Writing About Forensics
A would-have-been panel for Capricon 37
Capricon 37 was a science fiction convention held February 16-19, 2017 in Wheeling, IL, just north of Chicago. Authors Jen Haeger and Jan S. Gephardt were scheduled to present a panel at the convention called Writing About Forensics. Unfortunately, circumstances prevented both of us from attending, so all of a sudden the panel had no panelists!
To make up to Capricon for our inability to present the panel at the convention, Jen and Jan have created a co-written blog post, to offer a glimpse of what we would like to have been able to say at the convention. We agreed to post it on our blogs, and send the finished “virtual panel discussion” to Capricon, too, for their use. We hope you enjoy it.
Jen Haeger (Moderator) is a writer geek with a DVM in Veterinary Medicine and a Masters in Forensic Science, though she presently writes part time and works part time at Barnes and Noble. Her published works include a veterinarian meets werewolf paranormal romance trilogy with some forensics in the first book, Moonlight Medicine: Onset. She currently resides in Ann Arbor, MI with her husband.
Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and longtime science fiction fan. Her new science fiction novel, Going to the XK9s, is scheduled to be released this year by Durendal Productions. It is the first in a series about a pack of super-smart bio-engineered police dogs who struggle to establish themselves as full citizens, while solving crimes and sniffing out bad guys. To prepare for this novel series, she has devoted much of the last four years to researching, among other book-related topics, police investigational procedures and forensics.
The Questions, and our answers:
1. What is your definition of “forensics”? How does the definition expand or change, when you apply it to science fiction?
JH: My explanation of forensics is the opposite of the scientific method. When you use the scientific method, you start with a hypothesis, then design experiments or make observations to test that hypothesis, and end up with a result. With forensics you already have a result: a murder victim, a contaminated stream, a collapsed building. You then come up with a hypothesis of how that result came to be and do experiments or look at the evidence to try to determine how likely your hypothesis is.
I don’t feel like the definition should change when applied to science fiction. If in your story there are people who can just use a device to say, replay what happened at a crime scene without needing evidence, I wouldn’t call that forensics.
JSG: In the post-CSI era, I think most laypersons would define “forensics” as established techniques for evaluating the physical evidence of crimes. This would include analysis of images, fingerprints, chemical substances, DNA, blood spatter, ballistic evidence, etc., retrieved from a crime scene and documented according to the protocols of the agency doing the investigation. In each category of physical evidence, standards have evolved, based on systematic observations and more general scientific knowledge.
Unfortunately, in recent years we’ve occasionally discovered that standards of analysis have not been developed with enough scientific rigor to withstand the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard. The reliance upon hair-sample analysis before the availability of DNA testing is an example of a formerly-trusted forensic technique that more recently was found to fall well short of that standard.
I think the only way the definition might be changed in science fiction would be a matter of specific techniques for the “list of types of analysis.” An author might extrapolate a new way of analyzing evidence, or speculate that a current technique might be abandoned in the future for some reason.
2. What are some of the problems you see with writing about crime and forensic evidence-analysis “in the future tense”? That is, what are some of the pitfalls science fiction mystery writers might need to consider and try to avoid?
JH: I think that science fiction writers must do research on what is currently available as far as forensic techniques are concerned and build/extrapolate from there if they want to stick to “hard” science fiction. Soft science fiction writers have a lot more leeway. They can just make stuff up and not worry about any pitfalls, but they may lose readers who know what is impossible, like determining the age of a latent fingerprint or time of death down to the minute.
JSG: I agree that any writer should do thorough homework, and I’d include the “soft sf” folks in that caveat. Due diligence helps avoid silly mistakes that can ruin the story for readers who know better. The main pitfalls beyond that are in the area of prognostication: what will be the “DNA-type” revolutionary discovery in the mid-21st Century? We can’t know, any more than people writing sf in the 1970s could have easily predicted using a cell-phone to photograph evidence or analyzing touch-DNA. But it’s fun to guess!
3. How big a role should forensics play in a science fictional crime story, as opposed to other aspects? What other investigation techniques or practices do you think might evolve, and how might they compliment or augment what we now think of as investigational best practices?
JH: Wow, okay, so any other investigation technique could evolve, but if your story is science fiction, I feel that the author should stick to science, i.e. forensic science. That is what the reader will be expecting from a science fiction novel. If the author wants to do character-centered speculative fiction, then they can concentrate on other investigational practices like mind reading during interviews or using super emotionally sensitive people to assess a suspect. There are so many different types of forensics that I’m not sure too many other techniques really come into play in a crime story except maybe interviewing people and profiling, though that may fall under forensic psychology. There is also deduction, but that can’t really be used in court.
JSG: I feel I ought to point out that while analysis of the physical evidence has an increasingly important role to play in helping to alleviate that “reasonable doubt,” there will always be a place for “good old-fashioned police work” in an investigation—that is, canvassing for witnesses, getting statements, building timelines, getting eyewitness identifications, etc.
Although eyewitness IDs have been found to be far less reliable in some cases (especially identifications of strangers in crowds or with distractions) than originally thought, it’s pretty hard to beat the certainty of a statement such as, “I’ve known that guy for 20 years, and I saw him shoot so-and-so in the head that night!” A science fiction crime story that ignores the human element (or the “non-terrestrial person element,” if applicable) ignores a huge part of the normal investigational process, and needlessly limits the story-possibilities.
|A Belleville, IL officer talks to a member of the neighborhood after a call regarding a gun. Few investigations turn on forensic evidence alone.
4. Forty years ago, DNA wasn’t a consideration in evidence-gathering. Now it has become important in an amazing range of ways, applicable to a variety of crimes. Gaze into your crystal ball and speculate about ONE other potential kind of evidence that might become radically more important, given just the right breakthrough.
JH: Forensic science is constantly making radical breakthroughs. Imaging has made enormous strides recently in areas like crime scene reconstruction (being able to take a 3-D image of a crime scene for later analysis), spectroscopy (developing a sensor to detect date rape drugs), and adding audio to video (by analyzing vibration images).
But I’m going to go with precise time of death which has so far proved elusive.
|Artist Jeff Porter visualized Jan’s Going to the XK9s protagonist Rex, a “forensic olfaction specialist,” and his human partner Charlie.
JSG: Probably the biggest breakthrough I’ve extrapolated in my novels is the ability to tap into the sensory capabilities of dogs in much more detail. We know that dogs can be trained to detect everything from bedbugs to cancer to hidden cocaine, but our ability to communicate with them is severely limited. What could they tell us if they could communicate in more detail? How would things change if we could swear one in on the witness stand?
5. In your own work, what have you found to be the most challenging or intriguing aspect, when extrapolating future crime-solving techniques?
JH: I haven’t yet done this in my writing. All my fictional forensics is doable at present.
|Moonlight Medicine: Onset includes some forensics that are currently possible. It is the first in Jen’s fantasy romance trilogy about a werewolf and a veterinarian.
JSG: As I just explained, I’ve been having wonderful fun looking at the recent research on dog cognition and sensory capabilities, then extrapolating ways that we might expand our ability to communicate in more detail with them to learn in more detail what they are sensing. But there are many other areas where we can look at current practice and say, “Wow! If only we could find a way to say for sure if . . . !” My main fear is looking back ten or twenty years from now and groaning, “How could I possibly have missed that we’d be able to do THAT?”
6. Something that a writer might want to consider is whether or not to include any forensics in a crime novel/story. What are some reasons that there might not be any forensic evidence?
JSG: There are lots of reasons why no forensic evidence might exist—even apart from the careful machinations of a criminal mastermind. The investigator might not have access to a crime scene (either can’t locate it, or it has been moved or destroyed) or other crucial evidence (it’s extremely hard to prove there’s been a murder if you can’t find the body, for example). Or perhaps you have the crime scene but it’s been wiped clean (by whatever standards your sfnal setting requires). I bet the other panelists can come up with more.
JH: When writing about forensics it’s important to consider why there may or may not be evidence and if that evidence is something that will hold up in court. One of my favorite episodes of CSI is called Jackpot and has Grissom alone in the tiny, isolated Nevada town of Jackpot several hours away from Las Vegas.
|In the CSI episode titled Jackpot, Dr. Robbins receives a severed head that sends Gil Grissom on a fateful trip to to Jackpot ,NV.
When he first arrives, all the evidence he has is a head and the townsfolk are all tight-lipped and unhelpful. Then he has his evidence kit stolen and has to buy supplies from the local hardware store to remake some of his evidence collection tools. It is a great example of how, in a small town or isolated place, the characters may not have the equipment or skills to process a scene, even if they find one. Also, I’m not sure if Grissom’s makeshift evidence collection techniques would allow that evidence to be admissible in court.
Another great (and hilarious) CSI episode, Rashomama, has all the evidence the CSI had collected in Nick Stokes SUV and the SUV is stolen before the evidence makes it back to the lab, rendering all of the evidence inside contaminated and inadmissible in court. This is a good example of the necessity of proper chain of custody of evidence and how it may be broken, rendering the evidence lost or useless.
I’d also just like to quickly mention that in today’s age of people having at least a CSI level of understanding of forensics, you must have a very good reason for a criminal to leave behind any obvious evidence. Unplanned or heat of the moment crimes are fine, but if someone has planned a murder, you must consider the steps they would have taken to minimize the evidence left behind unless your crime doesn’t take place in the present. If it takes place in the past, be very careful not to have police acting like the CSI of today and collecting evidence that there are no techniques yet established for analyzing.
7. Where does forensic science fit into non-crime stories?
JSG: Investigational-style observations could fit into lots of stories. You don’t have to be a trained detective to walk into your boyfriend’s apartment, find two wineglasses, and realize the lipstick on one of them isn’t a shade you wear, to infer he’s been entertaining another woman. Perhaps one of your characters is an amateur graphologist who never does business with someone whose handwriting shows certain characteristics. Anytime a character wants to learn something, there’s an opportunity to use an investigative approach.
JH: This is a good place to talk about all of the different disciplines of forensics. There are so many different aspects of forensics that apply to the environment, to engineering, to computers, to fields like anthropology/archeology, and so many others, that a crime is not necessary to employ forensic disciplines. The following is an almost exhaustive list:
– Forensic anthropology
– Forensic dentistry
– Forensic entomology
– Forensic pathology
– Forensic botany
– Forensic biology
– DNA profiling
– DNA phenotyping
– Bloodstain pattern analysis
– Forensic chemistry
– Veterinary forensics
– Forensic psychology (human behavior)
– Forensic psychiatry (evaluations)
– Ballistic fingerprinting
– Body identification
– Fingerprint analysis
– Forensic accounting
– Forensic arts
– Forensic footwear evidence
– Forensic toxicology
– Gloveprint analysis
– Palmprint analysis
– Questioned document examination
– Vein matching
– Computer forensics
– Forensic data analysis
– Database forensics
– Mobile device forensics
– Network forensics
– Forensic video
– Forensic audio
– Fire investigation
– Fire accelerant detection
– Forensic engineering
– Forensic linguistics
– Forensic materials engineering
– Forensic polymer engineering
– Forensic statistics
– Vehicular accident reconstruction
|Many recent, popular police, mystery or thriller dramas on television use forensics as an important part of their stories. For some it is the primary focus, while it plays a smaller role in others.
8. Is the public done with forensics and shows like CSI? Is it still interesting to readers?
JSG: I think in the post-CSI era it’s hard to completely get away from forensics in at least some plot lines of crime stories. Consider that most of the N.C.I.S. franchise include quirky forensic analysts as regular members of the team, for example—and they’re some of the most popular shows on the air right now.
Similarly, Elementary, Hawaii Five-O, and Bones (although the latter is in its final season) all prominently utilize forensics. Moreover, the enduring popularity of crime series such a Patricia Cornwell’s “Scarpetta” novels, built around a character who is an evidence-collecting medical examiner, all would argue that forensics are far from “dead” in crime fiction.
JH: Sadly, I have just recently come to fully realize how obsessed the public is with crime and particularly murder and particularly the murdering of women. I came to this conclusion (that I should have reached long ago) after reading The Girl on the Train (excellent novel and movie by the by) back to back with The Woman in Cabin 10.
For more of my soap-boxing on this subject, please see my previous blog post. But stepping off the soapbox, I think the continued interest of the public in forensics is also evidenced by true forensic shows like Forensic Files and The New Detectives (yes, I’m a real forensics Netflix junkie).
|Several long-running reality television shows also focus on forensics.
9. If forensics are so good, why are there any unsolved crimes? What problems with or drawbacks of forensics can make a story more interesting?
JSG: An earlier question that touched on “what if there isn’t any forensic evidence” partially answered this question, in my opinion. Forensics can only address the physical evidence. Such evidence can provide powerful corroboration, but in a satisfying crime story, often the most important element in the investigator’s “holy trinity” of means, motive, and opportunity is the middle one: MOTIVE. That’s usually what lies at the heart of a crime story. Forensics might be able to tell us who, what, when, where, and how, but rarely can do more than point vaguely in the general direction of the WHY.
JH: Though it is true that there are unsolved crimes due to lack of evidence, lost evidence, and contaminated evidence, there are also other hot issues dealing with forensics that can make your story more interesting. How about a forensic scientist skewing or just downright faking the results of a test to get a conviction? How about trying to validate a forensic technique in time for it to be admissible in court? How about taking a fresh look at old evidence with new forensic techniques (consider The Innocence Project)? How about planted evidence? Plenty of great story in the drawbacks of forensics.
10. What is your best piece of advice for authors wanting to write about forensics? Or conversely, what makes you crazy when you read stories where the forensics is poorly executed?
JSG: Ha! My answer is the same for both questions: Do your homework, authors! Especially in our field, it’s essential to check your facts. Anything else just doesn’t stand up to critical scrutiny by people who actually know. Who do you think your audience is, anyway? If you’re writing sf and your answer doesn’t include a fair number of scientists and scientifically-literate people, you haven’t framed your demographics accurately. Moreover, when it’s crime fiction, you might be surprised how many law enforcement folks are in the audience. This also means, of course, that experts may be more open to helping you get it right than you might expect.
JH: I agree with Jan here. If you are going to write about forensics, make sure to do your homework at least to the CSI-watcher level. That being said, I have several huge pet peeves with CSI:
1) the time it takes to do forensic testing,
2) the fact that they run every test on every piece of evidence collected,
3) the fact that they often work without masks and other PPE when analyzing DNA,
4) they have been shown working on multiple pieces of evidence at the same time,
5) CSI analyzing the evidence also interrogate the suspects, and
6) they often get DNA “matches”.
First, it should be noted that some forensic testing takes days or even weeks to do, so make sure that you don’t have an inappropriate turn around time. Second, many forensic tests are possible, but very expensive, so typically only the quickest and easiest are done unless it is a high profile case.
Also, not every forensic lab has the latest shiny, new forensic testing machine. Third, my masters thesis required me to analyze DNA and even with the strictest controls and appropriate PPE (hat, gloves, gown, booties, safety goggles, mask), there was still the possibility of contamination. Additionally, as an aside, don’t have people talking to each other directly over DNA evidence or while analyzing DNA evidence. Your spit has DNA and you should not speak when analyzing DNA. Fourth, cross contamination.
|A crime lab scientist tests evidence from a sexual assault kit. As Jen described in her answer, the woman wears a mask to avoid cross contamination.
Fifth, forensic lab technicians must be as impartial as possible when analyzing evidence. In a perfect world they wouldn’t know anything about the crime or the suspects involved so that they could not introduce bias when analyzing and presenting results.
Sixth, okay, so in today’s world you can actually genotype an entire human genome from a sample and match it to another entire human genome from another sample. However, this is NOT how DNA testing is typically done, particularly since DNA samples at a crime scene have often undergone some type of DNA degradation (time, heat, chemicals, sunlight, dryness, etc.).
Typical DNA testing compares a small sampling of loci on just a few genes and comes up with a probability that the sample in question (i.e. found at the crime scene) came from the suspect as opposed to another random individual. This gets really complicated really fast, so best just to say “consistent with” instead of “match” (only the pilot episode of CSI gets this right).
Also, again, if you are writing in the past, make sure that you are using forensic techniques appropriate for your story’s time frame.
IMAGES: Many thanks to Capricon 37‘s website for their logo. So sorry I couldn’t be there in person, after all! Jen Haeger’s photo is from her Google+ Profile page. My photo is used by permission of my daughter Signy, the photographer.
Many thanks to Hawaii Reporter’s article, “Allow the justice system to render the verdicts in violent crimes“ for the photo with the evidence bag in the foreground, and to Criminal Justice Degree Link’s article “10 Great Criminal Justice Jobs” for the fingerprint-scan photo.
Many thanks to Reference-dot-com’s article “Why is forensic science so important?” for the photo of forensic scientists in a lab, to the Belleville News-Democrat for the photo of the officer talking with the neighbor about a gun report in 2015.
Many thanks to Fandom’s CSI Wiki, for the photo from Jackpot, and to CSI Geekromance for the photo from Rashomama. I am indebted to Prisma Dental’s article “Your Teeth as a Tool for Investigation,” for the forensic odontology image, and to the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s article “New Ballistics Control Chart for Forensic Imaging,” for the photo comparing cartridge casings.
The cover images for The Girl on the Train and The Woman in Cabin 10 are from their respective Amazon pages. I am indebted to Wikipedia for the title cards for Forensic Files and The New Detectives, from their respective Wikipedia pages.
Grins and many thanks to Marche Marie Regan’s Pinterest board on Forensics/Criminal Justice for the “criminologist baby meme”(via quickmeme). I am grateful to the National Institute of Justice’s “Sexual Assault Kits” page for the photo of the scientist testing evidence.