Monday, June 10, 2013

Wordcraft -- What happens at a crime scene, II

Earlier in this blog I reported from a writer’s point of view on the procedures involved in forensic investigations. Today I’ll conclude that discussion from this spring’s DFW Writers’ Conference by noting what the professionals involved in such investigations have to say to writers -- and whether it’s possible to commit the perfect crime, at least on paper.

For starters, it’s not all about DNA, including what autopsy surgeon Dr. Tasha Greenberg, autopsy surgeon and Tarrant County deputy medical examiner calls “the CSI effect.”

Although Greenberg believes the situation may improve “as people get better educated in science,“ in some cases, “juries were not convicting if we didn’t have DNA evidence.” Reminding the audience that DNA is contained in body tissue including fluids, Greenberg asked us to consider the situation of a person shot from a distance of several -- perhaps a hundred or more -- feet. Without the killer’s personal presence on the scene, there’s not going to be DNA evidence from the killer.

And then there’s the time required for forensic testing. Although TV necessarily wraps up fictional cases within an hour, professionals such as forensic death investigator Amy Renfro must often explain to families of victims “that science isn’t instant -- you can’t do toxicology in a day.”

Or Greenberg with “autopsy reports the next day, but I can’t put that out in a vacuum” of an ongoing investigation.

So how can a writer kill a character while keeping the cause of death mysterious?

“Probably poison,” Greenberg said.

“Barium is wonderful,” Dr. Robert Johnson, chief toxicologist for the Fort Worth medical
examiners office. “So are heavy metals.”

Just don’t use cyanide, he warned. Its distinctive scent is something most people would notice.

In fact, for anything chemical, awareness of smell is essential. If you’re a writer looking for a likely bomb component, remember that bombs need both an explosive and an initiator, according to explosives expert Dr. Guido Verbeck, and check the smell of both. (There are standard texts for these.)

And not every death outside what the pros terms “controlled conditions” -- such as in a hospital -- will even get the benefit of a medical examination. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that because of a family situation and a novel in progress, I was interested in the possibility of the cause of death, even a violent death, escaping detection, and of possible concealment of the victim’s identity.

In counties without a medical examiner’s office, Greenberg said, elected justices of the peace may choose to rule on identity and cause of death, apparently accidental death, without referring cases to a regional medical examiner. Even when deaths are referred for examination, “we don’t do a complete autopsy on every case that comes in. It’s a matter of judgment if there’s no evidence of trauma.”


If I’ve piqued your interest in the DFW Writers’ Conference, consider registering for the 2014 meeting, with horror/thriller writer Jonathan Maberry as keynote speaker and special workshop leader Donald Maass. Early ticket prices now through Labor Day, September 2, 2013, are $295. See

(I may drop information from the DFW Writers’ Conference into this blog as time permits, but next Monday, I hope to report on Khaled Hosseini’s appearance in Dallas in connection with his new book, And the Mountains Echoed.)

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