Monday, May 27, 2013

Wordcraft -- What happens at a crime scene

l-r, Drs. Johnson & Verbeck
This post comes with a warning -- if discussions of violent death make you feel faint, stop reading now. Just realize you’re condemning your characters never to experience violence in any form, not even a quick peek at a traffic accident. It’s the nice quiet kind of life most of us would like to lead. But writing isn’t about the kinds of lives our characters like. If they got everything they want, we wouldn’t have anything to write about.

The annual DFW Writers’ Conference is packed with inspirational speeches by big name writers, lectures on writing craft, interviews with agents and editors, and the usual gossip and commiseration by writers thrilled to find other people who speak our special language. This year the conference added something new -- panel discussions by forensic science professionals and law enforcement officials.

I’m going to take the forensics experts, all from the Fort Worth medical examiner’s office -- forensics death investigator Amy Renfro, deputy medical examiner Dr. Tasha Greenberg, chemistry professor and explosives expert Dr. Guido Verbeck, and chief toxicologist Dr. Robert Johnson. The panel moderator was Dr. Michelle O’Neal, an anthropological investigator and member of the DFW Writers’ Workshop which sponsored the conference.

What do these people do? And what makes them do it?

Renfro is usually the first of the group to be called to the scene of a death, starting the photographic documentation of bodies. Please don’t call her a CSI technician. Despite what we see on TV, in real life, CSI teams do not examine corpses. Strange though it may seem to TV viewers, neither do police officers.

And although police officers are allowed to inform the deceased person’s next of kin about the death, the job often falls to Renfro, who prefers to do it in person if at all
possible. Sometimes, however, the next of kin isn’t even in the state. Or the country. And exactly who is “next of kin” calls up a legal hierarchy based on, among other things, the deceased person’s age and marital status.

Greenberg performs autopsies on bodies she receives through a designated chain of command from autopsy technicians. She and Amy “I like dead people” Renfro both admit to having a strange sense of humor. “If we couldn’t laugh, we couldn’t handle it,” Renfro said.

And although the job “does make you appreciate your life and the lives of those around you,” Greenberg said, “I get excited. I love my job.”

To do Greenberg’s job, you need to be a physician. In the state of Texas, you’ll have the title of medical examiner or deputy medical examiner. I was embarrassed to learn that I’d referred in a story to the person examining a case of violent death as a “coroner,” a position that exists in some states, but not in Texas.

Johnson spends his time in a lab determining causes of death involving alcohol or drugs. Except that the actual drugs most likely aren’t still in the body, forcing him to look for other chemical indicators. “I avoid the morgue unless I’m forced to,” he commented
wryly. He’s also the one to talk to if you’re a writer looking for that least likely to be found poison to use in a murder mystery.

In his primary job as a teacher, Verbeck said, “I have to prepare students for (the gruesome facts). My first couple of lectures are shock and awe.”

Verbeck, who aided the investigation of the recent West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion is also the one to go to if you want to know the right explosives -- or the more technical term, “energetic materials” -- to use for a particular crime.

(Squeamish audience members questioning Johnson and Verbeck invariably used some formula of “if I want to poison someone,” or “if I want to blow something up.”)

(Next Monday, I’m taking a break from the forensics discussion, but be prepared later for more specifics of an investigation, including the “CSI effect.”)

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