Proper evidence collection is a must if your protagonists have any shred of hope of winning a murder case in the fictional courtrooms you’ve fabricated solely from ink and paper.

In fact, the only chance your DNA DA has is to present fact when testifying to the make-believe judges and juries you’ve concocted in those fantasy worlds that live in the far corners of your twisted minds.

So here are a scant few basics to correct the errors I’ve found lately while reading during my personal graveyard shift, otherwise known as the hours between midnight and three when insomnia pulls my eyelids wide open.

Anyway, here’s how to properly collect and store the follow items of evidence (please do not use television as a source for this stuff!):

Cigarette butts – Do not use bare hands to collect. Instead, used gloved hands or forceps. Do not submit ashes. Always air dry the butts before packaging and, to preserve DNA, do NOT package in plastic bags or other plastic containers.

Chewing gum – Collect using forceps or gloved hands. As with cigarette butts, air dry and  then place into a clean paper envelope or similar packaging. Never use plastic bags or other plastic containers. Plastic acts as an incubator for bacteria, which could degrade or destroy DNA.

Hair – Use caution to prevent damaging the the root ball. Collect gently, using clean forceps (clean, to prevent cross-contamination of DNA). If the hair is wet or damp, air dry before packaging in paper with edges folded and sealed, or place and seal in a paper envelope.

Human or animal tissue – Collect approximately two cubic inches of red muscular tissue (if possible). As with other DNA evidence collection of solid material, use clean forceps or gloves. Remember to change gloves when handling different items to avoid cross-contamination. Place the tissue in a clean, airtight container. Never use formalin or other preservatives such as formaldahyde. When shipping to a testing lab, freeze the sample and send via overnight transportation service, packed in dry ice in a styrofoam container, or hand deliver.

Bones and teeth – Use forceps and/or gloved hands for collection. Collect whole bones if possible. Place bones and teeth in paper containers with sealed edges. Store out of light and humidity, and may be frozen if samples are previously air dried.

 

 

 

Blood and saliva –  Store out of light and humidity, and may be frozen if samples are previously air dried.

 

Writers sometimes fail to capture what really goes on beyond the yellow tape at crime scenes. The reasons vary for these unfortunate omissions of solid information, but one theme is common … the use TV or film as research tools. How awful, right?

The little things often go unsaid, even though those details are often quite important!

 

So what are authors missing when they use television as their sole source of cop-type information?

Well, here’s a six-pack of helpful hints for those characters whose duty is to investigate a crime scene.

1. Death Scene Documentation, Evidence Collection, and Chain of Custody of the Body

Before the medical examiner enters the scene, be sure to preserve any evidence that may be altered, contaminated, or destroyed. You certainly wouldn’t want the M.E.’s footsteps to wipe out the suspect’s shoe prints, alter blood stain evidence, or mar tire impressions. Document the M.E.’s time of arrival, who called him and when, and what time the body was removed from the scene. Also, make note of the seal number placed on the body bag, if a seal was used. If not, note that the M.E. did not seal the bag and have an officer escort the body to the morgue, if possible. This simple act keeps the chain of custody intact.

2. Water Scenes: What’s Important? – Always document the water type (pond, river, lake, creek, etc.). Record the water temperature and the depth of the water where the body was found, if possible. Make note of and photograph the surroundings. It’s possible that the victim had been swinging from the rope hanging from the limb in that large oak tree, slipped, and then fell onto that large rock jutting out of the water. Everything is a clue. Record the position of the body in the water. Was it face down, or face up? Totally underwater, or floating? That could help determine how long the body had been in the water. Follow the clues!

3. Shoes – Everyone entering a crime scene should wear shoe covers. If not, pay particular attention to their shoes. Yours included. Photograph the bottoms of everyone’s shoes so you’ll be able to recognize the tread patterns when comparing impression evidence back at the office or lab.

4. Photograph Impressed Evidence – Always take a picture of impressed evidence (tire tracks, footprints, etc.). If something were to go wrong while you’re processing evidence and you hadn’t photographed before you started … well, you’re, as they say … SOL.

5. Fingerprinting Wet Surfaces – Don’t let a little rain stop you from lifting fingerprints. There are a couple of ways to obtain a good set of prints from wet surfaces—Wet Print, a spray on mixture that develops black prints instantly, and SPR, another spray on product that requires a little mixing before applying.

6. Gloves – Use a different pair of gloves when handling each piece of evidence. This is an important step that prevents cross-contamination. You certainly don’t want to transfer someone’s DNA from room to room, especially if that makes an innocent person appear to have been somewhere he hasn’t! And, it is possible to leave your prints on a surface even while wearing thin, latex gloves. Cotton gloves eliminate this problem.

Angry DNA says, “Wearing gloves helps prevent contamination of evidence.”

In the world of cops and robbers, there are many rules, both written and unwritten. Writers, of course, enjoy the freedom of making things up as their stories progress from one scene to another. However, a touch of authenticity sprinkled throughout the pages can add a nice touch to a well-crafted tale.

Here’s a tasty tidbit that’s a perfect garnish for your next well-baked tale.

To read, simply click the arrows below each page. The right arrow allows you to continue reading. The left, of course, allows you to return to previous pages. As always, thanks for supporting The Graveyard Shift!

*For a different viewing experience, click (at the bottom of the page) on “Hidden Evidence by Lee Lofland,” The link takes you to a place where you can view the entire piece one page at a time without having to scroll at all. For an even better perspective, click on the the little icon that resembles a TV screen. I’m learning, too, don’t worry. Thanks!

Hidden Evidence by Lee Lofland

Fingerprints found and collected at crime scenes are eventually developed and hopefully lead the heroes of your stories to the perpetrator(s) of the crime du jour. But there’s a bit more to the process than merely using a brush, a bit of black powder, and a piece of clear tape. For example, did you know about …

 

Amido Black – protein enhancer for blood prints. Click this Link for details.

 

 

Gentian Violet is a skin cell stain for developing print on the sticky side of tape. Click this Link for details.

 

Ninhydrin – chemical for developing latent prints on porous surfaces, such a paper. Click this Link for details.

 

Physical Developer – chemical for developing latent prints on wet paper. Click this Link for details.

 

Powders are typically effective on smooth, non-porous surfaces.

 

Small Particle Reagent (SPR) – liquid powder solution effective on wet porous evidence). Click this Link for details.

 

Cyanoacrylate – Superglue fuming for all types of non-porous surfaces.

 

Dye Stains, such as MBD, are used to detect prints in conjunction with an ALS (Alternate Light Source) on non-porous evidence after using Cyanoacrylate (Superglue) fuming. Click this Link for details.

Fingerprinting birds. Sounds crazy, right? I mean, why would someone need to lift a print from a bird? Would an Emu stand still while a crime scene investigator dumped fingerprint powder on it’s beak? Probably not.

Have a seat for a moment and I’ll explain. This is good stuff, starting with …

Chicken Thieves

Years ago, chicken thieves were considered as the lowest of all crooks. After all, stealing someone’s chickens was to take away a family’s source of meat and eggs and even income if the farmer sold his birds to help make ends meet.

Therefore, it was not at all unusual for the local sheriff to receive a call about the shooting of a chicken thief. That sort of “farm justice” was unofficially permitted back in the day, because, well, why not?

Eggers

But it was easier to catch chicken thieves back then than it is to catch modern day bird bandits, the bad guys who poach or kill birds of prey and/or steal their eggs. The eggs, by the way, are most often sold to collectors known as “eggers.”

Eggers go to great lengths to obtain their prizes, climbing tall trees to reach hidden nests and venturing into other even more dangerous situations. For example, in 2006, a 63-year-old egger named Colin Watson fell to his death while climbing a 40-ft tree in search of eggs. Watson, by the way, had been convicted six times in the past, and for over twenty years was on the radar of authorities.

During a raid in 1995, police discovered a collection of over 2,000 eggs in Watson’s home.

The number of egg collectors has decreased over the years; however, the poaching of birds of prey has increased. Many of those killing these magnificent animals are ranchers and farmers who shoot, trap, and poison the birds who hunt on their land.

In the past, all officials could do was to collect the bodies of dead birds, many of which were discovered in odd places, places where deceased birds shouldn’t be found—at the bottoms of ravines, etc. In other words, they were found in locations and in positions that made it obvious they were placed or tossed there by humans who were attempting to hide their crimes.

DNA

DNA and toxicology testing are extremely valuable when investigating crimes involving wildlife (toxicology tells us an animal was poisoned and DNA can help establish whether an animal was involved in an attack, or not), but they’re not useful when it comes to pointing toward a lawbreaker. So …

A PhD student, Helen McMorris, at Abertay University (Dundee) has found a means to develop and record human fingerprints on bird feathers. The exciting discovery will now assist law enforcement with their investigations

In a recent interview, McMorris said, “The structure of a feather is very similar to the fine weave structure of some fabrics such as silk. It has recently been found that fabric with a thread count of three per millimetre can sustain a fingermark or grab mark and, after microscopic examination, it was found that bird of prey feathers have a barb count of three per millimetre, suggesting that they could sustain a fingermark.”

During her research, McMorris found that green and red magnetic-fluorescent fingerprint powder produced the best results when excited with a blue wavelength of light and viewed through a yellow filter. Doing so causes prints to fluoresce.

Bingo! If the person’s prints are on file, well, police would then have their suspect. At the very least, a fingerprint on a wild bird of prey’s feathers 100% proves a human touched the animal, telling authorities it was most likely man, not natural causes, that killed the bird.

Six methods of tracking bad guys

 

Working as a deputy sheriff in a rural county often presents its own set of special and sometimes unusual challenges, especially during the days before the existence of GPS, cellphones, and radio repeaters. In other words, it was pretty darned easy to get lost while traveling a convoluted maze of paved (sort of), dirt, and/or gravel roads. Roads with names like Burnt Tree Road, Red Clay Way, or Turkey Trot Lane.

Many of those winding back-roads led to five or six house communities where it was the norm for us to stop and ask for directions, and some of those kind folks, thinking it would be best for us to speak directly to the person we sought, allowed us use of their telephones. Besides, they didn’t want to be known as the one who sent the law after their friends. After all, liquor stills and pot grows were pretty popular in those days.

So, after a couple of rings and a loud “Hell-Oh,” this is what we sometimes heard as a response to our requests for directions to someone’s home.

“Go past Robert Junior’s old horse barn—the old one, mind you, not the fancy new one—and hang a sharp right at the big oak tree. Then go on down until you see a red mailbox. That ain’t ours, but you’re close. We’re just past where John Henry Daniels used to have a store. Now, it burned down 37-years ago next week, but they’s a big rock there with some yaller paint on it. Yaller was John Henry’s favorite color so his wife, Etta Jean—she’s Romey and Winonna Jenkins’ oldest daughter—painted the rock so’s everybody’d remember him and the store. If’n you knowed him you’d know John Henry sold the best pickles and peaches this side of Atlanta. That he did.

Anyways, if you get to where the road splits into a “Y” you’ve done gone too far, so turn around in Mable Johnson’s driveway—it’s the one with the deer head a-nailed to the cedar post next to road (her daddy used to be a taxxy-dermis)—and head back the way you come. Our house is the blue one a’settin’ off the road about two-hundred yards—the one with the goats and chickens running ’round the place. You can’t miss it, ’cause one of them goats ain’t got but three legs. Oh, whatever you do, blow the horn three times when you drive up so we’ll know it’s you, not those pesky Joe Ho’vers Witnessers. We all lay down on the floor behind Granny’s old settee when they come a knockin’.”

True story…sort of.

Anyway, to this day, driving on dirt and gravel roads takes me back to the day when unpaved streets and roads were sometimes my best friend when trying to follow a criminal’s trail. Dirt, mud, grass, and even sandy soil can be quite telling…if you take the time to look. Here are a few things investigators look for when following a trail.

1. Both cars and trucks sometimes lose traction when heading uphill, and when they do the tread patterns aren’t clear. When going downhill, tread patterns usually remain unbroken (clear) because the rubber maintains full traction with the surface. Therefore, investigators can easily determine the vehicle’s direction of travel.

2. When viewing tire tracks in the grass it’s important to note whether or not the tracks are shiny/glossy, or not. Glossy tracks mean the vehicle was heading away from the spot where you’re standing. Off color, or slightly dull tracks indicate the vehicle was heading toward your position.

3. When traveling on slightly muddy surfaces (about the consistency of slush), the vehicle’s tires force (squirt) mud forward at a +/- 45 degree angle.

4. Mud puddles, small creeks, etc. are perfect for telling which direction a car or truck is moving. Vehicles always push and pull water in the direction of travel. The liquid also washes away tracks on the exit side of the water. So, if you see a puddle with clear tracks leading up to the water’s edge, and no tracks and a wet surface on the opposite side of the puddle, then you know the vehicle was traveling toward the wet road surface. You may also see wet spots on the dirt road from where water dripped off the car frame, after it passed through the puddle.

5. Wet soil often sticks in the grooves of a tire tread pattern. As the vehicle moves along, the soil begins to dry and falls off, and it always does so in the direction of travel. Investigators can follow the trail much like following a trail of breadcrumbs.

6. When viewing tire tracks always position yourself where the track is directly between you and the sun. This enables the best view of the track’s details.

The same is true for examining footwear impressions.

6. Be sure to photograph the track for later comparison to a tire or shoe.

Finally, as you travel, be sure to examine the sides of the roadway and down paths and trails for the suspect vehicle. It would be pretty darn embarrassing to discover you’d passed by the crooks who’d parked in Mable Johnson’s driveway to count the stolen loot.

 

They have many names and assorted packaging styles. Some are used in one area of the country while others are used elsewhere. They’re often called by their official given names, but many refer to them simply as “rape kits.”

No matter what they’re called, Physical Evidence Recovery Kit (PERK), Sexual Offense Evidence Collection kit ( SOEC), Sexual Assault Victim Evidence kit (SAVE), they’re all designed for one purpose. For the collection of biological evidence in cases of sexual assault and rape.

Typically, when a victim of sexual assault comes to the hospital, an exam is conducted by a specially trained forensic nurse. The victim will also be seen by a physician. First, the medical experts will make sure there are no life-threatening injuries. Then they’ll ask questions about the assault, health history, medications currently taking, etc.

Next comes the actual physical exam conducted by the forensic nurse, including the collection of the victim’s clothing (in the area where I worked the hospital provided new, clean sweat pants and t-shirt if the victim didn’t bring extra clothing), DNA swabs, hair samples, including a combing of pubic hair to collect possible samples left by the attacker. Blood samples are taken, especially if the victim believes she/he may have drugged as part of the assault. A number of hair samples from the victim are also collected.

Victims may refuse any part of the exam, and they may take a break at any time. They may also elect to NOT report the assault to police.

The collected evidence is placed in various pre-packaged containers provided in the evidence collection kits (rape kits). Kits contain items such as swabs, white sheets (placed beneath the victim during the exam), bottles and plastic bags.

In my jurisdiction, the hospital kept a supply of PERK kits in their inventory. The PERK kit is the evidence collection kit authorized by the Commonwealth of Virginia. This is not the case in all states. Please check with authorities in the area where your story is set if you desire to use an actual name as opposed to “rape kit.”

New Picture (4)

SAVE evidence collection kit – Arrowhead Forensics

New Picture (3)

SAVE evidence collection kitSirchie

FYI – officers DO NOT use the term “rape kit” when around victims of sexual assault and rape. To do so is extremely insensitive, which is why officers in Virginia refer to the kits as PERK kits.

In the meantime, police are busy collecting evidence elsewhere—bedding (sheets, pillowcases), suspect clothing, and the suspect, if identified and located. Sometimes police take an entire mattress as evidence.

Once the forensic nurse completes the exam the evidence recovery kit is sealed and delivered to the lab for processing, which can take many weeks to complete depending upon backlog.

Many writers have asked about the length of time DNA evidence remains viable in sexual assault cases, and where it can be found. Here’s a handy rule of thumb guide. Remember, various circumstances could change or alter these time-frames.

1. Vaginal DNA samples – up to one week.

2. DNA from skin contact – up to two days. If, for some reason, the victim has not bathed it is possible to obtain a suspect’s DNA sample up to a week later.

3. Oral swabbing with positive results – up to two days.

4. Anal – three days.

5. DNA from suspect’s penis – twelve hours after the assault.

6. DNA from fingers in vagina – up to twelve hours.

*By the way, semen can be detected on clothing despite washing. Remember, though, it is possible that DNA can be transferred from one item to another during washing. This is called tertiary transfer.

Those of you who attended Dr. Dan Krane’s presentation at the Writers’ Police Academy may recall when he described how this is possible. In fact, as a world-renowned DNA expert, he’s testified about tertiary DNA transfer in high-profile court cases.

Therefore, writers, it is possible for a DNA sample to show up on the clothing of completely innocent person, such as the unsuspecting roommate who shares a load of laundry with his buddy the psycho- serial rapist. How’s that for a plot twist!

 *Thanks to Wally and crew over at crimescenewriter for the topic idea!

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Explosions: Collecting the evidence

 

Every good thriller has at least one big explosion, right? You know, the “big boom” that always takes place right after the heart-stopping car chase, just before the hero rescues the kidnap victim who’s about to die at the hand of the cleverly-written villain. Yes, that explosion.

What we don’t see in our favorite thriller, though, is the collecting of evidence at explosion scenes. So let’s take a moment to examine that aspect of the scenario. What should be happening in the background while the hero is saving the world?

1. Bombings/explosions are not for the Sam Spade’s of the police department. Nope, these crimes should be worked by specially-trained investigators, as well as a team of experts that includes (but is not limited to) bomb disposal technicians, photographer, forensics/CSI team, medical examiner (if needed), structural engineer(s), building safety official, power company technician, additional officers to help search, etc.

2.  Bombing scenes are apt to change at any moment (parts of a building may suddenly collapse, etc.), therefore, the  investigator must be constantly aware of the surroundings, and he/she must thoroughly evaluate and re-evaluate before allowing evidence collection to begin.

3. As always, the scene should remain secure. A command post should be established, as well as a secure and safe location for staging collected evidence.

4. Locate and dispose of all remaining active explosives, utilizing canines, bomb robots, explosive detection chemicals, etc.

5. To avoid contamination, the team should wear protective clothing as they collect evidence and control samples. The special clothing also protects the investigator’s skin from toxic material.

6. Evidence from various locations at the scene should be stored separately (do not mix).

7. Collect ALL evidence, including suspected bomb parts, batteries, wires, samples from crater, and the usual hair, fibers, blood, etc. During autopsy the medical examiner will also collect fragments removed from victims,

8. Document the scene—blast effect (are street signs leaning away from the blast scene? if so, indicate direction. trees down? cars overturned?), debris (type, amount of, and distance from the blast site), victim(s) location before and after the blast occurred.

9. Medical examiner should conduct full-body x-rays, searching for components of the bomb and other foreign material relevant to the crime.

10. And, without fail, the investigator should always…walk softly.

*     *     *

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When bullet hits bone

Writers often ask what kind of entrance and exit wounds are produced by police ammunition. And you know me, I’d rather show than tell. So please follow me to an underground indoor shooting range located at a sheriff’s office somewhere in the U.S.

And, since we’re conducting research, we may as well make that experience as fun as we possibly can. So let’s start out with a Thompson sub-machine gun (think Bonnie and Clyde and the early FBI). Before going any further, though, you may want to first scroll down and click on the video at the bottom of the page, letting it play as you read. Oh, and be sure to turn up the volume. The song could very well enhance your journey through this brief article.

This extremely heavy weapon fires .45 cal. rounds, unloading its magazine with unbelievable quickness.

hollow-point-and-magazine.jpg

The rounds (bullets) in the photograph above are hollow-point bullets similar to the rounds fired from the Thompson sub-machine gun. This is what they look like before they’re fired. They’re about the diameter of the Sharpie pens authors use to sign books. That’s pretty close to the size of most entrance wounds – the size of the bullet.

The picture above is of one of the .45 caliber rounds after it was fired from the Thompson machine gun. The round passed through the self-healing wall tiles in the firing range, striking the concrete and steel wall on the the other side. Hitting the solid surface head-on caused the bullet to expand and fracture, which creates the exit wound we see in shooting victims (the hollow point fills with the material it strikes causing expansion of the bullet).

To give you a better idea of just how much the hollow point expands when hitting some solid, the round copper center you see in the photo above is the size of the original .45 cal. bullet.

Many times, bullet slivers break off inside the body causing further internal damage. The size of an exit wound depends on what the bullet hits inside the body. If the bullet only hits soft tissue the wound will be less traumatic. If it hits bone, expect much more damage. Easy rule of thumb – the larger the caliber (bullet size), the bigger the hole.

bullet-hole.jpg

close contact chest wound caused by 9mm round – post-autopsy (note the stitching of the “Y” incision

Bullets that hit something other than their intended target, such as a brick wall or a metal lamp post, can break apart sending pieces of flying copper and lead fragments called shrapnel into crowds of innocent bystanders. Those flying fragments are just as lethal as as any intact, full-sized bullet.

FYI – Bullets don’t always stop someone. I’ve seen shooting victims get up and run after they’ve been shot several times. And for goodness sake, people don’t fly twenty feet backward after they’ve been struck by a bullet. They just fall down, moan a lot, and bleed. That’s if they don’t get back up and start shooting again.

Exonerated: A crime you didn't commit

 

Cold concrete.

Cold steel.

Cold food.

Cold hearts.

Finding a potato in the garbage. A decent meal, for a change.

Heating coffee, using a nail and a small length of bare copper wire.

Three shirts.

Three pairs of pants…too large.

Three pairs of threadbare socks.

Three pairs of threadbare boxer shorts…too small.

Washing clothes in toilet.

Neighbors—killers, rapists, robbers, thieves.

Gangs.

Noise. Lots of noise.

The same thing, day in and day out.

Ten minute phone calls.

Once a month visits.

Fights.

Always light.

Can’t sleep.

Menial job, filling napkin holders at 5am.

Toothache. See dentist in thirty days.

Sick. See doctor in two weeks.

Nothing to read.

Nothing to do.

Family. Will they wait?

Twenty years to go.

Twenty long years.

And you didn’t do it…

You didn’t do it…and no one believed you.

And no one cared, until now.

The state of North Carolina has taken the first step toward freeing innocent men and women who’ve been wrongly convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. And other states have begun following their lead.

In 2007, The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission began reviewing hundreds of claims. After the Commission reviews the cases, they submit them to a three-judge panel. On February 17, 2010, Gregory Taylor was the first person to be exonerated by this process. Taylor was declared innocent of a murder he did not commit and was freed after serving 17 years in prison.

In September of this year, the N.C. judges will hear another case, that of Kenneth Kagonyera who was sentenced to 15 years for murder. Kasonvera confessed to the crime, but claims he did so because the police simply “wore him down” with lengthy and repeated interrogations during the 13 months he sat in the county jail awaiting trial.

Massachusetts has also taken a step in the same direction, attempting to pass a bill allowing post-conviction DNA testing (currently, Massachusetts and Oklahoma are the only two states that forbid post-conviction DNA testing).

Six other states — California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — have established commissions. Texas wants to see the effects of innocence-related laws on eyewitness identification and the recording of interrogations and post-conviction DNA testing.

Florida has created a commission to examine the causes of wrongful convictions. They also want police to follow state-issued guidelines on photo and live suspect lineups.

Also…

– Johnny Pinchback became the 22nd person exonerated through DNA testing. He spent 27 years in a Texas prison for two rapes he didn’t commit.

– DNA testing excluded four Chicago men for a 1994 rape and murder. However, they were still convicted and imprisoned. DNA testing now points to another suspect. The men are asking to be freed and exonerated.

*Interestingly, 28 percent of exonerations involve people who pleaded guilty or made other false statements to police.

Daybreak.

The intercom crackles.

“Inmate U. Didntdoit. Roll ’em up and report to R&D.”

But you were already awake.

Eyes wide open. Restless.

A thousand centipedes in your stomach.

Today’s the day.

You told them you didn’t do it!

Free at last!

Home.

Family.

Time to live again.

Sunshine.

Fresh, sweet air.

Vivid colors.

Trees.

Grass.

Cars.

Clothing that fits, and feels good against your skin.

Cash money.

A wallet.

Keys to hold.

People to talk to, about pleasant things.

Holding hands with loved ones.

A child’s hug.

Yes, free at last.

And it’s time to live again!

If only they’d believed you…

 *R&D – Receiving and discharge