Friday, August 31, 2007

Staying Ahead of the Criminals

If you type “Experts Blame Cop Shows for Educating Criminals” into your favorite search engine, you’ll come up with the original article, and a lot of blog commentary. It’s a popular subject. Just to paraphrase, the article is about a killer who used bleach to clean up a crime scene. And the senior criminalist from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said that bleach use was becoming all too common in his opinion. Another statement was from a northeast Ohio prosecutor, who claimed that a man went to great lengths in a double homicide to clean up his crime by using bleach to wash up, lining the interior of his car with blankets, and burning DNA evidence. He tripped up though when it came time to dispose of a crowbar, tossing it onto to a frozen lake.

I located another story about gang members in South Africa, who used their camera phones for finding victims. Apparently they would take pictures of bank customers who had withdrawn large sums of money. A gang member outside would stake the person and eventually rob them. Police officials there, want to ban cell phones in banks.

Since I write about crime and forensic science, I have wondered about this question myself? Am I, too, providing information to help criminals?

I don’t know that there is a definitive answer. I mean, if we’re talking about drug-related crimes committed by stoners, probably not. But I’ve often heard it said that most information about how to “best the government” goes on in our very own jails and prisons. I’m told that inmates share information and even teach techniques and ideas to anyone who will listen. So how does this play out in real life? I can’t say and I don’t know of any reliable studies that could even be performed because it is the very definition of underground information.

Thankfully, a lot of the gizmos and crime scene techniques that are shown on television come from the fruitful imagination of the writers. Most of my friends and colleagues in law enforcement and forensic science claim they don’t watch the CSI-type shows because they cannot suspend their disbelief enough to enjoy them. And, to them, crime is not entertainment but tragedies they must deal with every day.

I think the solution to staying on the cutting edge is on-going all the time in the form of research and technology. There are rewards and benefits for companies that launch crime-prevention and crime-busting aids. Just recently USA TODAY ran a piece about a new device that the Homeland Security Department would like to issue to its federal agents.

It looks like a flashlight and emits a powerful beam of light that temporarily blinds anyone who looks into it. A hefty $1 million dollars of testing money is going into the LED (light-emiting diode) Incapacitator. And they have volunteers lined up at Pennsylvania State University’s Institute of Non-Lethal Defense Technologies. (“So, what did you do today, honey?” “Well, I had my eyes burned up, my brains scrambled and got sickened by light pulses and colors!”)

The main thing that law enforcement looks for in a device, believe it or not, are tools that give authorities enough time to tackle subjects and restrain them, while sparing the lives of innocents nearby. They need tools to disorient and stop perpetrators, while preserving life. No small task.

I, personally, love reading about the new devices and think this one is especially interesting. The problem will become however, how to keep them out of the hands of the black market. Once they are mass-produced and come down in costs, then you’re on the road again, looking for more tricks.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Name That Crime Scene Problem

Sorry I haven't been around weekly. It goes like this: writers have a lot of conferences in the spring. I went to a mystery writers conference (with a crime scene walk-thru that was great); I was at a forensic science training conference; then the Romantic Times Book Lovers Convention in Houston (that was wild!); and, finally, a novel writing boot camp experience outside of Indianapolis (a wicked ten-hour drive).

Well, after all that, summer showed up. And summer is the time that authors create books. I'm making an E-book and CD of Detective Notebook: Crime Scene Science (for kids aged 10 and up, very cool, with activities); working on a monkey novella with terrific real-life graphics, and I need to get back to that mystery (it's been back-burnered too long).

Anyway, as a way of apology, I am going to post a drawing I did.

What Happened?

The coroner is having a hard time establishing the time of death. Look at the crime scene and figure out why. Leave your answer in the comments box.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

I Humbly Disagree with One of My Favorite Authors

Just recently this commentary was posted in an online e-newsletter I receive every day, Levine Breaking News. Here is the copy:

*LBN-COMMENTARY By Scott Turow: This Friday a 33-year-old man named Juan Luna will go on trial for the murder of seven people in a Brown's Chicken restaurant in Palatine, Ill., on Jan. 8, 1993. The investigation of the murders, in which the victims' bloody corpses were discovered in the restaurant freezer, languished for more than a decade until Mr. Luna's DNA was identified in the saliva found on a chicken bone at the crime scene. Having spent some time over the years as a criminal defense lawyer, I find this use of DNA evidence somewhat ironic, even a bit perverse. When I was first exposed to the forensic use of DNA, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was seen largely as a tool of the defense, usually resisted by prosecutors who feared manipulation of the underlying science. Ultimately, hundreds of people around the country were able to demonstrate they had been wrongly convicted, and those successes led prosecutors to realize that the same DNA tests -- and experts -- could also provide evidence that guilty people had been walking around free for years. The Brown's Chicken case is but one of hundreds of "cold cases" now being resolved by advances in forensic technology, particularly DNA testing. Greater accuracy in the truth-finding process is a laudable development. But I worry that the growing capacity of today's forensics to reach farther and farther into the past seems likely to undermine the law's time-ingrained notions, embodied in statutes of limitations, about how long people should be liable to criminal prosecution.

As much as I love Scott Turow and respect his work and his writings, I must humbly disagree with his premise. The statute of limitations never runs out on murder. And for good reason: a life has been taken and this egregious act means that a father will no longer be there for his family; that a daughter will never grow up to have her own family; and, that a victim’s family must live with the absence of a loved one every day of their lives.

I understand going back into history and plucking criminals out of their new lives must be a shock, and upsetting to his new family. Oh, well. He should have thought about this before he decided to divorce himself from personal responsibility and moral conduct.

Your view?

p.s. Please visit my new blog along with some other great true-crime authors and commentators, it's sure to be a hit:

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The 7 Key Differences Between TV Crime Drama and Real Life

TV: 1. “Hot” Crime Scene Technicians:

Reality: 1. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

TV: 2. False Promises

Reality: 2. Honest Assessment with no personal investment

TV: 3. Jumping Jobs

Reality: 3. Lab Assembly Line

TV: 4. Results in One day

Reality: 4. Crime Lab Backlogs

TV: 5. Obscure Techniques (Grissom tastes a bone)

Reality: 5. The Principles of Science

TV: 6. Settings: Glossy, clean and no clutter

Reality: 6. Trailers, cluttered, worn and lived in

TV: 7. Socioeconomics: Id by Dentistry?

Reality: 7. Victims victimizing Victims: no resources, no safety net, no one cares
(May never have seen a dentist)

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Crime Show Effects on Real Trials

This came in just recently from a Maricopa County source, Attorney Andrew Thomas.

Of 300 prosecutors in Phoenix's Maricopa County attorney's office:
  • 61 percent say jurors seem to believe forensic crime shows on TV are true.
  • 90 percent have to explain to juries why police don't collect the kind of evidence seen on television.

Of the 102 most experienced prosecutors:

  • 38 percent had at least one trial that ended in an acquittal or a hung jury when forensic evidence was not available to corroborate testimony.
  • 52 percent have seen a defendant receive a more favorable plea offer because there were expected problems with the 'CSI effct' had the case gone to trial.
  • 80 percent reported juror disapproval with the lack of forensic evidence.

Source: Maricopa County Attorney Andrea Thomas

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

High School Daze

I spoke to five science classes at Lakeside High School the other day. It was the day before spring break and held in a library with very little air circulating. I walk around when I speak and could feel the rivulets of sweat running down my midriff.

The classes combined equalled about 150 students. My talk that day was about the forensic science field, our state lab, what the jobs are, some of the specifics, and the odd little details. I made sure to get the skinny from J.R. Howard, the Director of the Arkansas State Crime Lab before I went, because I am not keen on passing out misinformation or disinformation. I had thought that with CSI being so popular that I would get a lot of questions and feedback. (I'm always hearing how universities are scrambling to set up more forensic science-based and criminal justice classes.) But, it was very quiet. I think I only got two questions all day. Granted, one class was studying environmental science but the two questions actually came from them. (My husband—who was playing my lovely assistant—said that the questions came from two males who thought I was "hot".) Now the validity of that, I cannot comment.

I was disappointed however in that when I asked them questions, there were no answers. Quiet again. Okay, they were dragged there by their teachers, but where is the passion? I came to forensic science very early, (in the late 80's) before it was on TV and before every other show was a crime drama, but I was led to believe that students were ga-ga over CSI and here I was representing the topic with no life, not nary a spark.

I'm glad I'm not in high school anymore.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Everything Is Hard

The criminal justice system is a huge machine and there are always many things that serve to stop up the cogs. History has never been kind and criminal law is based on history and is a vainglorious attempt at achieving justice.

Some of the things currently plaguing the criminal justice industry are: juror’s prejudices, (the question as to whether there is a “CSI Effect?), the glorification of forensic science in crime scene dramas, the real backlog of the system, fraud by forensic experts, and incompetence with individuals who jeopardize the process among other things.

Where to begin? Whether one wants to believe there is a “CSI Effect” or not—and there are folks who have expressed their doubts—jurors need to realize that achieving justice requires a unique balance of elements, and that nothing is foolproof; and that technology is not the be all and end all for guilt.

Prosecutors are held to a standard when they bring a charging document and defendant to court. And that standard is to find: guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. That doesn’t mean that the jury must all be 100% convinced to a certainty. It means that there is sufficient evidence presented by the state that this person has committed this crime.

Now the evidence can come in a variety of forms from eyewitness identification to hard evidence or artifacts and even circumstantial evidence—such as: this person stalked the victim and had a restraining order issued against them in the past. Circumstantial evidence is a fact that can be used to infer another fact. It is built upon reasoning and expecting reasonable people to figure it out. And cases in the past, Dear Reader, have been won on circumstantial evidence. Because, if there are enough things that point to guilt: bad character evidence, no alibi, previous behavior, mental illness, stressors, whatever—sometimes a pile of things put all in one place is a mountain that cannot be ignored.

Monday, March 5, 2007

A Few Pet Peeves

There are more than a few things that drive me crazy about how forensic science and the CSI groups are depicted on TV crime dramas. But I also have some pet peeves that don’t necessarily warrant writing a column about such as: when Delko got shot in the head just recently, died and came back, was his recovery a miracle or what? Out for so long, no brain damage and he was back at work very soon, just a little slower on the uptake. Puleese, this makes victims of TV viewers to allow people to think that this is even possible. I was kind of hoping that he was dead after I saw how they treated his “coming back.”

Okay, one time on an episode quite a long time ago (and since I don’t have the DVD set from years past,) I’ll just say that the CSI—Las Vegas team was out in the dessert and Gil Grissom was talking about “tasting a bone.” Listen, if you find remains, no way are you going to go putting it up to your lips. Can we say dangerous practice? I mean, why doesn’t that man have hepatitis C by now?

And, too, in the same vein, you will never see law enforcement stick their finger into a bag of powder, taste it and say, “that’s cocaine all right.” Wow, how irresponsible it that! It could be PCP, a dangerous hallucinogenic, or any number of harmful substances (in fact some drugs are cut with harmful chemicals themselves, like arsenic). Cops often use crip kits. These are testing kits that will determine the characteristics of a drug or chemical substance using reagents and small squirt bottles and testing vials. For more information on what a kit looks like, what you can test for, and other specifics, check out this link:

Okay, this is short tonight, but I feel better already for saying it.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Dividing it up: Jurisdiction

Usually on television an entire crime scene unit arrives and sweeps through the scene collecting all the evidence including photographs, fingerprints and trace. Then they are shown in the lab manipulating what they have just collected and within a short period of time, they are calling detectives with a match to the prints found at the scene or some other leading discovery.

In reality, a patrol officer is dispatched to a crime scene and maybe, if the jurisdiction has manpower, a backup officer will follow. After securing the area if it’s a small scene, they will take photographs and maybe dust for prints. If it is something more than a patrol officer can handle, a detective is put on call. One will usually arrive and for larger scenes again, maybe two will be called. Generally about the only time an entire criminal investigation division will be sent is for a major case like murder, aggravated robbery, kidnapping or something heinous.

Jurisdiction is probably one of the biggest factors to determine who does what, when, and how. For example, a small town with the population of 900, is going to operate the best they know how with limited men and resources. It’s the police officer then who will do many different jobs such as collecting evidence, logging it in and sending it off to be processed at a lab in a larger city. In a slightly larger city with a more serious crime, the detective may be working alone, collecting evidence, logging it in, making initial contact with victims, typing reports, interviewing witnesses, showing photo lineups, locating potential suspects, and collecting enough probable cause for a judge to issue a complaint. Detectives try to help each other out if it is overly large.

Let’s face it. Communities everywhere make do with what they have. If they need their officers to multi-task, they do it. If law enforcement need more help, the officers will call and ask but you can’t create what isn’t there. And I’d venture to say that all law enforcement everywhere could use more capable men and resources.

One thing that always struck me as funny was when the folks on TV cross over into other jurisdictions, or if they fight with another department to get a case so they can see justice done. Who would have time for that? Who asks for more work when they're overworked already? Plus, officers probably have to wait weeks, if not months for evidence results and the cases just keep coming. Juggling, juggling, trying to make things move in sync—it’s got to be super stressful and tires me just thinking about it.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Television Depictions Worry Others

Ha! In USA TODAY today (February 13, 2007), there was a small article on the op-ed page about how the hit TV show 24 has showed a lot of torture scenes and, oh my, the military is upset.

Now you can hear me talking?! Yes, if you’ve been watching Jack Bauer this year you’ll note that the writers have ramped up the scenes in this new season with some good things and some very stupid things. Okay, the stupid thing first: bad government. Yeah, there is always some political figure who is either in cahoots with someone, has no ethics or brain, or is planning their own plot intrigue. I’d say, if you were from a visiting country and watched 24, you’d probably get the idea our government is badly run. (Need we say more about our political image around the world?)

But the problem the military officials are moaning about is the frequency with which the pretend CTU unit uses torture to get key information; (so far this year, Jack Bauer’s not doing real well in the "getting good information" scenario). Anyway, the editorial committee at USA TODAY wants us to know that in real life: [Quote] “. . .ticking bomb scenarios like this almost never occur, and torture rarely works. Suspects will make up anything to stop the pain or humiliation.” [That’s an end-quote, not my words]

Of course, I don’t know anything about the military and their sneaky tactics. I also don’t know anything about torture of any kind (thank heaven), but I do know that the military doesn’t like pop culture making claims in the name of fiction that damage their policy or image, especially when it comes to the terrorism fight that is on-going. (I just wrote about the Patriot Act for the 2nd edition of my book Legal Ease: A Guide to Criminal Law, Evidence and Procedure, and, if you have not read the Patriot Act, you will be mightily surprised at the liberties that are taken away from us—but I digress.)

So the military is upset about television depictions! Hel-oo-o. That’s what I’ve been saying on behalf of forensic science! How do you think the criminal justice system feels about all the stupid things that are “created” on television that one can only call bad infotainment? It’s hard enough to make real life work, when people believe that forensic science and law enforcement can do all these made-up things that are almost all but impossible in a lot of criminal cases. Reality folks, can be the pits. And here I am having a hard time selling a book that will teach people who love the TV crime drama shows what is real and what is totally absurd—and I can’t get a publisher to take it on. What? the American public doesn’t want their bubble burst? They want to believe that things operate like they do on Bones, or CSI—Las Vegas? They want to get on a real life jury and make decisions about someone's future or very life when they don't know what's real? Pu-leese. Think on that.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Breaking the Law

I just finished doing the Subject Index for the 2nd edition of a criminal law book of mine, Legal Ease: A Guide to Criminal Law, Evidence and Procedure. Indexing is weird. Not only is my brain a little skewed from thinking about legal terms in a backwards fashion, but the format fuses your left brain and right together somehow so I feel fried—glad it’s finished and in the mails on its last route before publication.

We are trying to covert Legal Ease into a textbook because I often get mail from law teachers asking for that format. So I added a section for definitions, questions and the like (even an essay part, poor students). But it reminded me how narrow the law really is, how exact the wording, and what constraints that puts on the players: the defense team, the prosecution, and even the judge and jury.

Away, this got me to thinking about the TV crime dramas and forensics and the principals who play them. Most of them should be in jail themselves. The characters have a tendency to break the law. And just last night, I watched the main anthropologist on Bones, Temperance Brennan, pull a very big gun out of her purse. Okay, so she works in this government facility, right? Well, it’s very unlikely that security are not out in front screening everyone who comes through the building. And did she have a "concealed gun" permit for said weapon? They never said in the story and she didn’t either. But surely alarms would have gone off on her arrival.

Of course, I went back to watch some old Perry Mason mysteries on television too. They showed them late at night on a channel that shows oldies—and I was very surprised to find out that Perry broke the law every week! He either set up the perpetrator by doing something shady, led police in a wild goose chase, secreted someone away, or withheld information. Of course, the audiences were not as savvy then, and I’m sure the script writers weren’t the best fact checkers either, but old Perry would have lost his license to practice many times. The American Bar Association would have had his number for sure!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Empty Promises: Personal Involvement

Sometimes I think the TV crime drama writers are on crack. Harsh? Well, let’s consider one topic that comes up on every single popular network show without fail. In fact, when it begins to show up, I know the show is too mainstream. What do you think my little pet peeve might be?

Of course, you looked at the title, it's the "empty promises." For some reason, and Crossing Jordan seems to be the worst offender, every week they have Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh, a medical examiner, (who never does any work in my estimation, she’s hardly ever in the autopsy area), making promises to victims. It could be a mother, a child, a girlfriend, hey, she makes promises to all the victims no matter; and says, “I promise, we’re going to find the person who did this!”

Argh. Give me a break. To begin, let’s assume that law enforcement and forensic scientists are professionals. In order to do their job, they must remain detached. Why? Well, most forensic scientists never leave the lab and when they do get evidence to analyze, it usually has a case number on it. In order to do what a scientist is supposed to do, and that is, to test evidence, they perform a series of whatever it is their department does, without trying to taint the evidence, convict someone in particular, or, it wouldn’t be impartial—the keywords for science. Looking for impartial results. And usually they are doing several tests to make sure that there are no assumptions—just chemical answers or adequate testing of unknowns against knowns. That’s it.

They would be a fool to make promises of any kind to a victim. First of all, with the backlog they’re working under, they might not see that evidence for weeks!

And if they got personally or emotionally balled up in a crime, they’d be in the loony bin before month’s end. Who has that much compassion? It’s just ridiculous. Every time I hear those empty words, “I promise you . . .” I just want to pull my hair out. It’s emotional drivel and good for a story, but honestly, not actual day time reality.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Media and Yates

I am sure if you read the news or had caught it on the radio, you will have heard about Andrea Yates. She will always be known as the mother who drowned her five children in a bathtub at home.

No doubt that Yates’ mental illness and troubled psyche predated the killings. She had a history of mental problems and was put on anti-psychotic medication, and had attempted suicide, I believe, a couple times before this incident. The murder case got a lot of press and there was even an issue that began here, it was about postpartum depression.

What you may not have known or remember hearing was that in 2002, a jury rejected Andrea Yates’ insanity defense. At that time, she had been sentenced to life in prison for the deaths of three of her five children.

But that conviction got overturned. Yes, a state of appeals court reversed that sentencing because an expert witness for the state, a psychiatrist, messed up. He testified that there was a television series called “Law and Order” that had aired an episode about a woman suffering from postpartum depression who drowned her children.

Then, when her next trial came up in Houston, Texas, (which has been called “the death penalty capital of the world”) the jury reached a new verdict. After 13 hours of deliberation over three days, the jury finally decided that Yates should be committed to a state mental facility in Texas until she is deemed to be no longer a threat.

Yates’ attorney Wendell Odom expressed the view that the correct decision had been made, he said that he believed his client was mentally ill and needed help and attention. But the Harris County District Attorney, Joe Owmby, essentially told reporters he was disappointed by the verdict. To paraphrase Mr. Ownby, he said that he’d always believed that she knew it was a sin and legally wrong to kill her children.

Now whatever you think, the television show and the media played a big part in this case. Once, in the overturned sentencing; and again with the final decision. My feelings are that she was definitely mentally ill, had many bouts with illness, and it’s a sad commentary that her husband did not do more to help his wife or intervene to save his children. But, the prosecuting attorney claimed he feels that the heavy media coverage and the editorials in the local paper must have had an effect on the jury. He wasn’t accusing them of not deliberating correctly, but said that after living with it for the past five years, that they were “human beings”. Did he mean that media changed the jurors' minds?

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Crime Scene Locations

I’m often taken aback by the way certain television crime dramas depict homicides. A few things bother me that don’t relate to actual life or the current statistics collected and published by major reporting services like the National Crime Justice Reference Service (NCJRS).

To begin, in 2004, homicide victimization rates for blacks were six times higher than for whites. Yet on almost every homicide case on your basic CSI-type show, the victims are white. And the majority of victims are killed by their own race: 86% of white victims were killed by whites; 94% of black victims were killed by blacks. That, too, is cast in a skewed manner.

The number of homicides in which the circumstances were unknown is greater than any known category of circumstances. Because sometimes the answer is never concrete. Arguments are often cited as a frequent circumstance when known circumstances are given for murder. And then the other reasons people get killed are: in the commission of other felonies such as robbery, drug-related problems, or rape; or gang violence, which has increased almost 8-fold since 1976.

And yet, you’ll watch several episodes of CSI-Miami for example, and the victims are mostly white. They live in extremely upscale areas. The people who are killed are rather prominent, judges, models, businessmen. And a lot of the action takes place in exclusive, glass-windowed homes on the water, or in expensive nightclubs, yachts, etc. In fact, I always comment to my husband how beautiful the camera pan-in shots are before each segment begins. It looks as if Miami has been whitewashed. The buildings are all deco, beautiful in shiny glass and steel. The waterways are immaculate and the ships upscale and very pricey. There is very little garbage. Even when they show a warehouse scene where they’ve chased a criminal, there is no trash and no graffiti. The houses that these victims get killed in also have no clutter, no knickknacks, no clothes lying around, no artifacts or signs of real life.

In reality, most places that victims are found are low rent dives, trailer camps, poor neighborhoods and trashy establishments. It is mainly victims victimizing victims. Why? Because most criminals are desperate. They probably do drugs. They have no resources or safety nets. And they are just getting by or scrapping to live. Crime is less passion-driven than one of lack of resources. Most of these people do not have family that care about them. And the areas that they live in are dirty, toxic and downright disgusting.