Thursday, March 20, 2008

LA’s New Forensics Laboratory

I had the absolutely delightful privilege and honor this week of being among the members of the Mystery Writers of America, Southern California Chapter, who toured the brand new Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center at the California State University, Los Angeles.

We congregated first in a room where well-known--and excellent--author Jan Burke spoke to us about The Crime Lab Project she founded, and some of the realities about forensics analysis that CSI and similar shows get wrong. Most places, including those in large cities like LA, have a horrendous backlog of evidence to be analyzed to identify not only suspects in major crimes, but missing persons as well. Imagine the suffering of the poor families! Jan told one story about a missing person whose family was not notified for 10 years that his remains had been found... even though they had been found only three months after he went missing.

Why is there such a backlog? Well, even the most affluent areas don’t necessarily fund their crime labs adequately. The most urgent situations may--or may not--get the most attention.

Jan suggested that we subscribe to her newsletter, which I did. And since the introductory info also suggests letting other people know about it, I’m going to put the information right here: just send an e-mail saying “subscribe” to
You can also just visit The Crime Lab Project website:

Another speaker, and our host, was Barry Fisher, the Crime Lab Director. He explained that the facility is used jointly by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles (city) Police Department.

And then we took our really wonderful tour.

So what did I learn on this visit? Some of the information was fascinating. Here are just a few of the facts we were told:

Did you know that there is a style of handwriting typical of people incarcerated in prison for long periods? They have plenty of time on their hands, pun intended, and often will practice a special form of handwriting--in pencil only since pens are not allowed in prisons.

There is a piece of electrostatic equipment that can read impressions on pads of paper invisible to the eye--to determine what was written on a top sheet that has been torn away.

Then there are alternate ways of obtaining fingerprints besides just dusting with black powder, by using special equipment and Super Glue.

Evidence in capital crimes is saved forever, but in non-capital cases evidence is saved for the period of the statute of limitations plus one year.

There are local and national databases for fingerprints and DNA evidence, but, although progress is being made, information is not always examined and analyzed in a timely manner, and even when it is analyzed it is not always uploaded quickly.

Then there is NIBIN, the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network, where authorities upload information from all over the country about crimes in which guns are used, to help find patterns and apprehend suspects.

Will I use any or all of this in my Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter mysteries? Perhaps, but I suspect I’m more likely to use it in my upcoming Silhouette Nocturne, working title MORTAL OPTIONS, in which the hero and heroine are both members of a fictional police force.



Sheila Connolly said...

Fun! And no doubt you'll find it useful. CSI has us all brainwashed into thinking that technology is both simple and fast. Now even juries wonder why the prosecution hasn't done all the cool stuff. I gather the reality is different, at least in older facilities. I've read that our state lab (in MA) has a backlog of six months to a year, and has been slammed for sloppy procedures. I'll be touring my county lab soon, and I'm looking forward to it.

Camille Minichino said...

I'm a huge fan of the Crime Lab Project ... I heard recently from a prosecutor friend that "real" crime labs don't even accept all the evidence in a case. They tell the cops "pick three pieces."
Outrageous ...

Kathryn Lilley said...

Gosh, I'm in LA, and I wish I could have gone to that! Sounds like such great info. Thanks for sharing!

Linda O. Johnston said...

Let us know how your tour goes, Sheila. And you're right--the public has such an unrealistic idea about how efficiently crime labs work that it may even affect trials and all.

I never heard of the "three pieces" direction, Camille, but that's really awful if it's done even sometimes.

And, Kathryn, hopefully there'll be another opportunity someday, even if it's not an official MWA SoCal function.


Annette said...

Very interesting information Linda. I am not a writer, but a former librarian who loves to read mysteries. So as a reader, I certainly appreciate what you writers go through for your craft. Thanks.

Linda O. Johnston said...

You're very welcome, Annette, and thanks for your comment! And I think writers sometimes enjoy the research almost as much as the writing.