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.

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Last Answer on May 20, 2018

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 about 5 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 almost 5 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 about 5 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.  

And something else I always wondered. Just HOW MUCH of a fingerprint is unique to every human? If someone leaves only a partial print, e.g. a 1/4 of a thumbprint, is THAT unique to him and only him?

Asked by Sascha almost 5 years ago

Every part of a fingerprint is unique to the person. Whether the latent print has sufficient information to identify it to a person depends on its clarity and volume and the experience of the examiner. There's usually more activity around the center of the finger pad than at the edges or the tip, for example. But exactly how much of what type of information an examiner needs to make an identification--unfortunately there's no simple answer for that. Fingerprints aren't like DNA, there's no handy table of X allele plus Y allele times population data, so there's no neat way to quantify it. On this topic, my pet peeve: When characters on TV say "It's just a partial." Unless your perpetrator stood at the crime scene and rolled his fingertip over something, from one edge of the nail to the other, then EVERY latent print is a partial!

What degree and certification would I need become a forensic scientist? I'm currently majoring in criminology, but would switch if something else was better.

Asked by Alejada almost 5 years ago

Again, titles and job requirements aren't uniform, so the only way to know is to call the crime labs in your area or whereever you might be interested in working and ask them. At the coroner's office we had to have at least a bachelor's in a natural science (this was before they had forensic science majors). At the police department where I am now, they only require a high school diploma but you get more points in the interviewing process for having a four year degree, so we all have one. You can also go on the websites for professional organizations such as the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and check out their job vacancy postings and see what the various positions require. Good luck.

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 almost 5 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.

Do fingerprints contain DNA? And if so, then isn't fingerprinting kind of obsolete, since you can just test the DNA instead of the print?

Asked by Sascha almost 5 years ago

The skin cells sloughed off and left in a fingerprint contain DNA, but there's no guarantee that there will be a sufficient amount to obtain a DNA profile so it's a risk to go straight to DNA testing instead of developing the fingerprint. Besides, identical twins will have the same DNA but different fingerprints.