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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If you see the two Q&As above, you can't go wrong with science classes. When I was in college they didn't have courses specifically in forensic science, so that wasn't an option. And different agencies will have different requirements, so you might want to go online and check out the different vacancies to get some idea of what requirements are out there.
I don't consider myself desensitized. I still say "Oh, that's terrible," when I read about someone's death in the paper. I just don't get sick at the sight of bodily fluids. It seems like you either get used to that instantly, or you get into another line of work. It's not exactly the same thing as having a weak stomach--I've known guys who were homicide detectives for 20 years and still had a weak stomach. But when I'm standing at a crime scene there are so many things to think of (plus the overriding "Don't screw up!") that I don't have time to think about how awful this is. To me it would be more nervewracking to be an ER nurse and have someone's life depending on my instant decisions; at a crime scene, the crime has already been committed, so I couldn't have prevented it and I can't do anything about the fact that it happened. I think also that, without putting it into words, I tell myself that the person died right away. I get more upset at seeing the things the hospital did, the tubes, the halo brace, because I know the person must still have been alive for that to be done. Basically, if this work is going to upset you, do something else. It doesn't help anyone to be traumatized by your daily job.
Not to sound like a smart aleck, but you're on the payroll of whoever you work for--that can be the police department, the state police lab, the coroner's or medical examiner's office, the county sheriff's department, or an independent lab (usually doing DNA). You can also be a sworn officer or a civilian employee of same. Titles are not uniform. When I was at the coroner's office my title was forensic scientist because that was what the coroner said it was. At the police department I was an evidence specialist and then became a forensic specialist after I completed my training for fingerprint analysis. Your title is whatever your boss says it is.
No, I wouldn't say so. I never use a lot of what I learned in biology on the job. It depends much more on where the degree is from, how many years it took, and how much practical experience in crime scene and lab work was included in the curriculum. You might want to call the crime labs you'd want to work at and ask what kind of degrees their employes have.
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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.
I would say 'touch DNA', which means get a DNA sample from the sweat, oils, and amino acids left by simply touching something. We now routinely collect swabs from steering wheels, gun triggers and tool handles. That doesn't mean they always have sufficient DNA to do anything with, but surprisingly often they do.
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.
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