Monday, July 31, 2006

More forensic science mythbusting

We all picture it this way -- the suspect is brought into the police station and "booked and printed." Everyone taken into custody for a felony gets fingerprinted, right? And then this set of fingerprints is entered into the national database, so that if this person is using an alias, using someone else's identity, or is wanted for other crimes, we know immediately, right?

Wrong. Throughout the country, a shortage of qualified staff, unclear assignments of responsibility, and inadequate equipment make it entirely possible that someone taken into custody can leave it without being fingerprinted.

For example, from "Fingerprint law could help police, hurt jailers," in yesterday's Louisville Courier-Journal:
...because many jailers have not fingerprinted everyone booked at their jails, fewer than half of the more than 300,000 people arrested in Kentucky last year are entered in the state and national databases....
Think about the implications for a moment. Studies have shown that "as many as half of criminals who commit violent crimes have nonviolent criminal histories...." That means that the guy taken into custody on a drug possession or vandalism charge could be the one who committed a rape or a robbery. Who knows how many crimes went unsolved as a result of more than 150,000 suspects passing through Kentucky jails without being fingerprinted? How many background checks for employment, child care, or adoptions failed to show arrest records?

There had been some disagreement over whether arresting officers or jails had the responsibility for fingerprinting those taken into custody, but a state law just went into effect to clarify the matter -- jailers have responsibility. And Kentucky provided Livescan electronic fingerprinting units to all 74 of its jails. But the jails are complaining -- they don't have the trained staff available, and no funds were allocated to help them pay for more staffing.

Lest you think this is a problem only in Kentucky -- on May 8, 2006, a Des Moines Register story, "Audit report points to holes in fingerprinting at Polk County jail," indicated that

Twenty percent of arrests by Polk County sheriff's deputies weren't reflected in state fingerprint records, according to the audit's sampling. The figure was 24 percent in Pleasant Hill and an "extremely high" 40 percent in Des Moines, where police arrest more than 4,000 people each year.

The missing fingerprints were linked to arrests on charges such as robbery, theft, domestic abuse causing injury, drug possession, harassment, drunken driving and assault with a dangerous weapon, among others.
On the CLP Forum, you'll find a similar story from Florida: CLP Forum: Private Jail Company to Resume Fingerprinting in FL county

Interoperability, as previously mentioned, is a big problem with fingerprint databases, but any database needs entries in order to be of value. Forensic science works largely by comparison of an unknown example to a known, so entries make a difference. The assistance law enforcement receives from fingerprints/latent print examination is enormous. Fingerprints are believed to be more individual than DNA as identifiers -- fingerprints can differentiate identical twins, DNA cannot. And it is far less inexpensive and time consuming to process fingerprints than it is to process DNA.

Do you know your local situation? Does your state have clearly defined guidelines, an auditing system, equipment in place, and the trained staff needed to keep up with the demand?

Ask. Find out if your local newspaper has looked into this issue.

You may save a life.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Everything in its place

We watch police dramas on television, and take for granted that certain things happen when a case is investigated. Among the chief misperceptions that result is that evidence, when it is not sitting loose on some detective's desk, remains unseen by us until trial because it goes to the crime lab and then is kept in some magical place that we never think about.

Let's talk then, about evidence storage realities. Think what is happening all across the country, when officers and detectives bring evidence in, all day long.

An article by Tony Plohetski in the 7/31/06 edition of the Austin American-Statesman, "Austin police looking for more evidence storage space," will give you an idea of the problems faced in one city.

The Austin Police Department is short on evidence space and has no central storage facility, a situation that for years has left investigators cramming property for criminal prosecutions into anything from empty closets to rented warehouses.

Authorities said the space crunch leaves investigators with the threat that evidence will be lost, contaminated or stolen — none of which has happened so far, police say — and requires hours of additional work for employees....
Austin is very far from being alone, and is far from the worst case:

Evidence space shortage is a problem that has long faced police agencies, particularly in growing cities, said Joseph Latta, executive director of the International Association for Property and Evidence.

"It's a huge problem across the country," he said.

The length of time for which evidence must be stored is often determined by law, so departments can't just dump old evidence on the basis of the amount time it has been held — the type of evidence and the type of case will play a role.

Another part of the problem is overcollection — in the effort to please jurors who might be expecting television-drama forensics, officers may collect, as one forensic scientist has said, "Everything that isn't nailed down."

But keep in mind that many of these departments do not have proper or adequate storage facilities for even that evidence which is necessary, more than 1 out of 4 labs do not have the computers they need to keep track of it.

If at this very basic step of collection, tracking, and storage of evidence, we do not provide law enforcement and forensic scientists with what they need, how can we expect detectives to do their work, or for a speedy and just resolution to criminal cases?

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Illinois event

I'll be in the Chicago area on September 7, at an evening event at the Skokie Public Library. More details soon!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

A Quick and Easy Lesson on Crime Labs

On, you can find an article by Carole Moore, who interviews Max Houck, director of the West Virginia University's Forensic Science Initiative. The story is called, "Crime Lab Funding: How important is a good crime lab to an agency? "

Houck gives a brief description of the problems facing labs, and also proposes some solutions. If you're looking for a concise article on the subject, this one is worth reading.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Texas Book Festival

I'm pleased to let you know that I'll be at the Texas Book Festival, held in Austin on October 27-29th. I'll have more details for you later on, but hope those of you in the area will save the dates.

This photo, by Billy Arredondo, is of the Alamo in San Antonio. My nephew Sheldon recently wrote to me after a visit to the Alamo, to say that he thinks I ought to write a book about it. One never knows...

In the meantime, a favorite mystery bookstore is in that city, Remember the Alibi. Another fave is Murder by the Book, in Houston — the city where I was born. So if you're in either neighborhood, stop by and say hello. Or howdy -- whichever feels more natural to you.

Thank you!

To those who read Bloodlines and liked it well enough to nominate it for the Anthony — many thanks — it is indeed an honor, and you've placed me in fine company. Congratulations to all the other nominees!

To see the full list, visit Anthony-nominee Sarah Weinman's blog.

Monday, July 24, 2006

A hurdle cleared

Funding for the Paul Coverdell National Forensic Science Improvement Act has cleared a major hurdle -- the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee has approved the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee bill which allots $18 million for Coverdell grants for FY2007 and an additional $175 million for separate DNA grants. Senator Shelby of Alabama was a key supporter of the funding.

There are still more steps in the budget process -- the next step is Senate approval. Many thanks are due to those of you who continue to contact your U.S. Senators -- your calls make a difference! Please don't hesitate to use the contact form on your Senators' Web sites to let them know that Coverdell funding is important to you.

Coverdell funding can be used for a wide range of forensic science needs -- latent prints (fingerprints), drug analysis, questioned documents, toxicology, DNA, firearms evidence, forensic pathology, and much more. It is available to all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories -- it is awarded on through a grants system administered by the NIJ, and is not "earmarked" for pet projects of individual members of Congress.

Friday, July 21, 2006

OC Fair

I know some people assume that Barbara, Irene's PITA sister, must be inspired by a sister of my own.

Nope. I have great sisters. And a great brother, too. Allow me to brag about one of my siblings, at least in partial penance for all the nights I kept her awake by reading under the covers with a flashlight, or insisting that all the stuffed animals had to sleep with us so that they would be safe from the goblins that were probably lurking under the floorboards in our bedroom. (I also made her sleep next to the wall, because I had been completely freaked out by an episode of The Twilight Zone, "Little Girl Lost," and was sure that if I slept next to it, I would fall into another dimension. Since we didn't yet own a dog, I was pretty darned sure the portal would close before anyone knew I was missing.) Trust me when I say that these are the mildest examples of the ways I tortured her.

Sandra Cvar, my younger sister, is an art student at California State University, Long Beach. I'm very proud of her! She's studying printmaking, and entered three prints in the Orange County Fair. All three received ribbons -- including a blue ribbon for first place, a white for third place, and a purple ribbon, for an award given by the staff of the visual arts area of the fair.

(I've put a photo of the three prints above -- the reflections of the overhead lights on the glass of the frames was never going to make a good shot possible for someone with my lack of skill, but I think you can make out that one is of a pirate, another of two women, and the third of a daschund with its ears in curlers.)

Fairs are a writer's dream. The people-watching possibilities are endless. And where else will you see a sign advertising deep-fried Oreo cookies? Yes, if I can learn how to download the photos on the cellphone, I'll share that one.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

At random

I did get some writing done, so thanks for your patience. I may be a little less reliable about posting here while I get my teeth into this new work.
* * *
In case you thought I was just lazing around, staring at my blank computer screen, in the past ten days I've also had two speaking engagements, some meetings, dealt with lots of mail and e-mail, did some work on essays and other items that are not my manuscript but require thought and keyboard time, started reading a non-fiction book about pirates, mailed off some ACWL materials, developed some draft bylaws for a new organization, put out a couple of issues of the CLP News, developed some new handouts and got them sent off to others who were speaking about the CLP (many thanks to Meg Chittenden, who has been so very supportive and gave the CLP a plug at a writing conference!), and had lunch with a couple of writer friends. That's aside from household tasks, time with Tim, an evening spent watching a friend's band, and other good stuff.
* * *
One of the great things about living close to Los Angeles is that LA is home to other friends who are writers, and visiting writer friends also often tour through the city. I'm not a writer who worked with a writing group before I was published, and I've never been in one since. Just not something that I think would work well for me. My writer friends and I do not swap manuscript pages or critique one another's work. But we do enjoy talking to one another about the process, venting frustrations, and supporting one another through the various sorts of minor anxiety attacks or wholesale meltdowns to which any of us may become prey at a given moment. I am so lucky -- I regularly spend time with people who are bright and witty and thoughtful about their work, and who, if not completely free of all envy (I like to hang out with human beings, who interest me more than saintly phonies), are also able to truly applaud the successes of their friends.
* * *
I tend to read several books at once, and among the ones I'm reading now is the official reading party book. Tim and I read aloud to each other, something we began doing together within the first week after we met. (One of the hardest things about being on the road is that the reading parties are always on hold at such times.) Currently (no wordplay intended) we are reading Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi. I'm enjoying it immensely. Recently, Tim forwarded a signature line from a friend's e-mail, another line from Twain I thought I'd share with you:

I didn't attend his funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.


Tomorrow, I am going to the Orange County Fair, but more about that in the next post!

Friday, July 14, 2006

Crime Fiction and Crime Labs

If you're in the Los Angeles area this Saturday, July 15, join us for an event at the Palms-Rancho Park Branch of the LA Public Library, from 10:30 AM to noon!

Barry A.J. Fisher, Director of Scientific Services, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and I will present "Crime Fiction and Crime Labs ." We'll talk about forensic science fact and fiction, and the current state of public crime labs. We'll have handouts available and talk about where writers and others with an interest in forensic science can learn more, and how they can help public forensic science agencies. This event is free and open to the public.

Los Angeles Public Library - Palms-Rancho Park Branch
2920 Overland Avenue (Cross street: Clarkson Road)
Los Angeles, CA 90064
(310) 840-2142

Want to help sponsor a similar event in your area? Let me know.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Missing a wedding, a would-be murderer missing

While putting together the CLP News last night, I came across the Associated Press story of a man who missed his daughter's wedding while he was in custody in Oregon.

Not perhaps remarkable in and of itself. He was a suspect in an attempted murder. The victim emerged from a coma after a brutal beating, and said he thought the man was the one who attacked him. So the police were perhaps not unreasonable in arresting their suspect, although he said he was 70 miles away and had witness to prove it.

The real problem is, it took more than six months to complete the DNA test and fingerprint check that exonerated him. The crime took place January 13, and authorities told him they were dropping the case against him on June 22. The wedding was on June 20th.

And of course, over the last six months, the victim's vicious attacker has been on the loose.

Before you blame the crime lab, consider the fact that a mere 3 years ago, when backlogs were already escalating across the country, the Oregon state legislature slashed the staff of the state crime lab from 135 to 50 people. The staff is now up to 109.

The cuts took place two years after the legislature required DNA samples from all convicted felons to be submitted for a state database, and now "thousands of samples are awaiting entry into the system. About 1,000 more arrive each month...." If Oregon is following national trends, the backlog has probably increased dramatically since 2003.

Looking at these numbers, it's surprising the lab got to the test in six months. Which is of no comfort to the former suspect, his family, the victim, the detectives who've been working on the case so far. And while it's good that the tests could clear the man before he went to trial, let's hope there's not another victim of the real attacker out there, someone who might have been spared by faster results.

The next time you see a television show in which DNA results are back in 30 seconds, think about this story. And imagine what would change in your life, if you were held in custody for six months waiting for a test result.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Saturday event/On writing advice

I had a lot of fun speaking to the OC chapter of RWA on Saturday. Always good to see writers helping other writers, and you'd have a hard time finding people who have a more collegial spirit than the members of OCC RWA. I had the pleasure of seeing some writers I hadn't been in touch with for a while, and also to see Michelle Thorne of Bearly Used Books/A Great Read. Michelle sponsored a signing for me in the early days of my career, so it was good to reconnect. (Her store in La Puente will have signed copies of my books if you're looking for them -- contact her at or call (626) 968-3700.) Charlotte Maclay provided an entertaining and informative morning session, and I was glad I had a chance to hear it.

The event was well-organized, thanks to Bobbie Cimo and other OCC RWA officers and volunteers. And I deeply appreciate the immediate support the OCC RWA writers gave to the Crime Lab Project. I talked about writing and about forensic science, two subjects I enjoy discussing.

Although you've heard plenty from me about forensic science, I haven't spent much time on this blog talking about writing, in part because there are so many writers' (and agents') blogs out there that focus on writing advice. Even if some of what I read on them makes me cringe, it may help you or be of interest.

I'm sure I'll be tempted to reflect on writing here at some point, too, given the amount of time I spend writing and how important it is to me. I'm just as sure that if I give in to this temptation, I'll find myself dining on a nice fat slice of a humble pie of my own making.

It's so easy to sound ridiculous or pompous (or both) when trying to describe a creative process. While there is certainly common ground among writers -- or at least, patches of ground that groups of us share -- writing is also a highly individual, usually solitary endeavor, and many of us who engage in it are not certain it can be entirely explained to others. One writer's gem of wisdom seems like costume jewelry to another.

On the other hand, when I've spoken to groups of writers or taught courses on writing, I've found the experience energizing -- and instructive in its own way to me. And I still find myself quoting or thinking about things said in truly inspiring and insightful talks by other writers I've had the privilege to hear -- among them, Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly, Nancy Pickard, T. Jefferson Parker, Tony Hillerman, Mary Higgins Clark, Dick Lochte, Donald Westlake, Ross Thomas -- and a young but talented and thoughtful writer, Christopher Rice. And Lawrence Block's books on writing not only kept me going when I was working on my first book, I still find his advice worth rereading. I highly recommend these books to any of you who are writing.

Block is a master of crime fiction, and I noticed that on the section of his Web site where he talks about his writing books, he says,
...I never meant to set myself up as an authority on the writing of fiction --- there is no such thing --- but I found that, much as writing makes one a better reader, so did writing about writing have a salutary effect on me, both as reader and writer....
I suppose that's one of the reasons I occasionally find the nerve to offer writing advice, or to pass along good advice I've heard elsewhere -- thinking about such things helps me sort out what I'm doing, and gives me a greater appreciation for the skills and artistry of others.

While I dither about what I'll put on the blog, if you want to see the part of my Web site where I offer some writing advice, visit Not From Mt. Sinai and Three Rules for Writing -- feel free to take it or leave it. In fact, if you find it discouraging, please do leave it.

In the meantime, I'm going to follow some good writing advice I've heard from many writers over the years and make my writing time sacred -- I'll be away from the blogs for a few days, while I make more progress on a current manuscript.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Happy Birthday, Antonia!

Spent the day with my sisters and my folks (we missed you, bro!) celebrating my mom's birthday.
"Mom," in my family, refers to a truly wonderful and much beloved woman who went to see the Sound of Music with the widower across the street -- the one with three kids still at home, none of them yet teenagers -- and ended up married to the guy. My dad did a good job of picking women to marry, even if his first-date movie choices might not seem so subtle in retrospect. ;-)

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

One more reason to love the CMS

The Chicago Manual of Style, that is.

The additional reason is the very sensible answer to the last question posed on this month's Q&A.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Independence Day

As this Independence Day draws to a close here in the U.S., I ask this question of my friends in England: if he could have foreseen the degree to which Americans dote on the British Royal family, do you think George III would have bothered to send troops to put down the rebellion?

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Just in case you thought I was serious all the time

Okay, if you know me at all, you don't suspect that.

But since I've been covering some serious topics, I thought I'd also let you know that I am fascinated by the cupcake craze.

I don't eat them (I'm in the post-revision self-revision cycle of my life now, where I try to lose the weight I gained while reworking a manuscript), but I totally understand why they are so popular. But that's not the source of the fascination.

It's what the Internet reveals about us. We can find experts and aficionados for anything (and anyone) you can name. And why not mention the more savory, rather than unsavory aspects of this wide-ranging, 24/7 celebration of what interests us most? So here is the cupcake, among it all, a taste (not overdoing it, mind you) of dessert, a petite pleasure, a happy little bit of cake for any occasion. What's not to like?

Cupcake blogs came to my attention through a post on Sarah Weinman's blog, where the first of these links caught my eye.

Cupcakes Take the Cake (All Cupcakes, All the Time)

52 Cupcakes (one recipe a week)

Cupcakes Across America

Each of those will take you to others. Enjoy!

Photo by Jane M Sawyer.

Keep those phones calls and e-mails coming!

Those of you who want to help crime labs, medical examiners' offices, and other public forensic science agencies can still make those phone calls and send e-mails. Click here to see more about that in my post of this past week. I said "today" in that post because I had word from the CFSO that the U.S. Senate has started dealing with this part of the budget, and it's hard to predict how many days we have once they do -- so it's important not to put this off.

Congress is still working on the budget, and so it isn't too late to contact your U.S. Senators to let them know that you want the Coverdell Act to be fully funded. These funds are not earmarked, so they can go to grant applicants any state, the District of Columbia, or the U.S. territories. Best of all, they can be used for what the labs need most -- whether that's computers for tracking evidence, DNA backlog reduction, latent prints equipment, or other assistance.

The Coverdell Act of 2000 passed unanimously -- this is not a partisan issue. Let's ensure that labs get the funds they need. Please take the time to call or e-mail your senators, and to ask others to do the same.

I want to thank all the bloggers, writers, readers, and other supporters of the Crime Lab Project who have done so -- please keep spreading the word!