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 November 15, 2018

Best Rated

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 over 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.

Have you ever worked on a scene that you'd describe as the "perfect crime" in that the perp literally left NO trace of his presence?

Asked by Seth over 5 years ago

It depends on how you define 'perfect'...if I can't tell the perpetrator has even been there then we wouldn't even know a crime has occurred, so I wouldn't know it was a perfect crime. If you mean 'perfect' in that the guy didn't leave any DNA or fingerprints that we found, sure, all the time. I've had plenty of burglaries in which it was apparent that a burglary occurred, but between humidity and surface conditions and what the perp had to touch in order to get the job done, I find no fingerprints at all (not even the people who live there). If you walk up and shoot someone (especially with a revolver, so no dropped casings) and walk away, you're not going to leave anything. Maybe a hair or a skin cell, but how would a CSI find that on a dirty street? Hence, a 'perfect' crime. Unless you get a parking ticket on the next block or a witness waiting for a pizza delivery happens to look out their window or there's an ATM camera you didn't know about.

what would change a corpse hair from highlighted blonde to an orange red in an african american?

Asked by shunlegg about 5 years ago

I don't know, unless the corpse lay in bleach or some other chemical that would react with the bleach in the hair. Dark hair can (I know from personal experience) turn kind of orangy when you try to lighten it. Otherwise hair does not change much either while living or dead.

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 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.

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 5 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.

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 5 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.

What's the worst mistake you've ever heard of a forensic scientist making at a crime scene?

Asked by JoyLuck over 5 years ago

That's a tough one. I've had cops put tools back into pry marks to show that they fit and unload weapons to make them 'safe' (which is an okay idea under certain circumstances, but usually not). I did something really stupid just a few days ago--after we had painstakingly located some spent casings in thick grass, I put a marker down, took a picture, then took the marker and went back to my car to get an envelope  for the casings. Doh! Luckily another CSI standing there hadn't taken her eyes off them. A good 15 years ago at my lab an old-school trace evidence person took the shorts from a decomposed body and washed them in order to read the tag info...I remember the look of horror on the cops' faces when I had to tell them that all the hair and fiber and other trace evidence had been washed down the drain. Happily it didn't matter, the victim's boyfriend was convicted anyway.