Monday, January 29, 2007
The photo above is one of the reasons why I haven't been here much over the past few days. For a project involving my alma mater, CSULB, I was asked to scan and submit a few photos from childhood to present day.
This, in its turn, required access to the distant part of my garage (a distance measured in density of obstacles, and on that scale, think Everest), an area which might possibly house old photos. Of course, I checked there only after dismantling a couple of storage possibilities within the house. I did find some photos in the house, and I have decided that nothing can slow a person down like finding old photos. Just hard to flip past pictures of fondly remembered people, places, and events.
So, the scaling of Mt. Burke-Garage had a side benefit -- we now have about 20 boxes of books to take to the library, and another pile of to-be-donated goods that will probably go to Goodwill. Oh, and you can now walk from the front to the back of the garage without turning sideways or doing the limbo. Today I broke through to the photo section and found enough useable material to scan and send on to the university.
I'm going to be getting ready for events in Seattle, so you probably won't hear from me unless I get a chance to post from the convention. Hope to see some of you at Left Coast Crime!
Friday, January 26, 2007
But my husband has made sure that I no longer lose my keys or my purse somewhere within my own home. Hunting them down has, on occasion, taken a great deal of time. But now, for all those people who set down groceries, bring the dogs back inside, answer the phone while putting away frozen foods, have to look up something on e-mail for the person on the phone, and then can't the keys a day later....there's this marvy gizmo!
And oh yes, I've used it already!
Monday, January 22, 2007
I'm so very sad to learn of the death of Barbara Seranella on January 21.
The mystery-writing community is a relatively collegial one. You meet some fine people within it. Barbara was one of the finest.
Her talent as a writer is unquestioned. I met her at an event in Laguna Beach, just after her first book was published. We were in the same general neck of the woods, and our paths kept crossing. Lucky me.
She was such a good person. And a hell of a lot of fun.
She had a smile that could light up a room. If you can't tell that from the photo above, look at this picture and you'll see what I mean. No one ever spent much time around her without realizing that she had a marvelous sense of humor and a quick wit. The last time I saw her, at Bouchercon, she made an auditorium full of people laugh — and accepted an Anthony Award for Best Short Story.
She never tried to fool anyone about who she was or where she had been. She had a kind of rare courage. Walking redemption. I admired her.
But that description doesn't let you know how very kind she was, or a dozen other things you should know about her.
Her life was a story of second chances. She was brave enough to take them and made the most of them. I kept hoping she'd keep getting them, but it wasn't to be.
Our profound loss.
Photo above from an AAUW in Torrance event about five or six years ago. Me, Stephen Cannell, Barbara Seranella, Martin Smith.
Saturday, January 20, 2007
So the Worthington case brought attention to the Massachusetts State Lab's DNA backlog, which stood at around 1000 cases in 2005.
Now, before I go further in this story, let's take a brief look at the word backlog. Every jurisdiction comes up with its own meaning for this term, and you should be aware of some factors that influence how labs define them.
First, they differentiate between "cases" and "samples." For DNA, a single case can include dozens (or dozens and dozens) of samples to be processed, or very few samples, down to one -- depending on what kind of case it is, how much biological evidence was available, and whether the people collecting the evidence were trained (at all, or well) and if they are feeling encouraged/discouraged about their lab.
Second, labs talk about two types of backlogs: 1) Those for cases -- items to be processed from crime scenes, victims, and those taken from suspects. 2) Those for databases -- the DNA samples taken from anyone required by that state's laws to submit them. That can range from those convicted of specific violent felonies to those convicted of any felony. (Some states, including California, have plans to eventually include felony arrestees, although this will doubtless face some court challenges.) This second group is where DNA "cold hits" come from -- a DNA match in a case when there is no previously known suspect.
Third, in an effort to control backlogs, labs may limit what may be submitted to them. This seems to have been the case in Massachusetts. An Associated Press article by Theo Emery, published across the country in May, 2005 (I saw it in the Houston Chronicle on 5/8/05), said
...The [Massachusetts] state crime lab is so understaffed and underfunded it has to ration how many tests law enforcement agencies may submit...Some might say (I would be one) therefore, that this 1000 case backlog was actually artifically lowered. If you are behind on what's submitted, that's one number. If you refuse to allow more than 4 samples from each county into the flow, we're missing the real number -- add in all the cases in those counties that could benefit from DNA analysis and which are not in the chosen 4 samples.
Each month, the state's 11 district attorneys are allowed to submit only four DNA samples.
"All the DAs are ludicrously handicapped in the number of cases that they can present to the lab," said Geline Williams, executive director of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association....
Finally, labs do not have a set criteria for what constitutes a DNA sample that is "backlogged." Some will say 30 days. Others will say 90 days. Or more. There's no universally agreed-upon definition.
But by any of these definitions, Massachusetts law enforcement agencies that use the state lab had been waiting for results in 1000 cases. For each of those cases, someone who should have been held might be committing other crimes. Someone who was trying to investigate the crime had to use more time-consuming (and perhaps less reliable) methods of investigation, victims and their families waited for answers, and in all likelihood, some people who were innocent were under suspicion or denied their freedom.
In 2005, the state DNA lab operations had 12 analysts and their equipment squeezed into an 840-square-foot space. Six to nine months was the standard turnaround for cases submitted to the lab.
The Massachusetts Legislature realized that these were undesirable conditions, and increased the funding of the lab from $6.2 million in fiscal 2005 to $16.2 million in fiscal 2007. They also created a new position in government -- Undersecretary for Forensic Sciences, part of the state's Office of Public Safety. This position was to provide oversight for improvements at the lab and the state medical examiner's office.
Keep in mind that no one gets money the day the Legislature takes a vote. But everyone seems to agree that things started to change for the better. Governor Romney sought additional money to build larger, more modern facilities, and a few months ago -- last August -- a new 12,000-square-foot addition was made to the lab. The lab itself has been in the process of being revamped.
Then on January 12, reports of an announcement from the State Police sent another kind of shock wave through Massachusetts: Robert E. Pino, a civilian administrator, was accused of delaying reports of matches in the state's CODIS system with evidence tested in eleven Massachusetts "cold case" rape cases. These delays meant the cases could not be prosecuted, because while delayed, the Massachusetts 15-year statute of limitations expired. Also, according to the Boston Globe,
...In four cases, Pino prepared reports to police saying that tests linked DNA recovered at crime scenes to suspects, when, in fact, they had not. Pino did not mail all four reports, and no one was arrested because other officials discovered Pino's mistake....All of this is still under investigation and while Mr. Pino has been suspended, it is important to note that no charges have been filed. Also, the reported problems were not in the actual analysis of DNA. According to a story in the Boston Globe, his union, the Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists, has defended him:
The union representing a suspended DNA database administrator at the State Police crime laboratory yesterday blamed any delays or DNA mismatches at the lab on a longstanding problem of understaffing and inadequate funding.The FBI is currently auditing the lab. The state has started work on its own investigation into what went wrong, and how future problems may be prevented -- one apparent problem: "The administrator alone appeared to control the reporting of DNA test results to police and prosecutors." Other officials have expressed concern that defense attorneys will react with a flood of motions challenging convictions.
If rapists are allowed to be free, if new attacks could have been prevented, if rape victims are denied justice because a lab employee didn't do his job, and if there is no reasonable explanation why he didn't do it (such as an overwhelming workload that one person couldn't reasonably cope with), this is a grave matter and there should be consequences for those responsible. And the lab does need to remedy any problems in its system of oversight that may have allowed such problems to occur.
I don't intend to speculate on Mr. Pino's possible guilt or innocence regarding these allegations. But I do hope that Massachusetts State Senator Jarrett T. Barrios has been misquoted. According to the Globe, he said these developments were especially alarming because of the money recently given to the lab, and added:
"The public has a right to know why their dollars, apparently, have been misspent."Say what? Misspent? You've had an understaffed lab operating out of a broom closet for a dozen years, a thousand or more cases not even being analysed, and if one man screwed up in the way some claim he has, then all the money has been misspent????
The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association has said the lab has dramatically improved overall in recent years. It would be good to know how many cases have been successfully handled by the lab, how much matters have improved. Because I imagine if you talk to the victims and families of victims of those crimes, no one will feel that the money invested in the lab has been misspent.
I think the Senator owes the other workers in the lab an apology.
Friday, January 19, 2007
Labs aren't just a little bit short of change when it comes to buying new gadgets. A great many of this country's forensic scientists are working in tiny, inadequate spaces and using outdated equipment and technologies. Their labs can't properly store or track evidence and are having trouble paying enough to their staffs to retain them. The labs are trying to cope with overwhelming backlogs -- untested evidence piles up quickly, rates of solving crimes slow.
Why does this happen? Those who make decisions about spending tax dollars on law enforcement and criminal justice usually don't make labs a priority. There are a variety of reasons for this, some understandable, others god-awful, but the only thing that seems to make a difference in priorities is public pressure. Unfortunately, the problems of labs are a reality that most people don't seem to grasp. (This is exactly why the Crime Lab Project got underway.)
Sometimes, one case makes a difference to a lab, can help the public to see the reality.
The January 6, 2002 high profile murder of fashion writer Christa Worthington in her Cape Cod home was such a case. Although there was DNA evidence at the scene, the case went unsolved. You can see from this 2003 story by CBS that theories abounded -- as did books and stories that "fictionalized" the facts and further scandalized -- but law enforcement hoped for help from DNA:
District attorney Michael O'Keefe says recently revealed DNA evidence shows that within hours of her death, Christa Worthington had sex [with] - for now, a mystery man.Frustrated for three years, in 2005 investigators even tried collecting -- on a voluntary (and controversial) basis -- DNA swabs from local men to look for a match. Part of the controversy stemmed from the fact that the lab was already backlogged. Before any of the hundreds of volunteered samples were tested, the match came through a sample collected in March 2004, in an earlier effort to eliminate suspects. The match was to Christopher M. McCowen, who has since been convicted of the murder.
"It's DNA of an unknown male that's consistent with someone having had sexual relations with the victim," says O'Keefe. "And it's that DNA that we seek to match."
When the public realized that the sample of McCowen's DNA had been sitting untested in the state lab for almost a year before the crime was solved, a hue and cry went up that was heard across the country. The price of backlogs had been brought home: a violent criminal had been left free -- and free to possibly commit other crimes; the innocent were forced to live under a cloud of suspicion; the family, friends, and community of the victim were left without answers.
There was little mystery about the cause of the delay. The under-funded crime lab didn't have the resources to process all the evidence submitted to it. The legislature declared it was a shame (without always owning up to the fact that it was a shame partly of their own making) and an outrage and they would have no more of it -- they voted millions more dollars to the state lab.
But as events proved last week, the lab's troubles weren't over.
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Yesterday the judge in the case decided that her crimes and lack of remorse deserved three to six years in prison. For more details, read the WNEP story by Sarah Buynovsky and Andy Palumbo here.
It's not just a matter of someone being greedy in an especially reprehensible way, of course. Co-workers lost their jobs. The local chapter was closed down. Donations to Make-A-Wish were down all across the country as a result of her actions. In three years she could be out, but its probably already too late for some of the real kids who would have been granted wishes with the money she spent on herself.
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Yes, still working....but while I write and try to get materials ready for LCC and all kinds of things you probably don't want to be bothered reading about, check out this cool site from Google Maps -- an online pedometer.
What you can do with this is chart out a route for a walk or a run and be able to see the distance of each leg of your travel.
Tim let me know about this one. I believe his secret plan worked -- I see we'll need to go back to one of the longer routes for our walks.
Photo above courtesy of bamagirl, from morguefile.com.
Monday, January 15, 2007
Since Britches is 0-2 in his battle against striped wildlife, if we go up to Canada to help this poor skunk get back home, we'll probably leave Britches and Cappy on this side of the border.
I'm getting some writing done these days, so the story of Britches v Polecats will have to wait.
Friday, January 12, 2007
I found the link on Mondo Chicago. Alana Waters, who took the photo, also made some beautiful cards that benefit Hurricane Katrina relief. And oh yes, it's still needed.
Thursday, January 11, 2007
So, of course, after I saw her results for the Accent Quiz on the GoToQuiz.com site, I had to take it, and ended up:
Your Result: The Midland
"You have a Midland accent" is just another way of saying "you don't have an accent." You probably are from the Midland (Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, southern Indiana, southern Illinois, and Missouri) but then for all we know you could be from Florida or Charleston or one of those big southern cities like Atlanta or Dallas. You have a good voice for TV and radio.
The actual accent is mongrel. I was born in Houston, Texas, to parents from Kansas. The first six-and-a-half years of my life were spent there. I retained the accent for quite a while after we moved to California. I was kidded about being "Tex" until about the fifth or sixth grade, and even now, people catch me saying all kinds of words in the Lone Star style. Then, after lots of influence from the West coast, I married this fellow from Buffalo, who teaches subjects including accent elimination, and has tried (without consistent success) to teach me the difference between "pin" and "pen."
All of this proves that I may be edging toward the 26% in this article, called to my attention by my sister Sandra, who should have been doing other things, too.
I'm not there yet, though. I did finish a chapter today. I may finish a second one before I call it a night.
Wish me luck -- I'm making my own by getting the hell off the Internet. If you heard me say that aloud, you'd tell me I should be on the radio...
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
If you've been reading this blog for more than a week you know that just about anything may capture my attention. Today I stumbled across an account of the history of toilet paper. Now, here's an immediate caveat: this is a report from 2001, so all the great strides that have been made in the TP world in the last five or six years are not included.
My favorite quote from the article by Buck Wolf comes from the star of a long-running series of Charmin ads:
Dick Wilson, the vaudeville veteran who portrayed Mr. Whipple on TV, later recalled his agent calling him about the project.
"My agent asked me, 'What do you think of toilet paper?' And I told him, 'I think everybody should use it.'"
Photo above, "TP Tree," courtesy of Click at morguefile.com. He says about it, "Each year, high school graduates target this well-loved elementary school teacher's yard for the ceremonial TP (toilet paper) attack."
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
There's good news and bad news, as they say.
The good news is that port security is taking another step forward along U.S. coasts, and one measure of that is increased identification requirements and background checks for those driving trucks into and out of port facilities. This hasn't come about without argument, but that's not the bad news.
The bad news is that all across the U.S., we aren't putting the resources needed into fingerprinting. The result is that thousands of criminals who could be identified by prints are not being caught, the ones who are being arrested are too often not fingerprinted, and the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and State Department do not have fingerprint systems that are interoperable.
Any background check is only as good as the database it's checked against. Think about this -- if the person driving a truck into a port committed a crime involving explosives and was not fingerprinted, the usefulness of background checks and identity checks is limited. If police departments believe they can no longer afford to collect fingerprints at crime scenes, if several incompatible systems are being used, then we're missing important information in these databases.
Photo above courtesy of Digiology, from morguefile.com
The panels will be held at Left Coast Crime on the afternoon of Friday, February 2, in Seattle, Washington at the Renaissance Hotel, 515 Madison Street. The full convention is nearly sold out (the banquet is definitely sold out), but I think there may be a few more spaces left. Click here for more information on the full convention.
If you can't attend the entire event, LCC is offering day registrations for single days. A single day registration for Friday will give you access to all activities, panels, the book dealer's room, a reception and an auction for $75. These are for walk-in registrations, cash or check only.
Here's the line up:
12-1 PM, "CS I Don't Think So,"
Lee Lofland, Dr. Doug Lyle, Eileen Dreyer, and Jan Burke (m)
We'll be talking about crime labs in fiction and reality, the Crime Lab Project, and current events in forensic science. I'm on this panel with three of the most entertaining (and knowledgeable) people you'll find in the world of crime fiction. I'll tell you more about them soon, but in the meantime, you can read about Eileen, Lee, and Doug at their Web sites.
1-3 PM Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory Presentations.
Two sessions, one from 1-2, the next from 2-3, with breaks and time for Q&A. These are real-life forensic scientists, and we are so grateful to the WSP lab for sparing them to us to talk about their work. You'll have a chance to hear from:
- Larry D. Hebert, Manager of the WSP Crime Laboratory Division. He oversees the operation of the Patrol’s seven crime laboratories. Mr. Hebert has testified in 419 criminal trials during his 33-year career, and has expertise in controlled substances, firearms, and crime scene investigation.
- Jean C. Johnston, Manager of the the WSP's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) Program. A DNA specialist, she has worked on hundreds of forensic cases in her 28-year career, including the Green River Murders.
- James A. Tarver, Manager of the WSP Seattle Crime Laboratory. A deputy sheriff and crime scene investigator, senior criminologist, and forensic document examiner for the Fresno [California] County Sheriff’s Office for 29 years when, after retiring from that position, became employed by the Washington State Patrol (WSP).
- George E. Johnston, WSP Quality Assurance Manager. Mr. Johnston joined WSP in 1980 in the Seattle Crime Laboratory where he specialized in trace evidence examination and crime scene investigation. One of the major events in his 29-year career is the time he spent working on the Green River Murders as a crime scene investigator and in the laboratory analyzing thousands of pieces of trace evidence.
4-5 PM "Using the Law Realistically," Kate Flora, Aaron Elkins, Anne Jayne, Twist Phelan, Leslie Budewitz (m) As the LCC program page says: "If you watch too much TV, you'll believe DNA results can be gotten in hours, from arrest to trial takes a matter of days, weeks at most, cops never abuse their power, and all labs are shiny and bright (or moody and blue) and run perfectly. Okay, then there's the real world. Experts in forensic science and law talk about what it's really like." These authors are well worth listening to!
So, I hope you'll join me in Seattle!
Monday, January 08, 2007
Every now and then, I come across something especially odd, and I put it in a special section of the CLP News known as the Y-Files -- so named because real life is sometimes weirder than the X-Files.
In the past, it has featured stories on
- a determined retired fireman doing construction work, who stubbornly tackled the task of digging out a blocked chimney -- where he found a skeleton "with fake fingernails"
- a man who (on April Fool's Day, of all things) accidentally dialed 911 from the cell phone in his pants (the pants wer tight, the cell phone had a feature to dial 911 if you held down the 9), and unwittingly broadcast to a police dispatcher the plans he and a friend were making for a little B&E at a local business
- the man who set fire to his house to get his visitors to leave
- the family that kept grandma in an air-conditioned room, propped up in a chair, "watching" TV for a few years after she had died, because "that was her wish"
- the fellow who warned police (who showed up after he had fired shots toward his neighbor's house) that they shouldn't jump to conclusions about his mother's body being in his freezer.
Today, though, we had the rare felicity of two stories with a fashion theme. One was of the young man in Ohio, who with his mother's help, stole a 30-inch baby boa constrictor by wrapping the snake around his neck like the feather kind of boa, and hiding it with his jacket. You'll love to read how they were caught.
The other concerned a bomb -- fortunely discovered by the workers at a Sheboygan Falls Wisconsin laundry facility before it exploded -- apparently a customer who had other plans for it accidentally left it in his clothing.
This is the sort of thing you just can't put into books without a hell of a lot of set up.
Friday, January 05, 2007
Donoghue's dilemma is being faced by coroners and medical examiners all across the country.
Donoghue, a lifelong Chicagoan, is moving to Savannah, Ga., where he'll serve as a regional medical examiner for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation....
Until recently, he said, he was only contemplating retirement. But proposed budget cuts in Cook County - he oversees an office with an $8.6 million budget to process about 10,000 death certificates and perform about 4,000 autopsies annually - tipped the decision, he said.
"They say stick to your core mission, but we don't really have any elective programs," said Donoghue, who fears a proposed 17 percent cut would delay the release of bodies to funeral homes and processing of death certificates.
Toxicology tests, which now take 60 to 90 days and are crucial to criminal investigations, also might take longer if the office is not properly funded, Donoghue said....
The delay of a death certificate can have a huge negative financial effect (almost all financial processes after a death require a death certificate) on a family already struggling with the loss of a loved one.
The next time someone tells you that what coroners and MEs do can wait, because its all about dead people who aren't going anywhere, think of those families.
And you might also think about how many lives may have been saved over the last two decades by tamper-resistant packaging -- in 1982, Donoghue's office discovered that seven mysterious deaths were caused by a malicious person who placed Tylenol tainted with cyanide on grocery store shelves, where it was bought and taken by unsuspecting consumers.
Thursday, January 04, 2007
Lois made a comment about my Get Human post, and it brought back a memory of one of my most ludicrous experiences with an automated call. I was trying to book a train ride from New York to Washington D.C., and when I called Amtrak, I got "Julie, Amtrak's Automated Agent." (If you want an introduction of your own, call 1-800-USARAIL.)
Feel free to offer your own views on the bizarreness of pretending the computer is a woman, or to go into a guessing game about how its name was chosen (what old girlfriend of the head of Amtrak's IT Department is feeling murderous now, whether the woman whose voice is used was really named Julie, what acronym went awry, whether it's Juli, Julie, Julee, Jewelee, Joolie...).
On this occasion, I apparently called just as the mail was delivered while an army of dogwalkers went parading past my house, or someone actually did herd cats and gathered them on my front lawn, because Britches went berserk.
As you can see from the photo above, he's a big dog. What you can't see is that he has a deep, resounding, don't-mess-with-me bark. It fills the house, and since it goes from zero to 8 billion decibels in nothing flat, routinely causes his humans to clutch at their chests.
So instead of hearing me, Amtrak Julie heard Britches.
The conversation went something like this:
AJ: What time of day do you wish to travel?
AJ: I'm sorry, I didn't understand your response. What time of day do you wish to travel? You can name a specific time, or just say "morning," "afternoon," or "evening."
B: Rwow! Rwow! Grrrrr.
AJ: I apologize. I still didn't understand your response.
This went on until I stopped laughing and hung up. I booked the train online -- my Mac doesn't respond to barking. Which is a good thing, or heaven knows what the mutts would order while I'm out of town.
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
I know, I know. You're saying, what kind of blogger are you, Burke? You haven't had anything (silly or otherwise) to say in more than a week now.
Not true. I just haven't written it here on my blog.
And that doesn't mean I haven't been thinking of you. I have.
It's just that at this point in my life, it seems I start almost every year by falling behind. The truth is, I'm still dealing with a whole lot of the To Do List from 2006 , and I have noticed that finishing those items hasn't done a thing to mark off items on the 2007 list.
Yesterday's major accomplishment was getting the Christmas lights off the house. They still aren't up in the attic, but at least I'm not among those folks who will be trying to decide if it's worth the effort in August.
Today, I woke up hoping to do some work on my book. Remembered that I had a conference call meeting about the CLP, and a phone interview to do, in preparation for an event in San Clemente. Then there were the e-mails unanswered from December, a receipt that needed to be faxed (someone had waited patiently for it since November), and additional arrangements to be made for the Friday forensic science panels at Left Coast Crime. Here I am at 10:59 PM, about to sign off here and do some writing.
I'm not really complaining. I like being busy, or I wouldn't be. I also like to have lazy time, and I'll confess that I had some of that today, too. A really long, hot bubble bath. Lunch with Tim. A nap. I'll be writing into the night, my natural time to do that. It's all good.
Oh heck -- I just remembered a couple of calls I forgot to make. But I don't think they'd appreciate getting them at...oh, 11:08 PM now.
Hope your New Year is Happy, and just as busy as you want it to be.
Photo above from morguefile.com, courtesy of peachyqueen.