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 August 09, 2021

Best Rated

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 8 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.   

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 8 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 become desensitized to death and violence? Are there still some crime scenes you see that make you sick because of how gory or depraved they are?

Asked by mbyrnes over 8 years ago

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.

What do you think forensic and biology study will lead us in the next ten years

Asked by bob almost 8 years ago

To ever-more sensitive DNA collection and analysis, I believe. The other growing fields will probably be the analysis and utilization of computers, cell phones and video surveillance.

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 8 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.

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

Asked by shunlegg almost 8 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.

I am currently working towards a B.A. in Biology. Would this be an acceptable major to go into forensics with?

Asked by Sammy C over 7 years ago

Absolutely! Even better if you could pair it with some coursework in forensics or maybe an internship.