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 13, 2019

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What type of classes did you need to take to become a Forensic scientist?

Asked by Nikkie about 6 years ago

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.

what type of issues in the forensic science field are still lurking around that cause errors in assumptions or holding progress in a certain study behind

Asked by bob about 6 years ago

I can't think of anything that's industry-wide. Errors in assumptions can be made at any time by any body--like, I might assume you aren't going to get DNA off a gun trigger because I never have, while a brand-new person might assume you will get it regardless of any other factors because a textbook said it was possible, and we both might be wrong or right in that particular case but not others. So most errors would be made by assuming something can't be done, either because a tech or officer never had any luck with it or because they aren't up with the latest information, which will happen anywhere because no one can keep up with anything. As for study, the only thing holding that back is what's always been holding it back--time and money.  Most of us can barely keep up with our caseload, much less take on a research project, and most government budgets have been battered down to sustenence level. It's getting better as the economy improves, and there are major research projects underway through the various forensic organizations, FBI and NIJ.

What are the hours you work at your work?

Asked by Nikkie about 6 years ago

Right now I'm working 12 hour shifts, from 6 am to 6 pm, working out to 80 hours over 2 weeks. At the coroner's office I worked 7:30 to 4:30 and 8-12 on every other Saturday. When I started here at the police department we did 7:30-4:30 M-F. Then we went to, on opposite weeks, having one person work 10 am - 9 pm M-Th. Now there are more people so my 'shift partner' works noon to midnight. That way someone needs to be on overtime call only from midnight to 6 am. So in other words the hours will be determined by where you work, how many forensic people you have, how big the agency is and how determined they are to keep overtime to a minimum.

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 6 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.   

What's the most important thing forensic science can do today that it couldn't do 5 years ago?

Asked by ChrisnMike over 6 years ago

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 working on a thriller novel. Can a person frame someone else by setting up their own suicide to look like murder by using the other person's gun in the other person's house?

Asked by goodcraic2i6n about 6 years ago

Let me get this straight--so Alex frames Bert by shooting himself (Alex) in Bert's house with Bert's gun? Kind of a drastic way to get back at someone, but certainly possible. Yes, initially it would not look good for Bert at all. However--and this is always the problem with trying to frame someone--what is Bert doing while this is happening? Alex can't be sure that Bert won't be getting a traffic ticket or stuck in an all-day meeting and therefore have an unbreakable alibi? The gun and the condition of the wound would have to be consistent with suicide (unless you do some Agatha Christie rubber-band type of arrangement) but that would not make it impossible for it to be homicide. Alex's fingerprints might be on the gun but that wouldn't rule out a murder (and it's so rare to get a fingerprint off a gun that he might decide not to worry about it). Please don't have Bert, upon discovery of the body, engage in the time honored but still silly tradition of picking up the murder weapon and then saying "I have no idea why I did that..." Human beings have an instinctive revulsion against touching anything associated with a dead body.

Does a neighbor see Alex enter Bert's house when Bert's not home? Is there any sign of forced entry? In other words, forensically there may not be much to say one way or the other--and that's very often true. Forensics will establish facts, but those facts might not be helpful. Forensically we can say Alex died of a gunshot wound from this gun, has gunshot residue on his hands (not suprising since he was in close proximity to a gunshot) and has no other wounds to indicate a struggle. That's about it. Deciding whether it's suicide or murder would likely spring from more traditional investigations--what was Alex doing there, did he know where the gun is, where was Bert, did Bert have a history of violence, did Alex have a history of mental instability, etc. etc.

I hope that helps!

What was your most challenging case?

Asked by bob about 6 years ago

That's a tough one, because unlike television I don't take it personally whether the case is resolved or not. Again unlike TV, I'm not in charge of the case, the detective is. I'm just a cog. I also don't deal with family or witnesses so I'm sort of emotionally once-removed from the trauma. So the most frustrating cases are those in which I can't find anything that helps. Say the victim and the suspect live in the same house so that any fingerprints or DNA of the suspect is to be expected and doesn't prove anything. Or we have no suspects and fingerprints and DNA at the scene don't match anyone in our system so that's not helping either. So then the most satisfying cases are those in which I find and analyze a piece of evidence that can tell us with certainty who was present or what occurred where. But either way I don't take it personally. I can't control what's there, only what I do with it. Sometimes you're lucky and sometimes you're not.