Forensic Scientist

Forensic Scientist

LIsa Black

Cape Coral, FL

Female, 49

I spent the five happiest years of my life in a morgue. As a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office I analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now I'm a certified latent print examiner and CSI for a police department in Florida. I also write a series of forensic suspense novels, turning the day job into fiction. My books have been translated into six languages.

SubscribeGet emails when new questions are answered. Ask Me Anything!Show Bio +

Share:

Ask me anything!

Submit Your Question

418 Questions

Share:

Last Answer on October 17, 2017

Best Rated

How soon after a person dies do you have to remove their organs so that they can still be transplanted to someone else? And does doing an autopsy damage any organs so as to make them no longer transplantable?

Asked by exconill over 4 years ago

I actually do not know that, sorry. I attend autopsies but only to observe, so I don't have anything to do with that--but I can tell you that the organs (except eyes or bones) are all dissected and examined so they would definitely be no longer transplantable. So organ harvesting is done before the autopsy. 

Oh, and in that vein: what IS the most creative way you've ever seen a criminal try to throw investigators off his scent??

Asked by DallasR over 4 years ago

We had a person borrow money from a kind elderly gentleman, then ask for more and beat him to death when he refused. The person then went home and mailed the victim a check, trying to show that the debt was being paid and there was no ill will. That's what passes for extreme cleverness in my neck of the woods.

Why does DNA testing take so long? Even in high-profile cases, you hear that they're doing DNA tests, but that the results won't be known for days. What part of the process is the bottle-neck?

Asked by sonjalevesque over 4 years ago

I actually haven't done DNA analysis in a lot of years, and that was before STRs (the method mostly used now) but from what I pick up from the analysts, yes, it's not like TV where you wait in the hall for your DNA results. It's a time consuming process and at certain points there's no way to do it quickly. First they have to determine if DNA is present. Then they have to estimate about how much is present, to know if they need to 'amplify' the same or not or how much. Then the actual testing is done. During all this they also need to run positive and negative controls and do other quality control measures. There's also paperwork, lunch breaks and I doubt too many labs operate round the clock. Then of course there's first-in, first-out; your case doesn't get to jump the line, so how long it takes depends on how long that line is. At our state lab it used to be close to a year, but things have gotten much better and now it's more like weeks to months. If we want something more quickly, we can send it to a private lab which can promise us a one-week turnaround--for $1800 PER sample. But even disregarding queues and monetary considerations, even if the lab dropped everything else and worked overtime, it would still take a couple days.  

My girlfriend's condo was broken into, but the cops said it wasn't a big enough deal to check for fingerprints. Who makes that decision, and can I hire a forensic scientist privately to do that?

Asked by Marc over 4 years ago

I apologize to your girlfriend on behalf of the law enforcement community. No one should ever be told that their crime is not 'a big enough deal.' Even if the responding person thinks that, and I'm not saying we don't sometimes, you would think they'd have better sense than to say so. Unfortunately you had a lazy cop who didn't want to get his hands dirty--or, truly, that could be an unofficial policy taught to rookies by other lazy cops who don't want to get their hands dirty. OR it could be the policy of the latent prints department who want to limit their caseload so they won't accept cases that had a claim less than X amount of dollars. So it's hard to know where it came from, but it's still wrong. Anyone who's burglarizing a condo is burglarizing plenty of other places as well and it would benefit everyone in town if they were caught. It would only take ten or fifteen minutes to throw some powder on at least the point of entry and any smooth and glossy surfaces the burglar had to have touched (bearing in mind that knocked over is not the same as touched) such as a mirrored medicine cabinet or a glossy lacquered jewelry box. Now if she's positive the perpetrator is her ne'er do well stepson who lives there (so that it is technically not burglary) or she realizes the burglary happened 3 weeks ago and she didn't check her jewelry until now or some such circumstances as that, or if the door had been left standing open and the only item disturbed is fabric-covered so it won't hold prints, I can understand not processing for prints, but they still should explain that. That said, burglaries are my LEAST favorite task at my job, but that's because I'm lazy and hate getting my hands dirty.

Even if testing doesn't produce a database MATCH, can you tell from a fingerprint or DNA whether it belongs to a man or woman, age, race, etc?

Asked by Luisa Henson over 4 years ago

From a fingerprint, no. From DNA, not age but they can probably make estimates that the sample likely belongs to a particular racial profile. They can also look for markers from the Y chromosome to determine gender. However I don't know if they necessarily see all these loci in every analysis. Usually in DNA testing you have samples from the crime scene, the victim and the suspect, and we want to know if this sample matches either the victim or the suspect, period. So they most likely don't test for the other factors unless requested. But I am not a DNA analyst so I could be wrong--they could be able to tell all sorts of things that they don't put in the reports because it's not relevent to our particular case.

Have you ever read Stiff by Mary Roach? I loved it, so interesting. What are your favorite non-fiction books about forensic anatomy?

Asked by Gwen over 4 years ago

No, I have not. I don't really have any favorites about forensic anatomy in particular, though I borrow Postmortem by Koehler & Wecht from my co-worker often. I also liked the books by Dr. Michael Baden and Dr. Thomas Noguchi. My favorite forensics book is probably Colin Beavan's Fingerprints.

What it was like the first time you saw a dead body? (And had you seen one before working in forensics?)

Asked by Terrio over 4 years ago

I had seen dead bodies at funerals, of course, but other than that the first time was at an autopsy. It was strange because it was one of the rare cases in which the victim practically looked like he was sleeping. Almost always a dead person LOOKS dead, you can tell at a glance (something they rarely perfect on TV). But in this case it was a young man who had simply slipped on icy steps and hit the back of his head, so that was very sad too, to think that life could be lost so easily. Otherwise the autopsy isn't that horrible--there's no gushing blood, for instance, because the heart isn't pumping. It's the smell that gets you more than anything--it's not (most of the time) so much bad as strange. I think our bodies know more than our minds at that point and they know something is wrong. So the answer is I felt a little sick, but didn't actually get sick. We'd have lots of classes (police academy, nursing students) come through the coroner's office and while many would get a little queasy and have to go sit down, we rarely had anyone actually either throw up or pass out.