Saturday, March 13, 2010

Forensic Day

Even though my books don’t give a lot of gory details of crime scenes or a lot of forensic details, I couldn’t resist signing up for Forensic Day as part of the Left Coast Crime conference held this weekend in L.A. I had misunderstood what it was and thought it was just a tour of the LAPD and LA County Sheriff’s crime lab, but it turned out to be so much more.

The speakers covered crime scenes, questioned documents, expert witnesses, guns, trace evidence and DNA.

The crime scene section wasn’t some glitzy TV rendition of what a crime scene looks like. Don Johnson who teaches in the School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics at Cal State L.A.showed graphic pictures from the murder of four family members. It was fascinating to have him explain what of the evidence was misleading or irrelevant. For example there was a large speaker outside the window, a screen removed from the window and the window open. There was also a clear footprint on the speaker. It could be inferred that was the way the killer gained entry. But it turned out that a surviving family member had been concerned when no one answered the phone or door and had gotten in that way to check on her family.

Lots of food was thrown around and cleanser sprinkled over some of the bodies. That apparently was irrelevant and probably just an effort to mislead the investigators.

Mel Cavanaugh gave the questioned documents section. He likes what he does so much that now that he’s retired, he volunteers in his old department. His talk had to do with altered checked, forged signatures and things like matching up a bunch of notes from bank robbers to see if they were all written by the same person. My favorite was the photo he showed of a check that had nothing written on it, but the bank had cashed it for $50. The person whose account it was had brought the check to the police. It turned out the woman was a seamstress and had grabbed a pen to write a check for her gardener, but hadn’t realized it was the one she used to make marks on garments and had disappearing ink.

Hearing about expert witnesses from Myrna Raeder, a professor of Law at Southwestern School of Law was an eye opener. I had never thought about the fact that the expert is going to skew the information in favor of who is paying him. And who knows how much an expert they are. What with diploma mills on line, calling yourself Dr. So and So doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

Guns give me the creeps. I went to a shooting range once and despite the opportunity to try revolvers, automatics, glocks and rifles and some other ones I don’t remember, I gave up after the automatic and revolver. But I listened with interest as Allison Manfreda, Criminalist II in the LAPD Scientific Investigations Division -Firearms Anlysis Unit talked about getting terms right – as in not calling a magazine a clip. And calling a cartridge a bullet is a no no, along with referring to spent bullets as slugs.

Lynne Herold, Senior Criminalist LA Sheriff’s Department Scientific Service Bureau/Trace Section had worked on the Phil Spector case. It was a big deal in L.A. but I’m not sure if it was in other parts of the country. She talked a lot about blood spatter and marks on the gun that had killed Lana Clarkson. It appeared to have been wiped off by something wet - you could tell from the pattern of marks left behind. Lynne talked about other cases and dealing with smell of decomposing bodies. She said if you put plain vaseline in your nose it covered the scent sensors. Some of the CSI shows have characters putting Vicks in their nose to mask the smell. She said it just stimulated the scent sensors. Also, she talked about covering her hair and wearing booties on her shoes. Apparently the smell can get in your hair and if it gets on your shoes, it stays forever.

Katherine Roberts, who teaches at Cal State L.A. in the School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics talked about DNA. She went into a lot of scientific detail that was a little over my head. However, the useful point she made was that DNA evidence is not always the slam dunk it appears on TV.

Sandwiched between all the talks, we went on a tour of the LAPD and LA Sheriff’s Department crime labs. It’s a new building and everything is state of the art. The LAPD and Sheriff’s department each have their own set of labs. After a while I lost track of what belonged to which law enforcement agency, but I saw a huge library of guns, those tank things they use when they want to test fire a gun, a finger print lab with all different size fuming closets, and posters explaining how they check for blood and test for drugs, along with lots of brightly lit rooms with serious looking equipment.

Finally, Jane Burke, the author of the award wining Irene Kelly series and president of the Crime Lab Project, Inc, who put the day together, talked about how to use what we’d just heard in our writing.

It took me several hours after getting home to process all of what I’d heard. There was so much to think about.


Jen from Minnesota said...

Sounds fascinating! I actually applied to the Illinois State Police Dept years ago but they had a hiring freeze when I graduated from college. So, I now work in a hospital laboratory. I get to work with blood and fluids, but in a much "cleaner" environment.

Mason Canyon said...

Sounds like it was a very interesting day with lots of helpful information. You mentioned the smell of decomposing bodies. Having covered crime scenes as a newspaper reporter, I can tell you that is one smell you will never forgot. Now years later sometimes something will trigger that smell again. It also makes you remember the victims and the case.

Anonymous said...

That sounds fascinating, if a little overwhelming. I know that things are not as they seem on TV crime shows with the solution happening in minutes. In any case, thanks for sharing with us.

signlady217 said...

Sounds like a lot of interesting info in a very short time. The chemical smells would do me in right off the bat. Even going to the dentist bothers me because of that.

Monica Ferris said...

What a fact-filled day you had! I wish, when I get a day like that, there was a book for sale at the end of it that had at least some of that same information, as I sometimes suffer from "overload" and forget or misinterpret some of what I've seen.

Betty Hechtman said...

Jen, sounds like you're work is more about keeping people alive, rather than finding out how they died.

Betty Hechtman said...

Mason, so you were a reporter. When I was in college working on the student newspaper that was my dream.

The closest I've come to the smell to decomposing bodies is when rodents died in our attic and I had to wait for the pest control people to come and empty the traps. Because of the ceiling light fixtures we have in our kitchen, the smell spread through the room. All the air freshener in the world didn't make a dent in the smell.

Betty Hechtman said...

Kay, the speakers referred to how unrealistic CSI type shows are, but at the same time, they've encouraged more women to go into science.

Betty Hechtman said...

Signlady, we just heard about the smells. I didn't think about it until your comment, but when we did the tour of the labs, there wasn't any smell - good or bad.

Betty Hechtman said...

Monica, I know what you mean by overload. When I first got home, I couldn't remember who the first speaker or what he spoke about. Luckily we were given a handout and as soon as I looked at the schedule, it all came back to me. I spent a couple of hours after that just writing down everything I remembered.