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! 

Doug Lyle on “The CSI Effect”

Many of you know Dr. Doug Lyle, novelist, cardiologist, and all-around great guy who generously shares his knowledge of medicine and forensics with writers of all stripes, on writers’ lists and his own blog.  Today, he talks about the effect of TV crime scene investigation on real-life expectations.

The CSI Effect

By D.P. Lyle, M.D. 

You’ve no doubt heard of the “CSI Effect,” but what exactly is it and does it actually exist? Both the definition and whether it is real or not are controversial, with experts weighing in on both sides of the issue.

It derives from the many CSI or forensic science shows on TV, both fictional and documentary-style. Many point to the CBS series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation as the beginning of the effect, which then expanded with the appearance of the “CSI clones” and other shows such as Bones, NCIS, Cold Case, and Forensic Files. It is impossible to turn on the TV without seeing some crime show and forensic science is invariably part of the story. The same goes for virtually every case you see presented on national or local news.

The CSI Effect could be defined as the impact of these shows, which reveal cool and clever forensic science techniques, on the public, criminals, law enforcement officials, juries, and courts. They have created a level of expectation that simply isn’t realistic. They portray crime labs as being fully equipped with very expensive instruments and staffed with brilliant minds that magically uncover the most esoteric evidence. They make the very rare seem almost commonplace. They suggest that all these wonderful tools are widely available and frequently employed in criminal cases. The truth is vastly different. DNA is involved in perhaps 1% of cases and it isn’t available in 20 minutes. Crime labs are severely underfunded and most have meager equipment, not the plasma screens and holographic generators seen on TV. The lab techs are indeed smart and dedicated individuals but they aren’t prescient. They can’t magically solve complex crimes by simply “seeing” the solution in a microscope or within their minds. It doesn’t work that way. At least not often.

So how does all this information—or is it misinformation–effect the public, criminals, and the police and courts? Simply put, they teach criminals how to avoid leaving behind evidence and unrealistically raise the expectations of the public.

Criminals watch these TV shows and learn to alter their behavior to avoid detection. They learn not to leave behind fingerprints and DNA, to hide from surveillance cameras, to avoid using cellphones and computers in the planning and execution of their crimes, and a host of other things. Fortunately, these shows are not always accurate and don’t cover all contingencies involved in the planning and execution of a crime, proving the old adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The criminal thinks he has thought of everything but while he focuses on one bit of evidence he ignores others. An example would be the thief who planned a breaking and entering home robbery. He knew that shoe prints could be left in the soft dirt of the planter beneath his entry point window so he took off his shoes. He then realized he had not brought gloves, so to prevent leaving fingerprints, he removed his socks and used them as hand covers. The crime was interrupted by the home owner, an altercation with blood shed followed, and the thief left a bloody footprint on a piece of broken window glass. This proved to be his undoing.

The public, who make up juries, comes away from these shows believing that high-tech investigations are involved in every case and if the police or prosecutors fail to make DNA or blood analysis part of the case they must have done something wrong. And in some cases defense attorneys latch on to this and use it to undermine the police investigation. During the famous Scott Peterson case, how many times did you hear news reports and pundits talk about the lack of DNA evidence as if this made the case weak? In truth, finding Laci’s blood or DNA on Scott or his clothing would be of little help. They were married, they lived together, there were a hundred innocent reasons for Laci’s DNA to be found. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, juries wanted confessions and eyewitnesses, both of which we now know can be false and erroneous. Now, after the saturation of our psyche with forensic sciences, they expect DNA and other sophisticated evidence. This not only makes gaining a conviction more difficult but also gives prosecutors pause before filing charges in cases without such evidence.

So, it can be said that the CSI Effect alters the criminal justice system in many ways. It helps criminals avoid detection, creates unrealistic expectations in the public and in juries, and makes prosecution of some crimes problematic. But there are positive aspects in that this increased interest in forensic science has led to more people choosing this as a career and indeed the number of colleges offering forensic science curricula and degrees has mushroomed.

 Thanks, Doug! Watch for Doug’s new book, More Forensics and Fiction: Crime Writers’ Morbidly Curious Questions Expertly Answered, coming in April 2012.

D. P. Lyle, MD is the Macavity Award winning and Edgar® Award nominated author of the non-fiction books, MURDER & MAYHEM, FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES, FORENSICS & FICTION, MORE FORENSICS & FICTION, and HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS as well as the Samantha Cody thrillers DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND and DOUBLE BLIND, the Dub Walker Thrillers STRESS FRACTURE and HOT LIGHTS, COLD STEEL, and the media tie-in novels ROYAL PAINS: FIRST, DO NO HARM and ROYAL PAINS: SICK RICH based on the hit TV series. His essay on Jules Verne’s THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND appears in THRILLERS: 100 MUST READS and his short story “Even Steven” will appear in ITW’s anthology T3: LOVE IS MURDER.

He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of popular television shows such as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.

He is a practicing cardiologist in Orange County, California.

Website: http://www.dplylemd.com/

Blog: http://writersforensicsblog.wordpress.com/