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 December 15, 2017

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 over 4 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.   

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 4 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.

I'm in high school right now and I want to become a forensic scientist. Is there a list of courses I should be taking? Or can you recommend any courses?

Asked by Wendy N. about 4 years ago

You can't go wrong with as much biology and chemistry as you can get, plus some physics and math.

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 over 4 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.

Whose payroll are forensic scientists on, the coroner's office, or the police force?

Asked by MissPink over 4 years ago

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.

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

Asked by JoyLuck over 4 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.

In your professional opinion is a degree (undergrad) in biology favored over a degree in forensic science?

Asked by Denise Olivas over 4 years ago

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.