When I sat down to listen to D.P. Lyle lecture for two hours on forensics for writers, I made sure I was on the aisle so I could duck out if I started to nod off. Now, I love science and have watched a ton of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, so I wasn’t sure I’d get too much out of the workshop. But Lyle is an entertaining speaker with his hint of Southern drawl and quick wit, and his interpretation of the science of forensics is definitely what I needed as a writer. Here’s just a few things I picked up.
Gil Grissom isn’t waiting in the wings
The lecture started out with one fact overlooked by many authors: there isn’t a high-tech crime lab in every city. Yeah, I know, DUH. But stop and think a second. That means that if I wanted a character to get a DNA profile on blood found at a scene in a tiny little town, they’d have to send it out to a larger lab, probably the FBI. When would they get the results back? MONTHS later. Is this a good thing? Depends on your story line – but as a writer, knowing what’s real and what’s not is priceless.
Forensic scientists don’t interview witnesses or carry guns in the real world, they analyze evidence. I’d guess most do wear lab coats, though.
Coroner vs. Medical Examiner
Did you know that anyone can be a coroner? No medical experience or forensics knowledge is required for a position with the title coroner. The person must only be appointable or electable! Remember that blood drop in the tiny town? If they only had a coroner, the guy might be a garbage man who just happened to be around when the mayor needed to appoint someone. Wow – does that open some doors plot-wise. Maybe it closes a few, too.
A Medical Examiner (ME) is another story. As suggested by the title, some medical experience is required, and quite possibly some training in forensic science. When faced with the blood drop, I’m guessing he’d have a few more ideas about what it means and what to do with it than the local trash man.
As always, there are exceptions to the rule, but I’d never considered the difference before.
Time of Death
Something I took for granted was estimating the time of death. Things like rigor mortis, lividity, body temperature – those are all indicators that make it easy to pin down the time of death, right? Um, sort of. Temperature, whether the body was moved, humidity, weather…those are just a few of the variables that affect how long it takes for rigor or lividity to set in. In short, unless there’s some other definitive evidence is found (like an eyewitness or in the case of my book, Whirlwind, the pre-programmed sprinklers coming on), a window of a few hours for the time of death is pretty darn good. For a body found in the woods days or weeks after death, the estimate may be just that: a range of days or weeks.
Two tenets of evidence became very clear, very early in the workshop. First was Locard’s Exchange Principle. Basically, when two objects come into contact, there will be an exchange of matter, each leaving a trace of themselves on the other. This applies to objects, animals, and people. Everything leaves a trace.
Second is the idea that evidence, by and large, excludes, rather than incriminates. If our friend the blood drop turns out to be type A, then everyone who is not type A is excluded. The DNA profile will exclude everyone who doesn’t match – but if your suspect has an identical twin, then there will be at least two people with that DNA. (Fun fact: did you know that even though identical twins have indistinguishable DNA, they don’t have the same fingerprints?)
This is just a little snippet of the information covered in this workshop. Lyle discussed everything from DNA to poison to gunshots to search warrants to search patterns to fibers. I stayed for the full two hours, and when it was over, went directly to the bookstore and purchase D.P. Lyle’s book, Howdunit Forensics. More comprehensive than his more recognizable title, Forensics for Dummies, Howdunit Forensics will sit next to my Chicago Manual of Style as one of my favorite reference books.
Meet an Author Monday
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