Every Contact Leaves a Trace: Crime Scene Experts Talk About Their Work from Discovery Through Verdict

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9780312340377: Every Contact Leaves a Trace: Crime Scene Experts Talk About Their Work from Discovery Through Verdict

   Real crime scene investigation is vastly more complicated, arduous, bizarre, and fascinating than TV's streamlined versions.  Most people who work actual investigations will tell you that the science never lies -- but people can. They may also contaminate evidence, or not know what to look for in crime scenes that typically are far more chaotic and confusing, whether inside or outside, than on TV.
   Forensic experts will tell you that the most important person entering a scene is the very first responding officer - the chain of evidence starts with this officer and holds or breaks according to what gets stepped on, or over, collected or contaminated, looked past, or looked over, from every person who enters or interprets the scene, all the way through the crime lab and trial.  And forensic experts will tell you the success of a case can depend on any one expert's knowledge of quirky things, such as:
"The Rule of the First Victim": (the first victim of a criminal usually lives near the criminal's home) Criminals' snacking habits at the scene"Nature's Evidence Technicians," the birds and rodents that hide bits of bone, jewelry, and fabric in their nestsThe botanical evidence found in criminals' pants cuffs Baseball caps as prime DNA repositoriesThe tales told by the application of physics to falling blood drops.      Forensic experts talk about their expertise and their cases here.  They also talk about themselves, their reactions to the horrors they witness, and their love of the work.  For example, a DNA analyst talks about how she drives her family crazy by buccal-swabbing them all at Thanksgiving dinner.  A latent print examiner talks about how he examines cubes of Jell-O at any buffet he goes to for tell-tale prints.  A crime scene investigator gives his tips on clearing a scene of cops: he slaps "Bio-hazard" and "Cancer Causing Agent" stickers on his equipment.  And an evidence technician talks about how hard it is to go to sleep after processing a scene, re-living what you've just witnessed, your mind going a hundred miles an hour.
   This is a world that TV crime shows can't touch.  Here are eighty experts - including beat cops, evidence technicians, detectives, forensic anthropologists, blood spatter experts, DNA analysts, latent print examiners, firearms experts, trace analysts, crime lab directors, and prosecution and defense attorneys - speaking in their own words about what they've seen and what they've learned to journalist Connie Fletcher, who has gotten cops to talk freely in her bestsellers What Cops Know,  Pure Cop, and Breaking and Entering.   Every Contact Leaves A Trace presents the science, the human drama, and even the black comedy of crime scene investigation.
   Let the experts take you into their world. This is their book - their words, their knowledge, their stories.  Through it all, one Sherlock Holmesian premise unites what they do and what it does to them: Every contact leaves a trace.

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About the Author:

CONNIE FLETCHER is an associate professor of Journalism at Loyola University in Chicago, and is the author of the bestsellers What Cops Know, Pure Cop, and Breaking and Entering.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Every Contact Leaves a Trace
OneCRIME SCENE PROCESSINGDo it right the first time. You only get one chance. Once things have been moved, once things have been changed, once you lose that little window of opportunity, it's gone forever.--Vernon J. Geberth, Commander, Bronx Homicide, NYPD (Ret.), Author of Practical Homicide Investigation 
A crime scene investigator has to have a positive attitude. You've got to believe you're going to find the evidence. I just learned to play golf. It helps you search the crime scene. My ball goes into the woods. Every time. Now it's like a crime scene. I always come out with, say, six balls, when I lost two. The positive attitude is the same with golf and the crime scene: You don't look at the sand traps. You look at the green. Your objective is always to do your best at that crime scene.--Dr. Henry C. Lee, Chief Emeritus and Director, Forensic Science Laboratory, Meriden, Connecticut 
A DROP OF BLOOD ON A GYM SHOE. A PIECE OF FIBER FOUND on a stairway. The impression of a spade used to dig a basement grave. DNA picked up from a sneeze. A few microscopic traces of glass, blown back on the clothing of an intruder.These have been the first threads of forensic investigations, discovered and collected at crime scenes, leftover particles from actions that have ripped the fabric of people's lives.Before any investigation can start, evidence must be collected. The scene itself, whether inside, outside, or mobile, has to be gone over as if the processors were exploring a site on Mars. What's this? Why is this here? Why isn't this here? What does this all mean?And--how do we get the evidence back to the lab without destroying it?Generally, once the police call for assistance from the crime lab, crime scene teams consisting of evidence technicians and any forensic specialists needed--like blood spatter interpreters, trace analysts, firearms examiners--are sent to the scene. These processors start the chain of evidence that may stretch from the scene through the detectives' investigation, through the crime lab, all the way to trial. Processors and investigators have a term for the ideal: "keeping the chain tight." And they have only one shot at picking up the links left at the scene.This chapter follows crime scene processors, presenting what they've found in their own words. Their comments are anonymous, but their expertise is indicated after their quotes (unless an entire section contains one type of expert, indicated before the section). Follow the processors and specialists as they work the scene from the outside in.In late '81, they were training new crime scene team members in Minnesota. Of course, none of us was smart enough to ask, "Well, why is everybody who's been here for a long time getting off crime scene?"We're all young and stupid, thinking, "This sounds great." Back in those days you started out as a crime scene photographer. We went through the whole course and had to demonstrate our proficiency.Our final test was out at the stockyards in South St. Paul. We were in part of the stockyard that was unused, but there were cows waiting to become steaks kind of all around us. There was this large unused building. They made crime scenes in all these different rooms. They did footprints in snow, so we had to capture those. With crime scene photography, you take an overall picture, and then a medium-range, and then a close-up. So we had to take all these outside shots, in the old stockyards and out in the snow.I can now appreciate the humor of the gentleman who put us through this whole process--he sat in the heated van the whole time, smoking--because here we are out there, documenting these crime scenes, in these smelly old buildings--they just reeked of cow manure and blood and dead animals. And he made us be out there all day long, doing this, demonstrating what we could do with our abilities on the camera. It was smelly and bad, it was January, which I didn't appreciate the humor of till later either, and our cameras were freezing up while we were out there, because it was about ten below outside all day long. So we became certified crime scene photographers.I know now what they were trying to do with us that day. They were trying to get us used to what actual crime scenes are like. They're smelly. They're messy. And you're there for hours and hours and hours, processing them.CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATOR 
When the new people in the crime scene response team come on board, they're given a pager, and they watch the news, and then they look at their pager all night long, waiting for it to go off. They call me the next morning and say, "We didn't go on a crime scene!" And I said, "Well, there's a reason why you didn't go to a crime scene. First of all, somebody has to be killed. Definitely. Secondly, their local agency has to call us in. And thirdly, you have to be on call. If all three of those things fall together, then you'll go."CSI is very much responsible for this. They're just so eager.CRIME SCENE COORDINATOR 
It's not like CSI. I think I've been in one crime scene that might even look remotely like something from CSI. Usually, the scene is in a trailer home, or an older home where there's piles of garbage around ... You never get a nice clean scene like on TV.I've got pictures of crime scenes I've worked on that I use in teaching. And trainees say things like, "Well, on CSI they can tell if there's been a struggle because the lamp's been overturned."Well, at every scene I've been to, the lamps are usually overturned, and they're laying next to the eighty crushed beer cans laying on the floor--and the White Wolf vodka bottles. I show the trainees a picture of this. The trainee might say to me, "How do you tell there's been a struggle in this room, sir?" "Well, see how the garbage has been disturbed in this area, but not over here?"EVIDENCE TECHNICIAN 
I remember the first burglary scene I ever walked into. The house was totally ransacked. Stuff all over the place. And I just remember standing there thinking, "Where the hell do I start?"CRIME SCENE SERGEANTGetting to the SceneThe crime scene call comes in. You figure out, first of all, the type of crime committed, whether or not the scene is inside or outside, whether or not there's a victim still at the scene, and whether or not there's a suspect. Based on the type of scene, the manner of death, and the information from the desk officer, I put together a crew that covers the various disciplines of science that I would expect to find at that scene.The call might be, "Hey, we got a crime. It's a double homicide, it's in a house, the victims have been shot, there's been forced entry, and it looks like they ransacked the place."Based on that information, I would put together a couple of latent print people, because there's gonna be a lot of fingerprints to do, I would make sure there were evidence people to handle footwear and tire tracks and fibers, I would aska firearms person to handle the shooting end of it, and we would pull in perhaps one more person to help with scene documentation and photographs. So you might have a crew of four, five people.Then we pick up the equipment truck and take off for the scene.SCENE SUPERVISOR 
I think everybody's had a couple near-death experiences getting to scenes. Like the time we're doing seventy mph, trying to get to a scene quickly, and the tire blows out, it's completely shredded and we're on some back country road. If we were driving a Humvee, like they do on CSI, we wouldn't be in any trouble. But we're just driving these big old bread trucks.CRIME SCENE PROCESSOR 
We had just driven to a scene one time. We're standing around outside the scene, waiting for the search warrant to show up. This was not in one of the better neighborhoods. The evidence people and the cops are all waiting around outside the crime scene van. Our van is fully marked, you know, BUREAU OF CRIMINAL APPREHENSION in big letters on the side and everything.Suddenly, you hear gunshots in the neighborhood, and all of a sudden, all the cops are gone. I'm standing there thinking, "This is not good. We're sitting here with this beacon almost--Come shoot us." We evidence people don't carry weapons. And all the cops just grabbed their guns out of the van and ran off, leaving us there.A lot of times, there'll be the sound of gunshots or news of a high-speed chase comes over the radio, and you can see--all the cops at the scene, supposedly there to protect us, they'll all come up and ask, "Can I go? Can I go?" It's a testosterone thing with them.CRIME SCENE PROCESSOR 
Getting to a crime scene in Alaska is unique in that, if a crime is reported, timewise it may take a while to get there. Our crime lab covers the whole state.There's basically one road that runs up the middle of Alaska, and that goes along the railroad; it goes to Fairbanks and then there's a four-hundred-mile gravel road up to the North Slope, where the oil is, with essentially no real gas stations on the way up. Out in western Alaska, there are no roads except for maybe a few miles around a town. We have to use snow machines, Ski-Doos, a lot.Our crime scene investigators have backpacks prepared ahead of time, with most of the essential crime scene processing items in them. Usually, you take commercial aircraft as far as you can go. Let's say you're flying to Bethel [about forty miles inland from the Bering Sea]. You take Alaska Airlines to Bethel and then you take a commuter flight from there, and then maybe you get picked up by a department, and from there you go to a remote area. It might be by a four-wheeler or a snowmobile, or by ferry, or small boat. The Department of Public Safety has some small planes also. The weather's a factor, of course. You can take off in a plane in a snowstorm and not be able to see the end of the runway.We go to the remotest regions of Alaska. We went to a scene--flew Alaska Airlines out to Bethel. Then I was picked up by the state troopers there and driven to the Kuskokwim River, and then we took a boat five miles up the river to a fishing camp, where the natives dry fish and catch salmon. There was a woman missing who was finally found killed.I remember one crime scene where the investigators flew to a southeastern area, like Juneau, and then they took a smaller plane from there with floats, and they flew to a little fishing village. Some of the floats on these planes have wheels also. This time, they had to put the wheels downand go up a boat ramp to get up on land and get to the scene.FORMER CRIME LAB DIRECTORSecuring the SceneI was teaching crime scene investigation one time and a patrolman says, "I'm a uniform guy. I'm a patrolman. What does this stuff got to do with me?" I said, "Thank you, God, for asking that question." I said, "Stand up and ask it again, son." He did. I said, "Contrary to what all the homicide assholes of the world will tell you, you're the most important guy. That first uniform cop sets the tone, sets the stage for everything that follows. If you do what you're taught to do in the academy and do it well--protect that scene and protect the evidence--you're giving us a good start. If you don't, then everything's lost. You're the most important guy there. That's what it's got to do with you."HOMICIDE COMMANDER 
For forensic people, a pristine scene would be: Police are called to do a well-being check at a house. A couple of cops show up and see that the door's been kicked in. One cop goes inside, sees an old lady dead on the floor, goes up and checks that she is dead. There's no need to transport that person to the hospital if she's dead. Why scoop her up and run her to the hospital? A lot of important evidence is going to be on, or nearby, that body. Then the officer withdraws, secures the scene, and calls forensics to come and process it. Now that's gonna be a terrific scene. And that's pretty rare. Everybody wants to come and see what's going on at the scene.HOMICIDE DETECTIVE 
We've literally had scenes where we've asked the officer at the scene how many people have been down to see the body inthe basement, and the officer will say, "One." Well, we'll get down there and dust up footwear impressions around the body and find that there's six or eight or ten pairs of shoeprints in a circle around the body.FORENSIC SPECIALIST 
If you get a crime scene in winter, snow on the ground, an effective way to get rid of extra officers at the scene: Hand them a shovel and say, "Here, why don't you hold onto this with both hands and help me shovel here in a few minutes?" You turn around and they're gone because now they've realized they might have to work.EVIDENCE TECHNICIANWorking from the Outside InWhat I love about doing this: Any scene you walk into, you have to use any knowledge, capabilities, skills that you have to try to decide, "What is the best way to approach this scene?" It's like--If you like jigsaw puzzles, it's like doing a different jigsaw puzzle every time you go in there. It's a brand-new puzzle each time.CRIME SCENE TEAM LEADER 
I get sent to a scene. I'll do a walk-through to see what I'm dealing with. My observations usually start on the outside, mainly because one of your main objectives when you're processing a scene is to identify your fragile evidence and take steps to protect it, to document and collect that first. So, anything outdoors obviously has the potential to be more fragile than evidence indoors, because of the weather and everything else ... . If there's a footwear impression in the dirt outside, and there's a thunderstorm coming, that footwear has just become a piece of fragile evidence.FORENSIC INVESTIGATOR 
When I'm on a scene and when I train people, I always tell them, "You have to think like a crook." How did the suspect handle this? How did he get in?Well, he got in by prying this window open. Okay. How did he pry the window open? Well, he took a crowbar and jammed it in the window, got it loose, and he used his hands to push open the window. Right there, what do you have? You have a crowbar and you have pry marks that might have a little gouge on it from the crowbar. We have a rubber cast for this; we can actually cast those imprints, and we have people in the lab that actually get paid to compare stuff like that.Or you deduce that the guy used his hands to push open the window. Well, are there prints on the outside of the window? Now, the window's open. How did he get inside? The window's kind of high, so he probably grabbed up underneath the inside of the windowsill and pulled himself up. You want to look for prints there on the underside of the windowsill.You wouldn't believe how many people are sitting in prison in South Carolina now because I went behind them and dusted for fingerprints underneath the windowsill and, lo and behold, there the fingerp...

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