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.


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.


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.


Noise. Lots of noise.

The same thing, day in and day out.

Ten minute phone calls.

Once a month visits.


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.


– 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.


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!



Time to live again.


Fresh, sweet air.

Vivid colors.




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



IBIS: Integrated Ballistics Identification System


In prehistoric times, when crime-solving technology was basic, almost non-existent, evidence-matching was a daunting task. Remember those days? You know, way back in the early 2000’s… Well, bullet-to-firearm matches were especially tough in those oh-so-distant times. Investigators first recovered spent ammunition, the bullet or bullet fragments and/or the part of the round that once contained the powder (cartridge). Then they set out on the mission of trying to match those bullet parts to the weapon that fired them.

Markings on the surface of a fired bullet – Larry Reynolds photo

Two fired cartridges – Larry Reynolds photo

To do so, they examined the recovered evidence for specific markings left behind by the firearm—lands and grooves left by the pattern inside the gun barrel, and firing pin and ejector marks left on the cartridge.

Then, investigators set out on the mind-numbing task of manually searching scores of image databases and other evidence comparison collections, hoping to locate a match to their piece of evidence. And it sometimes took forever and a day to find a match, if then.

Well, in 2003 a new star in the evidence-matching world was born…IBIS. The Integrated Ballistics Identification System. IBIS is totally automated, much like the AFIS and CODIS systems (fingerprint and DNA systems). Once IBIS hit the scene, investigators were able to enter an image into the system, starting a search of images from all databases AND from all current, on-going, and past crime scenes. And all this is done automatically, without having to paw through page after page of pictures.

But, it’s still not like you see on TV. There’s no moment where an image of a bullet pops up on a computer screen next to a picture of a suspect, complete with the thug’s address, phone number, and shoe size.

Investigators still must compare the items by hand and eye to determine that the two images, the image of the evidence and the database image, are indeed a match.





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Using a fingerprints age

You’ve found several prints at the murder scene and you ran them through AFIS. This time luck was on your side. You got a hit on two of the latents. The first belonged to one of the usuals, a guy who goes by the street name “Popcorn.” You’ve arrested Popcorn several times over the years for assault, a few larceny charges, and a B&E or two. The dead guy was one of Popcorn’s card-playing buddies. Popcorn definitely could be good for this one.

The second suspect is an older man, Ima Forger, with a record of writing bad checks and one charge of embezzlement that occurred almost ten years ago. Violence just doesn’t fit. But, his prints were found at the scene. So, you round up both men and haul them back to your office for a little I&I (Interview and Interrogation).

Both men admit to visiting the home of the deceased, a Mr. I.M. Coldnclammy. Forger admits to being there, stating that the two of them had shared a pizza and watched the Red Sox and Yankees game. He claimed that his friend was very much alive when he left. But Forger also stated that just as he was leaving, Popcorn showed up and boy did he ever look mad. Forger said he could hear the two men arguing all the way from the bus stop in front of Coldnclammy’s house, some fifty-feet away from the front door.

Popcorn, however, says he hadn’t been to Coldnclammy’s house in over two weeks. But he has no solid alibi and everyone who knew Coldnclammy has already told you that he and Popcorn were not on good terms—something about one owing the other a great deal of money. And, there’s a rumor floating around the streets that Coldnclammy has been seen around town with Popcorn’s girlfriend on his arm.

So, all you have so far is the word of two crooks and a couple of fingerprints. One thug says he was there and the other says he wasn’t. But one man clearly implicates the other. You glance to the fingerprints. Both look the same to the naked eye.

They’re both attached to a white backing covered by the clear plastic of the hinged lifter from Sirchie Fingerprint Laboratories, you’re favorite brand.

What if the prints could tell you which man was truthful? The only way that could happen is if you knew the age of the prints. If Popcorn’s print was older than Forger’s, well…

Actually, it is possible to tell the age of a fingerprint, and it’s done by using a sensor that detects extremely faint electrostatic charges, such as those occurring over the surface of a fingerprint. Not only does this method allow the technician to successfully photograph the formerly invisible fingerprint, the process also detects the gradual reduction of electrical charge as the print ages. And, when compared to the time a crime occurred, officials can now eliminate or include potential suspects as the possible perpetrator of the crime in question.

In the case of Popcorn and Forger, well, the print was hotly charged and wasn’t very old. Definitely not two weeks old. So, you’re able to rule out Popcorn as a suspect for this crime. But he’ll be back. Forger, on the other hand, confessed when confronted with the “electrifying” evidence against him

Fingerprint's reveal a smoker


Imagine how difficult it is to solve a murder when all you have as evidence is a single fingerprint. And, that print is not in any database, anywhere.  Sure, there were eight men who were seen near the scene of the crime on the night it occurred, but you have nothing solid pointing you in their direction.

Man, if only that print could talk.

I guess, for starters, the print could tell the investigator what the suspect had been holding in his hand, recently. For example, a cigarette, or a bottle of beer. Or even a bag of cocaine. But would it help to know if the fingerprint belonged to a smoker? Well, during your surveillance of the suspects you’ve seen six of the eight puffing away at various times. So that’s not a lot of help. How about if the print belonged to a person who drank alcohol? During the course of your investigation you’ve learned that only four of the suspects consumed alcohol. And you verified that information with family and friends. What about a drug user? Would it help to know if the print belonged to a drug user? After all, one of your informants says the guy with the big ears and red hair smokes crack regularly. So you try to dig up similar information about the other seven. Nothing. They’re all clean. No drugs. Red-On-The-Head is the only one who uses drugs.

So, if you knew for sure that the print belonged to a drug user and one of your only seven suspects is a confirmed crack smoker…What does that tell you?

The fingerprint, if it could talk, would probably say,

“Look, I’ve told you the guy smokes crack. What else do you want? You know what they say…If he walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…he’s probably the killer.”

But can a single fingerprint provide that sort of information? Sure it can, and here’s how.

Our bodies deposit metabolites—tiny traces of what we’ve consumed—into the sweat released from the pores located in our fingerprint ridges. Scientists use gold nanoparticles to detect the metabolites in fingerprint sweat to learn what, exactly, that individual has taken into his body, such as cotinine, a metabolite of nicotine. And the beauty of detecting cotinine is that a person would have had to ingest it, not merely touch a tobacco product, for it to show up in test results.

The process is simple. Dab the print with a solution containing gold nanoparticles with attached antibodies that bind to the metabolite. Scientists then apply a second antibody, one that binds to the cotinine antibodies. This solution also contains a fluorescent dye. If the person is a smoker, the dye will then glow along the ridge patterns when exposed to an alternate light source.

The test is also capable of testing for alcohol and drug use, which could help narrow a field of suspects. If the test detected cotinine and the guy you’re looking at for the murder is a non-smoker, then you need to at least start looking for an accomplice.

“I always wanted to be a detective when I grew up, and I’ve finally made it. Now, if I only had somewhere to pin a badge…”


*     *     *

Want to learn more about fingerprints and the equipment used to detect them? How about bloodstains? Well, you’re in luck. A team of experts from Sirchie Fingerprint Laboratory will be on hand at the Writers’ Police Academy and they’ll be presenting a couple of mind-blowing demonstrations. Bring your questions and your cameras!


* Have you reserved your hotel room for the Writers’ Police Academy? If not, please do so today. The block of rooms we reserved at the Embassy Suites is nearly full and there may not be any additional rooms available once those are gone. You won’t want to miss out on any of the fun! Ask for the Writers’ Police Academy discounted rate.

* Also, spaces for the Writers’ Police Academy are filling fast, therefore, we may be at capacity soon. So register today for this one of a kind event. Remember, Sisters in Crime will pay over half of your registration fee! This offer is open to everyone. See the WPA website for details.







DNA: Going too Far?

In 2009, Ruben Mitchell, a Stockton, California resident was arrested for trafficking drugs from California to Pittsburgh. Authorities alleged that Mitchell filed a claim for a lost bag on a Southwest airline flight bound for Pittsburgh. Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem, but Mitchell’s bag contained 19 kilos of cocaine.

Ruben Mitchell

Mitchell, upon arrest, refused to provide a DNA sample, arguing that authorities needed a search warrant to obtain that sample. Later, a federal judge in Pittsburgh agreed.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Irwin claims that taking a DNA sample is no different than fingerprinting someone at the time of their arrest. But is swabbing the inside of someone’s mouth really the same as taking fingerprints? Or, is that step actually a body cavity search that would normally require a search warrant? The difference could be that DNA contains a person’s genetic code, not just a bunch of ridges that’re used to identify that person. And, to stick something inside a person’s mouth to retrieve a sample, well, that’s certainly much more invasive than holding a finger over a glass screen to electronically record a fingerprint.

Either way, the case is going to an appeals court for a ruling on the matter. But it won’t end there. Nope. This is a 4th Amendment issue (unreasonable search and seizure). So we’ll definitely see this case before the U.S. Supreme Court because neither side will give in.

So how will all this play out for departments like the Palm Bay Florida Police Department that currently uses DNA to solve many of their cases, including property crimes?

Palm Bay PD has built an in-house DNA database by collecting samples (150 per month, or so. Nearly 13,000 in four years) from any arrestee who agrees to submit one, not just convicted felons. In fact, PBPD detectives even collect samples from soda cans, doorknobs, cigarette butts, or anything else a person may have discarded or touched in a public place.

Then officers collect and enter that person’s DNA into the department’s local DNA databasing system (LODIS).

Palm Bay officials say their DNA database has paid off big time. Within a period of two years they’ve reduced property losses by a staggering $6 million. And they’ve done so by getting the burglars off the street by using DNA to identify them.

One particular Palm Bay DNA case that made the news was interesting, to say the least. But was it a case where DNA should have been used to find the suspect? Well, you be the judge. Remember, to process each sample the costs range between $100 – $800. And that doesn’t include police manpower, vehicle costs, dispatcher’s time, paperwork, court time, overtime, investigation time, follow up time, transportation to the lab, etc.

Anyway, police officers were called to a burglary scene where they discovered a broken piggy bank and knife lying on the bed beside it. Officers took DNA samples and 30 days later they arrested 19-year-old Jerome Jordan for breaking the bank and stealing the $121 he’d found inside.

Officers were able to identify Jordan as the suspect because his DNA profile was in the local database for an unrelated sample collection, possibly from a soda can he’d tossed in a mall garbage can in front of a police detective who decided it might be a good idea to collect it.

What do you think? Should the police be allowed to collect DNA samples from items collected in public places? Should authorities even be allowed to collect DNA samples from everyone who’s been arrested, but not yet convicted of a crime? Is this over-reaching? A violation of search and seizure according to the 4th amendment?



Lifting Fingerprints:


A technique called vacuum metal deposition (VMD) currently uses gold and zinc to recover fingerprints on items such as glass and plastics. VMD is not a new method of of developing latent prints. Not at all. In fact, it’s been around since the 1970’s. However, its latest use has generated quite a bit of buzz among the fingerprint experts and the law enforcement officials charged with locating criminals.

Now, using VMD, experts are finally able to locate and recover fingerprints from fabrics. And the process is relatively simple. The fabric is placed inside a vacuum chamber where gold is heated to the point of evaporation and then the pressure is reduced, which spreads a very thin film over the material. Then, zinc is heated and attaches to the gold, BUT only in the spots where there are NO fingerprint ridges. What’s left behind is clear fingerprint ridges showing through as fabric. The spaces between the ridges show as a grayish zinc color.

Toronto police lab technician places item in a VMD chamber

Fingerprints recovered using VMD are photographed, not lifted.

Of course, a fingerprint itself a valuable tool for identification of criminals. But think about how valuable it could be in the case of a victim who police believed jumped to his death from the balcony of a 20-story building. But when scientists run the victim’s clothing through VMD testing, they discover a pair of hand prints on the back of his shirt. Clearly, the presence of those prints would indicate someone had pushed the victim off the balcony. Then, instead of working a suicide case, detectives would then have a murder to solve.

The best types of fabric for turning up positive results are polyester, silk, and nylon.

Another advantage of using VMD is that it can detect prints on items that were previously immersed in water.

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Friday's Heroes - Remembering the fallen officers


The Graveyard Shift extends our condolences to the families of each of these brave officers.

Deputy Sheriff Dewayne Crenshaw, 62

Tippah County Mississippi Sheriff’s Department

December 3, 2010 – Deputy Dewayne Crenshaw was shot and killed by a male suspect who was involved in a domestic dispute. The fatal shooting occurred after Deputy Crenshaw and another deputy approached the man outside his residence.

Deputy Crenshaw is survived by his wife, four children, and one stepchild. One of his sons is also employed with the sheriff’s office.

Deputy Sheriff Brandon Coates, 27

Orange County Florida Sheriff’s Office

December 8, 2010 – Deputy Brandon Coates was shot and killed during a traffic stop. At some point during the stop Deputy Coates had deployed his Taser while struggling with the driver of the vehicle. Coaters was later discovered with two bullet wounds to the head. He is survived by his wife of about one year. She, too, serves as a deputy sheriff with the department.