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 July 03, 2022

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I'm currently in the Navy and looking into taking college courses towards forensics but I do have a charge of accessory after the fact to a felony in 2002. (Closed file) Would this hinder my ability to obtain a career in this field? If so how badly?

Asked by jwalk about 9 years ago

I honestly have no idea, and suspect it would depend on where you are applying--whatever the hiring agency's policies are. I'll ask my boss and get back to you.

 

OKAY! I finally asked my supervisor about this, and unfortunately the news is not too encouraging. If you were found guilty of a felony, you might have a real problem getting a job with a law enforcement agency. But just because the crime was a felony doesn't necessarily mean that was your charge, you could been found guilty of first degree misdemeanor or some lesser charge, and that might not preclude you from employment. Also, smaller agencies might be willing to waive this exclusion especially with military experience. And this is only in the event that you were convicted. If you were simply charged with the crime but not convicted, then most likely it isn't a problem at all. The only way to know for sure is to ask a few of the places you'd be interested in working at and see what they say.

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

Asked by JoyLuck about 9 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.

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 about 9 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.

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 about 9 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.

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 about 9 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.

I never understood how they establish time of death weeks after someone died. Are there biological processes that take place WEEKS after death with enough consistency to allow you to pinpoint time-of-death to within a few hours / days?

Asked by HammerPants about 9 years ago

I'm sorry but you'd really have to ask a pathologist, this is not my area. I imagine it would depend a lot on the individual situation--the environment, temperature, humidity. Insect activity can be pretty accurate. But I believe that pinpointing to a few hours after someone has been dead for weeks only happens on TV.

Do you need a person's permission to collect and test his DNA? I saw a TV show where the cops offered a suspect a drink and cigarette to try and get his DNA.

Asked by Toby about 9 years ago

The way I understand it--and I am NOT a lawyer!--is that technically you don't need permission to get a DNA sample (which is just a cotton swab rubbed on the inside of your cheek, doens't hurt) because the 5th amendment right against self-incrimination only applies to testimonial evidence. You can't be made to speak against yourself, but your fingerprints can be collected whether you like it or not so DNA should be the same. A sample can be collected from a discarded cup or can because garbage is abandoned property and can be taken by anyone. (Of course if you go through their trash cans, you can't prove that your suspect drank from that cup.)  I believe it might also be affected by whether the suspect was in custody or not at the time of collection. And it won't help to test an official sample later because if the first sample is excluded from trial, then anything collected as a result of that will be thrown out too (or so I understand from repeated viewings of Law and Order.) That said, at my agency the detectives always get the person to give consent or they get a search warrant from a judge, just so there are no issues when it gets to court. It's not worth the risk of going through all the work to get to court and then having it all thrown out, so I think those tricks are largely used only on TV. I can tell you I've never seen it happen.