Friday, June 30, 2006

Speaking Up for the Dead

Of the many areas of forensic science funding where we in the U.S. are failing to meet the needs of the public, perhaps it's time we became more concerned with -- and came to the aid of -- those who are speaking up for the dead.

It might be one of the hardest jobs for forensic science advocates: to convince decision-makers that our shameful neglect of medical examiners and coroners offices is not only hampering the investigation of crimes, but is also endangering the living and causing unnecessary suffering.

Last year, for example, NBC television affiliate KSL in Salt Lake City, Utah, ran a news report on the problems created by funding shortages in the Chief Medical Examiner's Office. "Medical Examiner: Lack of Funding Slows Work" quotes A. Richard Melton, deputy director of the state's Health Department as saying, "It's a terrible way to say it, and I shouldn't say it this way, but he's looking at dead people and many of our programs are looking at live people."

With that attitude, is it a surprise that Mr. Melton didn't make the ME's office a priority when he presented his budget to the state legislature? It's a such an insensitive and ignorant attitude, one hopes he was misquoted. If not, well -- news flash, Mr. Melton: if the dead didn't affect what happens to the living, we'd let everyone rot wherever they dropped. One would think that the cause of the ultimate lack of health would be of some concern to this guy.

To most of us, it's obvious that forensic pathologists play an important part in the criminal justice system. Other problems that may occur if an ME's office is underfunded may not be so obvious:
  • Families who must wait for death certificates cannot collect insurance or deal with many other financial matters after the deaths of their loved ones. Estates may be left unsettled. This can place a tremendous burden on a family, sometimes causing a surviving spouse to lose housing, support for children, and more.
  • As some counties close their ME's offices due to a lack of funding, and more and more hospitals refuse to take on the costs of non-patient autopsies, the work is farmed out to other counties and families are forced to drive many miles, the cost of transporting bodies is increased, and evidence may be lost.
  • Remains of missing persons may go unidentified, leaving families to suffer for years — and crimes unsolved.
  • Product safety problems may not be identified.
  • Ability to respond to mass disasters may be impaired.
  • Health workers may not be warned of potential threats to their safety.
  • Health or safety problems in a given area may go undetected.
  • Public health education may suffer. For example, the Massachusetts Medical Examiner recently warned pediatricians across the state that 31 deaths of infants in the past year have been attributed to "co-sleeping," or adults or older siblings sleeping in the same bed with an infant.
  • Workers in coroners' and MEs' offices may be exposed to dangerous working conditions.
These are just some of the ways the living may be affected.

And yet, attitudes like the one expressed by an El Paso County Commissioner last summer are not as rare as one would wish. When asked about the county's delay in filling the vacated coroner's position, "Commissioner Miguel Teran told the El Paso Times on July 27 that finding a replacement for [the previous coroner] is a requirement but is not necessarily a pressing matter. 'There's only so much you can do with a dead body,' Teran said...."

There are staffing, equipment, and facilities problems affecting coroners and medical examiners across the country. In Los Angeles last month, reports of an overcrowded morgue where bodies were stacked like cordwood and infested with maggots made headlines.
Here are a few other recent stories that may interest you. (The first is one of the most comprehensive I've seen.) I'm sorry to say that I can find similar stories all across the country. Read them, then find out what the situation is in your local area. And then speak up for the dead -- and the living.

CSI Travis: Why is the Medical Examiner's Office so screwed up?, Austin (TX) Chronicle 6/30/06
Report scolds Coroner's Office, Merced (CA) Sun-Star, 6/26/06
Medical examiner ready for the worst, Bradenton (FL) Herald, 6/27/06
Pender seeks new medical examiner, Wilmington (NC) Star-News, 6/25/06
Lawmakers consider higher standards, more training for coroners, Fort Wayne (IN) Journal Gazette, 6/11/06
Almost 4 months after death, family awaits answers, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 6/4/06
Crisis In The State Medical Examiner's Tulsa Office, KOTV, Tulsa OK, 5/24/06
Coroner Admits Overcrowding, Denies Maggot Problem, CBS2, Los Angeles CA 5/23/06

Photo by Ronnie Bergeron. (And um, yes, I know it's not a real skeleton.)

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Why I said the F-word during dinner last night

Most evenings, Tim and I eat late -- a product, mostly, of accomodating mealtimes to his evening teaching schedule.

So last night, we're watching Law and Order, and most of my anticipation is to see what Keir Dullea looks like these days -- I'm wondering how the artifical aging of "Dave" in 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey matches up with time's handiwork.

This is why I am taken completely by surprise when I learn, during a commercial break, that next fall, there will be a television show that has the same title as my new book. Spontaneously, out comes the most famous of all F-words.

And here I thought I'd just have to deal with freakishly devoted Robert Louis Stevenson fans.

I will live with it. But after what happened with Bones, and the bizarre circumstance of a screenwriter retitling a script for Nine as Bloodlines, I'm really starting to wonder....

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Please Make Two Phone Calls for Forensic Science Funding

Those of you who are Americans can help to improve forensic science services in all 50 states and the U.S. territories by making two phone calls, one to each of your U.S. Senators.

Please ask your senators to increase funding for the Coverdell National Forensic Sciences Act.

To learn your senators' phone numbers, go to the U.S. Senate Web site. In the upper right corner, you'll see "Find Your Senators" and a pulldown menu for your state. Congressional contact information is also available on the Crime Lab Project Web site.

The Coverdell Act is not a partisan issue -- the legislation establishing these grants was passed unanimously by both the House and the Senate. Underfunded labs affect everyone.

Don't be shy about calling -- let your senators know that crime labs matter to you.

Please make these phone calls today! The Senate is deciding on this funding now.

Monday, June 26, 2006

A few dates for the tour

I don't have the full schedule yet, and this is just a partial list, but for those wondering when I'll be traveling to their part of the U.S. to sign Kidnapped in October and early November, here are a few probable dates and places:

Wisconsin (in Madison
for Bouchercon) 9/28-10/1
California 10/3-10/10
Washington (State, not D.C.) 10/15-10/16
Colorado 10/18-10/19
Arizona 10/20 -10/21
Texas 10/29
Alabama 10/30
Georgia 10/31
Florida 11/2 -11/4

Photo above by Peter Dell.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Seeing familiar objects in the sky

Love these cloud photos, but really -- how do you suppose these clouds got that name?

Friday, June 23, 2006


What do the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the State Department not have in common?

The ability to seamlessly share fingerprint data on compatible systems. Three different agencies, three different systems.

They're making progress, but the problem is expected to continue until at least 2010.

Read more here, in an article that appeared in the 6/19/06 issue of Government Computer News.

Oh, and if you think local law enforcement groups across the country are using the same system, read this on one of my favorite latent print information sites, Ed German's ONIN.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Orange County RWA

I'll be speaking to the Orange County (CA) RWA chapter on Saturday, July 8th, talking about crime fiction basics, forensic science for writers, and the Crime Lab Project. If you're an aspiring writer in the Orange County area, I hope to see you there. Doors open at 9:30 AM. Author Charlotte Maclay is the morning speaker, I'll be speaking in the afternoon, at 1:30 PM. Meeting cost is $10 for RWA members and $20 for non-members.

Click here for directions and other details.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Toto, we're not in California anymore...

I'll be away for a few days -- going to Kansas, where I'll join the party to celebrate the 90th birthday of fabulous Uncle George.

Have a great weekend!

Friday, June 16, 2006

Editorial Urges End of Crime Lab Backlogs

I'm posting this here as well as on the CLP Forum, because I think this editorial gives a clear, concise argument on this subject.

The Courier-Journal of Lafayette, Indiana published an editorial on 6/14/06, "Will clearing backlog speed up justice?"

The editorial board answered with a definite yes, commending the Indiana State Police crime lab for its progress in reducing backlogs and urging the state to continue to make the efficiency of the lab a priority, saying, "Eliminating backlogs is in the best interest of all involved." The editorial outlines some of the ways in which a reduction of crime lab backlogs aids the justice system and public safety.

Please ask your legislators to give labs what they need to eliminate backlogs and achieve 30-day turnaround for evidence testing results.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


I've added a bunch of links to the sidebar today, ones that will take you to other blogs.

I also put a new seat on a toilet and transplanted an amaryllis. (No, not to the toilet.) None of which you may care about. You may not care about (or for) what you're likely to find on every one of the blogs, either.

We must both try to be strong about this and not let it come between us...

I think it's likely you'll enjoy at least some of these, though, so be adventurous. You may find something that really appeals to you. I just bought a book based on reading Cornelia Read's contributions to Naked Authors.

If you are a writer working toward your first publication, I highly recommend you take a look at the Writer Beware Blog and Miss Snark.

Meanwhile, I'm going back to work on my manuscript. Beats the hell out of toilet repair work. Most days.

Photo above: "Rusty Chain" by Kenn Kiser, from

My favorite corvids


I know, I know. A lot of folks hate them or fear them. They complain that crows are noisy and unmusical.

But I love crows. They fascinate me.

Those lovely dark feathers. Their family groups. Their intelligence.

Intelligence? Oh, yes!

If you have not yet seen the film of a crow making a tool from a piece of straight wire in order to retrieve some food, read this brief synopsis from Science Magazine and click on the link for the film. It's amazing.

And check out this article from National Geographic News, which talks about a study that says they may be as smart as great apes.

To find all kinds of information about crows and useful links, click here to go to For the Love of Crows, which is also where I found the clip art above.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

EQMM New Orleans Relief Issue

I've just received this from EQMM editor Janet Hutchings. What a great way for a mystery magazine to show its support for the Big Easy -- I hope you'll order this special issue.

A special New Orleans-themed issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, featuring the Big Easy’s native writers and artists, is slated for shipment to newsstands in early September, following the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating landfall.

Headlining the issue, which bears a November publication date, is fiction celebrating New Orleans’ rich ethnic and cultural diversity. Short stories by crime-fiction pros John Edward Ames, O’Neil De Noux, Tony Dunbar, Tony Fennelly, Barbara Hambly, Greg Herren, Edward D. Hoch, Dick Lochte, William Dylan Powell, Sarah Shankman, and Julie Smith span more than a century and a half of the Crescent City’s history, from pre-Civil War days to the post-Katrina present. This is New Orleans depicted by New Orleanians: Ten of the issue’s authors, including poetry contributor James Sallis, hail from the beleaguered city. Several lost homes or property in the storm.

The work of other notable New Orleans writers is discussed in a book review column by Jon L. Breen, focusing exclusively on the region’s mystery writing.

Capturing the vibrancy of New Orleans for cover and interior illustrations are artists Jenny Kahn, David Sullivan, and Herbert Kearney, all of whom also call the city home.

EQMM’s publisher, Dell Magazines, has donated all advertising for this special hurricane-recovery issue to organizations with rebuilding or relief efforts ongoing in the areas affected by Katrina. Participating organizations are Bridge House, the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans, Covenant House, Habitat for Humanity, Reader to Reader, Inc., Save the Children, and the Volunteers of America. For those wishing to make donations over the Internet, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s web site, provides links to all of the participating charities.

To order single copies of the November 2006 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine please visit our web site at, or call toll free (1 800 220-7443).

Photo above by Mike Rash, from Morgue File archives.
"Jazz band performing in front of St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans. After Katrina, I can't help but wonder about the welfare of these folks."

Monday, June 12, 2006

Flooded Evidence

Another news story, "Hall of Justice a Health Risk?" on the subject of facilities problems in evidence storage appeared yesterday in the Contra Costa Times, in which reporter Karl Fischer discovers mold, potential electrical hazards, and regular flooding among the problems in Richmond, California.

"'Being an evidence technician, I frequently handled ... bloody clothes, rape evidence, a lot of sensitive material,' said Joe Deville, an officer who retired in 2004. 'Having to handle it while ankle deep in water? I think that was a concern.'..."

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Housing Shortage for the Dead

Another difficulty facing crime labs and coroners's/ME's offices is that many are in outdated or inadequate facilities. A great many are housed in buildings not designed for the purpose of lab work or evidence storage. That may not be a problem if funds are expended to refit the building as needed, but this is not always the case. The preservation and integrity of evidence, as well as the health and safety of lab workers, may be at stake.

Some of the worst examples of these forensic science housing shortages have made the news in the past year.

On 1/30/06, in the second part of “Getting Away With Murder,” a series of articles by Jonathan Schuppe and William Kleinknecht in the Newark Star-Ledger, the reporters talked about the conditions in the workplace of the Essex County Prosecutor's Office’s Crime Scene Unit:
    The Essex CSU works from a former parking garage in downtown Newark. Members of the Prosecutor's Office refused to allow a reporter or photographer inside the building. But staffers and internal documents suggest a scene in which bags of evidence are frequently piled in the hallway while case files lay toppled over in an adjacent room.

    There's no trash pickup or cleaning service. The electrical circuits blow out regularly. In winter, investigators rely on space heaters to keep warm. The only source of water is the bathroom, so it sometimes doubles as an evidence-processing area....
Last month, KMEX, the Los Angeles Times, and other news sources reported stories of overcrowding, bodies temporarily moved out of refrigerated units and into hallways, and bodies stacked like cordwood in the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office. Workers complained of maggots and potential contamination of evidence. (You can see more about this story on the CLP Forum ). The coroner’s office housed almost 100 more bodies than the aging facility was designed to hold.

In Arizona, the Pima County medical examiner was forced to rent refrigerated trucks last summer to handle the increasing number of bodies stored there. (Chicago Tribune, 8/24/05)

In Benton County, Arkansas, the new coroner pleaded for a refrigerated space to store bodies. She also sought office space and a room to meet with families. According to a report by Serina Wilkins in the Benton County Daily Record on 5/10/05,
    The former coroner... housed the Coroner’s Office at Yvonne’s Costumes, Uniforms and Bridal shop in [the city of] Rogers."

The picture isn't uniformly bleak. In other communities, changes are underway. New labs are being built, labs are being combined into regional facilities to share costs, and some communities have stepped forward with innovative solutions. In California, two years after moving out of a dilapidated building, the San Mateo County Crime Lab was able to earn accreditation from the ASCLD. In the same state, San Bernardino County supervisors, appalled at conditions in their coroner's office, funded recently completed state-of-the-art facilities. In Springfield, Missouri, local bankers devised a plan to help finance a crime lab when a tax measure failed. (Springfield New-Leader, 1/17/06)

What can you do? Urge Congress and your state and local legislatures to provide funding for updated forensic science facilities.
Find out what your local situation is. Don't assume that the fancy lab or spacious coroner's office you see on television reflects what you'd find in your neighborhood. If you have a good city lab, is your county lab in good shape? What about labs in other parts of your state?

Forensic science can be most effective in U.S. when all labs in the country meet basic standards and are adequately housed and supplied.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Staffing and backlogs

"Funds Help Crime Lab Cut Backlog by 10,000 Cases" by C.S. Murphy in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette is well worth reading. It will give you some insight into the challenges facing crime labs and some of the ways they are being met.

We need to ensure that qualified staff are employed in medical examiner’s offices, coroner’s offices, law enforcement organizations and crime labs at a level that can meet those agencies' workloads. The price of not doing so is enormous: the innocent imprisoned, the guilty free to harm others, hazards and health threats unidentified, children endangered, families left without answers. Forensic science affects us in ways we don't always realize.

For example, we need to ensure that enough trained fingerprint examiners are available to keep up with the need for their work in background checks for would-be foster parents, those seeking to adopt, those who will work with our children in schools, on playgrounds, and other places. To check the backgrounds of those hired to drive trucks laden with hazardous materials over our highways. Trained examiners must be available to process prints taken at jails and as evidence. These are just some of the ways in which fingerprint examiners are of help to us.

But hiring and keeping staff ranks as one of the biggest challenges for public forensic science.

Here's just one story that will give you some idea of the difficulties labs face:

GBI lab loses key analysts to Army,” by Rhonda Cook, was published on May 10, 2006 in the Atlanta Journal.

Monday, June 05, 2006

30 Days

Thirty-day turnaround.

That's a goal. An initial goal on the way to another.

Thirty-day turnaround in crime labs, coroners' and medical examiners' offices, fingerprint units...processing of forensic evidence of all kinds.

"What? What? What?" I can almost hear CSI and Crossing Jordan addicts asking. "Aren't labs able to complete tests and report autopsy results within a few days?"

Throughout most of the country, the answer is no. In fact, 30-day turnaround will seem like reaching for the stars for some labs. How do I know? Not just from my work in the CLP. The evidence is all around us. Take a look at this sampling of news stories that appeared just this past weekend:

An article by Rick Weiss in the Saturday, 6/3/06 issue of the Washington Post, "Vast DNA Bank Pits Policing Vs. Privacy" is worth reading just because it's a thought-provoking examination of efforts to create an all-inclusive US DNA database -- every American would be required to submit a sample of DNA to a national database. The extent to which this would overwhelm labs is just one consideration, but a real one.
"...As of the end of last year, more than 250,000 samples were backlogged in California alone...." Keep in mind that this is one type of test -- DNA -- that is only a small fraction of the testing done by labs.

A 6/4/06 story on KATV-TV, the ABC affiliate in Little Rock, Arkansas, noted that there has been a reduction in the backlog of cases at the state crime lab. Now they're down from 16,000 cases (in December) to a mere 6,500. Since that's a rather spectacular reduction, I hope someone is asking exactly how that happened. I hope that many cases were processed, and news stories suggest that healthy increases in staffing have helped. In another post, though, I'll talk about the ways backlog can be "reduced' without examining evidence.

In Florida, on 6/4/06 the Sun-Sentinel reported that a family has waited four months for autopsy results on their son, who died in custody.

In Georgia, the Augusta Chronicle reported on a story about a young man who was held for 16 months "in a county jail, accused of rape. Now officials say he shouldn't have been there
at all..." But it took that long for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to get to the DNA tests on the case. "GBI spokeswoman Vicki Metz-Vickery said [the man's] DNA was part of a large backlog of cases. 'We are still working 2004 cases. And we are still about 1,000 cases backlogged.'..."

The above are far from the only examples I could cite, and remember that I found those stories without much effort from one weekend. Backlogs have been reported in every region in the country.

What will it take to end them? I'll talk more about that over the next few days.
In the meantime, go to the Crime Lab Project Web site to learn more.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Go Foggy, go!

Along with hoping for Barbaro's continued recovery, I've been wanting Lost in the Fog to prove his doubters wrong.

The what-have-you-done-for-me-lately crowd may now take a hike.

LITF is a spectacular sprinter who won his first ten races, then lost two. You would think, judging from some critics, that those two races proved something the other ten didn't. Today he won the Aristides Breeder's Cup Race at Churchill Downs by 1 1/4 lengths, just a second off from the track record. And did it carrying high weight of 124 lbs.

He's back!

Stranger than fiction

Two stories from CNN's Web site illustrate that truth is really stranger than fiction. This is a theme I could spend lots of time on, but for now, the stories.

First, the one I learned about through Steve Miller. Steve and his writing partner (and wife) Sharon Lee have created a science fiction series that is one of my favorites -- the Liaden Universe books. Sharon also writes mysteries, and together they have written other books and stories. More on their work in another post, but let me give a quick thanks to mystery writer Dean James, who used to work at Murder by the Book in Houston and introduced me to Lee & Miller's books. So...see what happens? You walk into a mystery bookstore, and the next thing you know, you're reading that a scientist in India believes he's found alien life forms. I kid you not. This was not from an article in the Enquirer, folks, but the "prestigious peer-reviewed journal Astrophysics and Space Science."

And in the way things happen for those of us who embrace distraction, as I was about to e-mail that article off to Tim, I came across this disturbing headline: Cops: Couple ordered hit on grandkids.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this couple allegedly tried to set up a hit (alas for them, with an undrecover detective) on their daughter-in-law, their 10-year-old granddaughter and two step-grandchildren -- and the family dog -- all in order to prevent them from testifying against their son in a rape trial. "The couple's 31-year-old son has been jailed since November on 22 charges of sexual battery on a child, lewd and lascivious molestation and showing obscene material to a minor, court records show."

So which life form seems closer to human to you?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Eat your heart out, MacGuyver!

Got an empty Altoids Sugarfree Gum tin? Don't throw it away, grab your soldering iron and make a USB charger out that baby! Keep that iPod charged!

Turns out there are MacGuyvers all around us, or at least a set of folks who can recycle anything. I learned about MakeZine from my niece, Timbrely, who is far more technically savvy and crafts enabled than I am.

Take a look. Ingenuity is alive and well.