This edition of Forensic Friday comes to you from the heart of downtown Richmond and The Department of Forensic Science at Virginia Commonwealth University. VCU boasts one of the oldest forensic science programs in the country and members of Sisters in Crime Central Virginia were invited to spend the evening with them this past Tuesday, 3/22.
What a time we had. A thank you and shout out to Dr. Marilyn Miller and her students. There’s too much info for one Forensic Friday post, so I’m sharing some today and will follow up with more next week.
VCU Forensic Fact #1: Developing Latent Fingerprints with Magnetic Powder
Forensic scientists can use magnetic powder and a magnetic powder wand to develop latent fingerprints. At the end of the wand there is a magnet that when exposed will “grab” the magnetic powder so it can be gently brushed over surfaces. Magnetic powder works well on plastics and textured surfaces, and because a brush is not used, there’s less chance of damaging the print. Once the fingerprints are developed and the excess powder removed with the tip of the magnet, an investigator can capture the fingerprint on a clear piece of tape and affix the tape to a white card.
Alex Morgan is center stage in I’ll Never Let You Go, but that doesn’t mean his law enforcement siblings are out of the picture, especially Deke (Cover Your Eyes) and Georgia (Vulnerable, the fourth of my Morgan Family novels, on sale March 29th). Both are up to their ears in tenuous clues and scenarios when, first, a headless torso is found and, later, body parts. The submersion in water in both discoveries presents special circumstances for investigators Alex and Deke, forensic specialist Georgia and the medical examiner.
Problems presented include the degradation as well as the recoverable quantity of DNA in a body submerged for, say, more than 72 hours. Also, the appearance of the body or body parts may have been affected by decomposition.
A fact I learned that really caught my attention, in part because I don’t think I’d even thought about it until I was researching, is what happens to a dead body after it sinks. One source, the site Operation Take Me Home* addresses this in the context of saving or recovering drowning victims. The article points out that a dead body submerged in a river or lake (fresh water) will rise as gas forms in the body “due to the action of bacteria” occurring in decomposition. It also notes that how long it takes for the body to come to the surface depends on the amount of fat in the tissue and the temperature of the water.
That said, here’s a quick look at the scene in which Deke and Georgia encounter the body parts that just may turn the tide in their investigation.
Minutes past eight, Deke made his way down the narrow, rocky path that led to the river and the two forensic technicians working the scene. Georgia was on the job today, wearing a thick black skullcap, heavy coveralls that read FORENSICS on the back, and thick, steel-toed boots. She held a digital camera to her eye and focused on a numbered yellow cone placed next to what looked like a severed hand . . .
She faced Deke. Her nose glowed red from the cold. “Great way to start a day.”
He thought about the warm bed he’d left, in which he’d been nestled close to Rachel. She’d accepted his ring last night, and he’d been filled with hope and joy. He’d had very different plans for this morning, but the job had its own ideas. “I can think of better.”
“Join the club.”
“I see a hand.”
She nodded and pointed. “A hand there. Near the river’s edge a foot, and a few yards west is another hand. And there’s no torso or head. But then, I hear you found a torso a few days ago.”
“Stands to reason we have a matched set, but we shall see. Any idea who the guy might be?”
She sniffed, her nose runny from the cold. “Not a clue. But these cold-as-hell temperatures have kept the remains intact, and I was able to pull a clean print from the index finger. Who knows, our guy might have prints on file.”
“Anything you can tell me about him?”
“He had calluses on his palms, and the foot was still encased in sneakers. Nothing remarkable about the shoe. The thumb looked as if it had been broken a long time ago.”
“Any idea how he was killed?”
“Not a clue. That’s for the lovely Dr. Heller to decipher.”
“If he’s a match to our John Doe in the morgue, it was a gunshot to the chest.”
“That will do it.”
Deke moved down the edge of the river and studied the yellow cone that marked the spot where the other hand lay. Even in the cold it had already degraded and could easily have been overlooked as not human. “Was he in the water?”
“I’d say so. My guess is the parts were first tossed into a bag and then into the river. Everyone thinks the river will keep their secrets, but it doesn’t take much for the bag to tear and its contents to float to the top. Head is likely out there somewhere.”
“If these parts connect to my body, why leave it exposed in one location and dump the hands and feet in the river?”
She shrugged. “Maybe our killer likes a puzzle.”
The torso. The bag with Deidre’s card. Now the hands and a foot. Felt more like a trail of bread crumbs.
“How long has he been out here?”
“That’s hard to say. Cold distorts everything. Maybe the prints will match a missing persons report.”
He grinned. “Thanks for the tip.” “Always here to help, bro.”
I can’t think of anything sadder than the loss of a loved one. And I can only imagine that this pain must be even worse if, as sometimes happens, the person is never positively identified. Aside from the heartache of “what if,” there are practical complications as well for family and friends. Positive ID is important beyond providing closure. It’s needed to obtain a death certificate, access bank accounts, transfer property, settle insurance claims and any number of other practical issues.
In cases where identification is in doubt, medical examiners must sometimes make a “presumptive identification” based on fingerprints, dental records and DNA. When the scientific means of confirming the person’s identity isn’t possible because of fire or decomposition, medical and law enforcement professionals must find identification clues in other evidence. Where was the body found? What clothes or jewelry was the victim wearing? Was the deceased carrying credit cards, notes or receipts?
When a crime is involved, knowing the name of a possible victim is hugely important to law enforcement’s investigation. I knew this when I gave a local police department in I’LL NEVER LET YOU GO, the third of my “Morgan Family” novels, the puzzle of a death with no verifiable clues—no DNA results or dental records. All I gave them was a wallet with a driver’s license and a family ring.
Here’s Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent and Morgan sibling Alex dealing with the possibility of a mistaken identification.
Alex arrived at the state medical examiner’s office minutes after eight, a newly acquired file tucked under his arm. He approached reception, showed his badge, and stated he had an appointment with Dr. Heller. He’d only had minutes to wait before she appeared at the side door. Dark slacks and a chestnut-brown turtleneck accentuated her long frame. She wore her hair pinned up in a tight bun at the base of her neck. Reading glasses perched on her head. She crossed the lobby, smiling. “Alex, what can I do for you?”
“I have a file I’d like you to review.”
“Sure. Come on back.” She scanned her card at the door and it clicked open, and the two moved to a small conference room off the lobby. She sat at the head of the table and he took the seat to her left. “What do you have for me?”
“It’s an autopsy report. Done by a coroner in South Carolina.”
He pushed the file toward her. “Read it and let me know what you think. It’s only a couple of pages.”
She perched her glasses on her nose and leaned forward as she opened the file. She read the first page and frowned. The second page deepened that frown, and by the time she’d reached the third page, she looked puzzled.
“What do you think?”
“I think it’s rather incomplete. The body was badly burned in the car accident, but there was no DNA testing done, nor were dental records pulled. The identification was made solely on a charred wallet at the scene, a ring on the victim’s finger, and hearsay from several witnesses.”
“If you were going to fake a death . . .”
“I’d pick a jurisdiction like this. It’s rural, the county coroner isn’t a medical professional by trade, and it would be a place where identification mistakes are likely. That’s not to say the didn’t ID the right guy. They may have, but I’d want more evidence to make a ruling.”
He sat back in his chair, almost sorry his instincts were proving correct. “Right.”
Dr. Heller, the pathologist you’ve met in my Morgan family novels books, most recently in I’LL NEVER LET YOU GO, plays a huge role in providing leads and evidence in the crimes the Morgan family have investigated. While in those novels Georgia, whose story I tell in VULNERABLE, holds sway in evaluating and gathering evidence on site, the pathologist holds the keys to what can’t be seen or proven at the crime scene. That means all things related to bodily fluids and tissue and requires exactitude and being able to check the accuracy of the many tests performed.
Pathologists oversee autopsies and make the determination of how a person died. They are the Maura Isles (Rizzoli and Isles) and “Cam” Saroyan (Bones) in the real world without the stylists and glamour shots. And their role doesn’t begin and end in the lab. They supervise crime scenes, work with investigators and lawyers, and end up in court explaining medical terms and procedures to juries.
Here’s a look at Dr. Heller at work in I’LL NEVER LET YOU GO.
Dr. Heller stood at the head of the stainless-steel table. She wore a gown, gloves, a cap and clear goggles . . . She kept Deirdre’s face and slashed throat covered and exposed the right arm, marred with five gashes, bloodless and gaping. “She sustained injuries on her right side, as you can see, and her palm has a slice down the center. That’s a defensive wound . . .”
Dr. Heller rolled back the sheet a little farther and then moved the body to its left side. A dep gash marred the flesh above the kidney. “This was the killing cut. It lacerated her kidney and the inferior vena cava, a major blood vein. She would have bled out in a matter of minutes.”
. . . She moved her magnifying glass closer to the body and, with tweezers, plucked several blond hairs from one of the wounds. She dropped the hair in a bag and handed it to Alex. He held it up to the light, examining the strands of hair. “Get these to Forensics.”
Hello, all! Thank you for joining me for the return of Forensic Fridays. I hope you’ll continue to check in at my blog weekly as I share tidbits from my Morgan Family novel, I‘LL NEVER LET YOU GO, as we head toward the March 29th publication date of Georgia’s story, VULNERABLE.
Morgan sibling and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent Alex is at center stage taking over what begins as a Nashville PD case when it becomes clear a member of the force may be involved. He’s facing a killer determined to destroy all the evidence, including the victim’s humanity, beginning with fingerprints. The victim’s extremities and head have been removed and clothing, shoes, wallet are nowhere to be found.
Evidence. When you have it, you want to keep it. With it a case can be made. Without it convictions lost. That’s why it’s kept under lock and key. Sometimes that’s not enough as seen in I’LL NEVER LET YOU GO.
Six weeks ago, he’d completely stepped over the line. He’d approached her while she was in the produce aisle of the grocery store. He’d come up to her as she filled a plastic bag with apples. He’d scared the shit out of her, and she’d dropped the apples, sending them rolling over the tile floor. When she’d told him to back off, he’d threatened to expose her secret. He had no reason to remain loyal if she didn’t. She’d know then what needed to be done. Tyler would bring her career tumbling down. The threats had to be nullified . . .
She signed the evidence bag and grinned at the officer. “Cold enough for you out there?” . . .
She made her way along the rows of file boxes until she found the one she needed. From her purse, she pulled out an envelope . . .
She closed the box, locked it, and walked toward the officer as if she didn’t have the sword of Damocles hanging over her head . . . He rose and nervously tugged on his belt, glancing around to make sure they were alone. “Someone was checking behind you last week.”
She tightened her grip on her keys. “That so?”
He cleared his throat. “I could get busted if anyone knew this came from me.” Deidre shook her head slowly, wondering why he placed trust so easily. “No one will ever know”
Hello, all! Thank you for joining me for my first “limited series,” Forensic Fridays. I hope you’ll continue to check in at my blog as I share news about this Tuesday’s publication of my new Morgan Family novel, I‘LL NEVER LET YOU GO, Alex’s story, and April’s VULNERABLE, in which Georgia takes over the tale.
We know it from novels and countless television shows and true crime accounts. How a body is handled at the crime scene is hugely important. Not only is this the time when critical evidence can be lost or saved, but when chain of custody is established. If evidence leads to an arrest and trial, the detectives and technicians must prove that it was always in their control and there was no opportunity for tampering.
Here’s an excerpt from BE AFRAID with Nashville PD’s detective Rick Morgan and forensic expert Georgia Morgan taking lead on retrieving a body from a park pond emptied for maintenance–
“When can you remove the body?” Rick . . . couldn’t think of the victim as a living, breathing child. Cases like this required a step back. Distance from the victim kept the emotions in check and heads clear.
“Any minute. The medical examiner should be here any moment. I’ve all the photos and sketches I need so I’ll wade in now and pull the body free.”
. . . [They] arrived at the center of the pond . . . the sun had burned away the morning mists and heat beat down directly onto the site.
He glanced beyond the threads of pink to the small skull cradled inside. “Have you examined the skull?”
“No. I’m afraid to handle the bones too much. They could be very fragile. I want to pull it all out as one unit and let the medical examiner do her thing.”
“Let’s see if we can dig her out. Start at least a foot away from the remains. If we can loosen the bag we might be able to get her out easily.”
. . . The two began digging a couple of feet out from the body. With the first shovelful of dirt, the muck and mire sunk in on itself, filling the hole quickly . . . Finally, they got ahead of the mud. It took them another twenty minutes to dig deep enough that the plastic bag cold be lifted out of the mire.
The medical examiner technician arrived with a body bag. While Georgia cradled the plastic bag cocooning the pink blanket and bone, Rick wen to shore and took the bag. When he returned she laid the body into the bag and he zipped it up. Georgia and Rick carried the body out together.