Today’s juries are savvy. Today’s readers are as well. Writers of police procedurals, detective stores, and courtroom dramas need to know their subject. As readers become more sophisticated and enamored of shows like CSI, they expect the authors they select to provide factual information.
Devoted genre readers already know that television has its shortcomings. Though tests and lab procedures are getting faster and more accurate all the time, they are rarely instant, and always subject to the case load ahead in the line. The TV shows only make it look fast and easy.
Not all court cases include plentiful forensic evidence, particularly DNA. Other forms of evidence are just as important in determining guilt or innocence (or even the degree of guilt). This series will cover the most common types: the crime scene, finger prints, blood evidence, ballistics, trace evidence, and DNA recovery.
Just to debunk a few of the most prevalent myths before we get started:
- Blood does not stay red or liquid for long.
- Bodies begin to decompose immediately. They don’t stay normal-looking and “pretty” for the camera.
- Rarely does a pathologist, criminologist (lab technician specializing in forensic testing related to crimes) or medical examiner participate in the detective work.
- Crime scene technicians are their own department in most jurisdictions and do not work directly for the detectives or the medical examiner.
- The position of coroner is an elected one in many communities. They aren’t always required to be a doctor.
- Most autopsies are performed by pathologists. The ME acts as oversight and reviews both lab reports and autopsy results.
- The Y incision you see on TV is usually inaccurate. I’ll cover that more clearly in the next series on the body of the crime.
- While tests are getting faster and more accurate with advances in technology, most smaller communities don’t have forensics labs and must rely on state labs to handle their cases. It can take months to get test results.
These posts are intended as an overview. I am the first to admit I am no expert, but I’ve done my share of research and was fortunate enough to have conversations with police officers, a forensic dentist, and a former “lab rat” criminologist. I’ll try to provide links for more information if anyone is interested in launching your own research, and please keep in mind that procedures can vary by country. Also, should my information be out of date, I’d love corrective comments, questions, and shared information so we can all learn together and make our stories better.
Investigating crime may rely on the lab, but it always begins when your detective or officer steps onto the crime scene. Next time we’ll look at what can be determined from reading the scene itself.
As a writer and/or reader, how detailed do you like your crime scenes?
Crime Scenes for Writers: Introduction