that time, I had no idea I would go back for a very different conference in 2017. This year I had the privilege of attending the 101st Annual Training Seminar of the California State Division International Association for Identification—basically, a CSI conference where everyone was either law enforcement or a criminal scientist, except me.
I only knew one person when I showed up at the registration table, but I immediately felt welcome. I got my bag of goodies and my badge, purchased some cool swag including two books, and headed out into the wild to learn stuff.
I’ve been to enough work and writing conferences to know that people love to talk about their passions. This was no different; however, their “shop talk” was so fascinating that I wish I had transcribed every exchange. The interactions, I soon found out, happened with pretty much everyone I met. It was amazing. There was always a fascinating case on which they had discovered some interesting evidence that helped to convict, or clear, a suspect, or a famous case in which they played an integral part (such as the O.J. Simpson investigation). Everyone was incredibly generous with their stories and their time, inside and outside the classroom.
Here are some of the things I learned that may be interesting to you too and even help with your mystery writing.
15 things to know about Crime Scene Investigations:
- Don’t forget trace evidence. DNA is not the be-all and end-all. Types of trace evidence include: fibers, hair, paint, glass, soil and botanicals, and gunshot residue (GSR).
- Use the same numbering system when setting up the cones and evidence markers, and use the numbers sequentially (some people don’t, creating innumerable problems later on).
- The same team needs to work the whole crime scene, no matter how long it takes (sometimes multiple days).
- Much of physical evidence is about what you see and feel is out of place.
- Many people have been exonerated in cases of bite-mark identification.
- About 75-80% of carbon monoxide deaths happen to people far away from the fire.
- Always take fingerprints last.
- Prints are there before you are born and well after you are dead. Even after a horrible fire, prints can be obtained.
- Collecting trace evidence is very cost effective, and the evidence lasts a long time. Collect evidence from the scene, the suspect, the victim, and anything that doesn’t seem to belong.
- Sticky notes are perfect for collecting hairs and small particles. Collect it, place it on the sticky note, fold it, and bag it.
- Vacuums are most effective for larger items or retrieving stuff from the bed of a pickup truck.
- Hair examination questions:
- Is it human?
- From what part of the body?
- Comparison to known sources?
- Anything unusual about the hair (e.g., dyed)?
- Currently growing (check the root)?
- Any area of a gun with openings or creases can contain GSR. You can’t tell for sure if someone was the shooter or was just close to the gun that was fired.
- There’s only a 6- to 8-hour window to collect GSR before the particles are gone. A simple hand washing will remove the evidence.
- Analysis of GSR can take from a day to over a week, depending on the particles found
6 things to know about suicides and homicides:
- Suicide notes are found in only 25% of cases (they may exist, but they may not be found).
- About 65% of all suicides have a history of a known prior attempt.
- Suicidal people normally set a date that means something to them.
- It is often assumed that elderly victims died of natural causes.
- Suicides are often embarrassing for family members, who tend to remove notes or weapons.
- Is the suicide note fake? Check fingerprints and writing analysis.
3 things to know about staging crimes:
- Most common ways people stage homicide crime scenes:
- Make it appear to be an accident or a suicide.
- Make the crime look like a sex-related homicide.
- Set a fire to destroy evidence.
- Crime scenes may be staged for many reasons:
- Ad hoc staging, not premeditated, due to panic after the crime.
- To depersonalize the victim, or to pose the victim.
- Alteration by people other than the perpetrator (e.g., a family member) to cover a naked body, to remove the murder weapon, etc.
- Red flag indicators of staging:
- Items are removed or damaged to make it look like a burglary.
- Fatal assault on the victim while another person, present at the time of the crime, seems to be relatively unharmed.
- Offender arranges for a third party to discover the body.
- Forensic findings are inconsistent with what the witness says happened: blood stain patterns, damage to property or things, etc.
- Exaggeration of the crime scene
Final interesting facts:
- About 77% of wrongful convictions have witness misidentification as a factor.
- Smell is a stronger sense than eyesight.
- The DEA comes up with standards for testing new drugs, then shares them with other agencies. New drugs appear frequently.
- Based on Brady v. Maryland, California state law requires the prosecution to disclose any exculpatory evidence to the defense. If they don’t, they can go to prison for serious Brady violations.
- An order of exhumation can take up to a year.
- Blisters can form after death in a body burnt by fire.
- The best way to get a body out of a hotel is to stuff it into luggage because nobody is likely to notice.
- Collect more samples than you think you need. You don’t need to run them all, but if you didn’t collect it, you can’t run it later.
- About 50% saturation of carbon monoxide is lethal.
In addition to learning all of the facts above at lectures, I heard many fascinating stories at the hospitality suite after the classes. Being immersed for a week with so many people who love what they do was humbling and made me feel honored to spend those few days with them. They make such an effort to speak for the dead, to make sure victims get a say, even after they’ve passed, and to make sure that, to the best of their ability, justice is served.