The Saturday Writing Quote – Conroy on reading

IMGP1761“From the beginning I’ve searched out those writers unafraid to stir up the emotions, who entrust me with their darkest passions, their most indestructible yearnings, and their most soul-killing doubts. I trust the great novelists to teach me how to live, how to feel, how to love and hate. I trust them to show me the dangers I will encounter on the road as I stagger on my own troubled passage through a complicated life of books that try to teach me how to die.”

– Pat Conroy, in My Reading Life (2010)

A Day in the Life of an Expert Witness — guest Lisa Black

Welcome back to Law & Fiction: the Blog author and forensic scientist Lisa Black, whose experiences as an expert witness remind lawyers to be verrry considerate of our experts, and give both writers and readers an insider’s view of the criminal justice system. Her newest novel, THAT DARKNESS: a Gardiner and Renner novel , releases tomorrow, April 26.

that darkness coverI have testified in court as an expert witness approximately sixty times in my 20 years as a forensic scientist, and I can positively state that I would rather respond to the scene of a decomposed hoarder death in a house skittering with roaches and bedbugs then present myself in court for any reason whatsoever. At least I’d only be surrounded by trash and bad smells for an hour or two, whereas a court appearance can stretch into days.

There’s absolutely nothing fun or glamorous about it. You are jerked away from whatever it was you were doing (work, your day off, a vacation) and plopped into a cold, boring room in the cold, boring courthouse. If you’re lucky the room has a window and a minimum of chatty co-witnesses. You have to stay there for as long as the attorneys think they ‘might’ need you and will be freed only after at least one of them has done their best to make you look incompetent at best and conspiratorial at worst. The whole experience, quite frankly, sucks.

And it’s the most important thing we can do. All the crime scene work, swabbing up blood, wearing surgical masks to be able to breathe amid the stench, straining our eyes staring at fingerprint ridges for hours upon hours—all these things count for nothing if they don’t stand up in court.

But that’s the big picture, and usually I’m stuck in the pixels.

The waiting isn’t so bad when it isn’t your vacation you’ve been pulled away from, and you’ve prepared by bringing snacks, change for the pop machine and a book to read. I’ve taken my laptop along and gotten my writing done while waiting (though you may have to dodge those chatty fellow witnesses). If you have a smartphone, I highly recommend downloadable e-audiobooks from your library system (heaven!!). Our courthouse even has free wifi for surfing the web or answering email.

Also sometimes I have to go on Mondays, when our local courthouse does all the ‘housekeeping’ kind of stuff—pleas, motions, continuances—to collect a defendant’s palm prints or footprints, which the regular court bailiffs don’t do. This is the only kind of non-stressful court appearance I have since no one is going to ask me questions and I get to sit inside the courtroom for a change. There I can watch a sometimes interesting parade of people and hear the mini-synopsis of their predicament, such as the guy who got into an argument with someone, called 911, and as the officer arrived to explain that 911 was only for emergencies, called 911 three more times to complain about being told not to call 911.

What drives me to distraction, however, is my increasing appearances in court for sentencing hearings. When a person is convicted after a trial or plea, their fingerprints (not palms) are rolled in open court as an official record that this, indeed, is the person who was convicted in this particular court case. When they are convicted again, before they are sentenced, the prosecutor wants to establish that they have prior convictions so that the sentence can reflect that. So I have to compare the in-court prints from that conviction not yet sentenced to the in-court prints from one or two or five prior convictions. This is a minor thing, an easy comparison since the prints are usually decent and if, say, the right thumbs are smeared, you have nine other fingers to choose from. However I still have to do the comparison, hand it off to another examiner to re-do and therefore verify the comparison,  write the report, give it to my verifier to check and initial, then give to my supervisor to check and initial, make a copy for me, contact the court liaison to tell him he can pick up the report, then go to court and wait a half-hour or hour or two, then put up with the defense attorney complaining about my report (not long enough, too long, I made a typo in the birth date) as if he or his client is really suggesting that they are not the person incarcerated on these previous charges—because if they weren’t, surely they would just say so.

gavel stock image MslnArrgh!

Yes, I whine. But this does represent an outlay of taxpayer-paid time, and not just my time—my co-workers, the attorneys, the judge, the jury—and all to prove something that is already documented and that no one is questioning.

Attorneys have told me that this practice, which only began about four years ago, is due to some court decision, but I don’t believe it. I think it’s something they do ‘just in case’ it may prove to be a point of appeal. They’re trying to protect their body of work, but meanwhile more and more cases are dropped or plead down to nothing because the court’s schedule can’t handle them all. Sometimes crossing every t and dotting every i means that other t’s and i’s suffer.

Another new practice of the extreme stating of the obvious is asking ballistic experts to take bullets apart and then testify to the fact that they are bullets, with a slug and gunpowder, etc., to be used in a firearm. This is apparently requested when the use of a firearm is part of the charge or sentencing considerations, and in addition to verifying that the firearm itself is functional. After all there are several reasons why a firearm might not be able to fire as well as very realistic looking air guns—but nothing else quite looks like a bullet. And if the defendant wants to make the case that his bullets were not functional, he can, again, say so. Then order the testing. But to do it reflexively in every case adds up to a colossal waste of time and resources.

So, yeah, I don’t really enjoy going to court!

(A reminder to writers: local practices vary, and the new procedures Lisa has encountered in Florida are not required everywhere, so talk to a local expert before using them in your scenes!)

Lisa and powderThat Darkness is now available wherever books are sold!

It seemed like a typical week for crime scene specialist Maggie Gardiner–a gang boss shot in an alley, a lost girl draped over an ancient grave, a human trafficker dumped in the river–nothing all that out of the ordinary for the Cleveland police department as spring turns toward summer along the Erie banks. The methods are usual, the victims unsurprising–but when she notices a pattern, a tenuous similarity among the cases, she begins to realize that her days will never be typical again. How much of her life, her career, her friends, will she be willing to risk to do what’s right?

Jack Renner is a killer who does not kill for any of the conventional reasons…no mania, no personal demons. He simply wants to make the world a safer place. He doesn’t think of himself as a dangerous person–but he can’t let anyone stop him. Not even someone as well-meaning as Maggie Gardiner.

Maggie has the self-sufficiency of a born bit-of-a-loner. She works with a bevy of clever experts surrounded by armed police officers.        She is both street smart and book smart, having seen the worst the city has to offer.

But Maggie Gardiner is not safe. And, until she can draw Jack Renner into the light, neither is anyone else.

Jeff Lindsay, author of the Dexter series, says: “Lisa Black always delivers authentic characters in riveting stories. That Darkness takes things to a spellbinding new level with a taut and haunting story that will stay with you long after you finish reading it.”

Publisher’s Weekly says: “The intriguing forensic details help drive the plot to its satisfying conclusion.”

“Black is one of the best writers of the world of forensics, and her latest introduces Maggie Gardiner, who works for the Cleveland Police Department. Her relentless pursuit of answers in a dark world of violence is both inspiring and riveting. Readers who enjoy insight into a world from an expert in the field should look no further than Black. Although Cornwell is better known, Black deserves more attention for her skillful writing – and hopefully this will be her breakout book.”– RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars (Top Pick)

Lisa Black has spent over 20 years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into 6 languages; one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List, and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series.

And yep, that’s her looking like a happy chimney sweep! 

The Saturday Writing Quote – Merton on creative power

02_ClearwaterValley_Pastel_WEB“There is in us an instinct for newness, for renewal, for a liberation of creative power. We seek to awaken in ourselves a force which really changes our lives from within. And yet the same instinct tells us that this change is a recovery of that which is deepest, most original, most personal in ourselves.”

–Thomas Merton, “Choosing To Love The World”

A Gigantic Spring E-book Giveaway!

SU-Giveaway_BudewitzTo celebrate spring, I’ve teamed up with Storytellers Unlimited and over 35 fantastic mystery authors to give two readers more than 35 cozy mysteries, and one lucky winner will get a Kindle Fire! The contest includes my book GUILTY AS CINNAMON, the second Seattle Spice Shop mystery.
Enter the contest by clicking here: http://bit.ly/CozySpring

 

Miranda Magic: Strengthening Your Story — guest Lisa Preston

Orchids coverGather round, children, as we welcome Lisa Preston to the blog. A veteran police officer and EMT, as well as a horse trainer and backcountry adventurer, she’s the author of the new novel ORCHIDS AND STONE. (Read more about Lisa, below.) Today, she’s sharing a cop’s perspective on Miranda warnings, and how you can use them to strengthen your story without breaking the law. 

Miranda Magic: Strengthening Your Story

I once read (part) of a novel by a best-selling author in which a character pleads guilty to murder then the rest of the plot develops over the succeeding criminal trial. Of course, this is not at all what would happen; there would not even be a trial. Only those who plead not guilty receive criminal trials.

Most legal goofs are not so egregious and will likely be missed by many readers, but the writer will lose credibility with readers who roll their eyes when a writer bends the legal system too far for the reader to ride along. As a retired cop, I am one of those readers who doesn’t tolerate fiction with significant goofs in legal procedure. As a writer, I was amused when an editor thought the police officer who had arrested my protagonist should have Mirandized her. This brings me to the two major misunderstandings I see writers struggle with on Miranda warnings.

[LAB: Just because the cops turn the proper noun Miranda into a verb by adding -ize does not mean you may do so in any other context. We shall tolerate this one grammatical misuse only!]

First, Miranda [LAB: Named for the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1964 decision in Miranda v. Arizona) applies to custodial interviews. The cliché scene of a cop snarling Miranda warnings the minute the suspect is handcuffed is not the way police Mirandize. To do so would create an adversarial approach, lessening the chances of the subject being cooperative. Moreover, there’s no reason to Mirandize if there’s no interview.

Whether or not an interview is custodial for the purposes of determining if Miranda warnings are required is not as straightforward as asking whether or not the person is under arrest. It’s possible to not be under arrest, yet be in custody. Here is the 3-pronged test to establish whether or not the interview was custodial:

∙ What did the officer believe (about whether or not the subject was free to leave at any time)? Was the interview subject in the back of a patrol car (from which he could not let himself out)? The officer knows that person is not really free to leave at any time; the interview is custodial and Miranda is required.

∙ What did the interviewee believe (about whether or not he was free to leave at any time)? Was the interviewee in a police station behind locked doors? If he was escorted deep within the building and doesn’t feel free to leave, Miranda is required.

∙ What would a reasonable person believe (about whether or not a person in that situation would feel free to leave at any time)? Was the interview subject first told by the police officer to sit down on the park bench? Maybe the officer is standing over the person now, asking questions. A reasonable person could find that custodial.

Second, there’s nothing magic about a police officer giving the Miranda warning; the key is that the interview subject must waive Miranda rights before being questioned. The 3-prong test for a clean waiver of the Miranda rights is a knowing, intelligent and voluntary waiving of the right to not talk and to not have an attorney present. If the officer read Miranda but the interview subject never waived his rights, then anything learned in the interview could be suppressed or not admissible in court because there was no waiver.

Of course, a writer can use good information to develop a story in any direction. Want the cop to be incompetent? Have him scream Miranda at the arrestee, scaring the subject right out of talking to a cop with an aggressive attitude. Want the cop to be dirty? Have him bait the guy into talking then turn on a recorder and catch what he says without benefit of a Miranda advisement and waiver. Want good procedure? Follow good procedure. Use reliable resources to clarify the legal rules that apply to your fiction. Leslie’s guide, Books, Crooks and Counselors, is an excellent resource, one I recommend to all writers. For details that touch on all senses in a given police scenario, talk to officers who have been in similar situations. We’re happy to share experiences with writers who want to strengthen their stories.

LisaPreston_01With one semester to go in high school, Lisa Preston moved to Alaska and almost immediately began mountain climbing. To improve her first aid knowledge, she took an Emergency Medical Technician course, which included ride-alongs on the Fire Department’s Advanced Life Support ambulances. She moved to Oregon for training and was soon back in Alaska, pulling 24-hour shifts as a paramedic.

After a number of years, she transferred to the Police Department. Her second career started with the position of street officer and she still claims it is the most demanding job in law enforcement. Faced with a choice between K-9 and detectives (she’d trained protection and tracking dogs), she became a detective, working in the Vice unit  and later in Crimes Against Children, with a special assignment as a Hostage Negotiator. She went back to the street as a sergeant, and eventually returned to investigations, supervising Internal Affairs.

She teaches three writing workshops (The Query Class; The Right Rewrite; Ambulances, Badges and Courtrooms). She’s an ultrarunner and rides solo for long distance on her AKhal Teke horses, exploring in the backcountry.

Her publishing credits include nonfiction on the care and training of animals Her thriller, ORCHIDS AND STONE, will be released in trade paperback, e-book and audiobook in April 2016. Connect with her on her website, http://www.lisapreston.com 

Anatomy of an evidence room

th_badgeWhen I practiced in Seattle, a small group of lawyers in my firm represented commercial fishermen and seafood companies. That’s what led us to involvement in a large criminal conspiracy case against a man known as “the Geoduck King.” (That’s gooey-duck, and it’s a big old ugly clam.)

I thought of that recently when I read this article on a police department evidence room in a Twin Cities suburb. It’s an eye-opening look at how physical evidence is handled and stored, how it can pile up, and how it’s managed.

But they don’t say anything about storing a freezer full of big old ugly clams.

You can easily create good complications for your stories, if you put yourself in the position of an evidence room manager or a police officer. Imagine an officer bringing in a piece of evidence during a rush; does it get properly cataloged? What happens to a criminal case if the right gun, or the right baggie of “green leafy vegetable matter,” can’t be located?

Space can be a real issue, and not just for freezers full of clams. Computers may be smaller than ever, but they still take space. Cars and trucks, front-end loaders, trailers, and other really big items will be stored in an impound lot, often outside and exposed to the elements. What if a storm causes additional damage or destroys an RV that was the scene of a crime?

Think, too, of what happens to evidence after a case is closed? Clerks of court will call occasionally to say they’ve received a file back from the state Supreme Court, and what would we like to do with the broken chain that struck a young man in the eye? He lost that claim because he couldn’t prove where his uncle had bought it, and sued three farm & ranch suppliers, including our client, each of whom was able to show they had not bought that length of chain from that manufacturer. Your fictional criminal defense lawyer or civil trial firm, like mine, might have displays of evidence: the dented timber company hard hat that sits on top of Fred the Skeleton, or a glass-front book shelve holding small odd items. No guns or bullets, though, and no green leafy material!