Crime scenes are the most interesting part of forensic science. You get to actually see the setting instead of individual, out-of-context pieces of evidence, and picture how it all went down. And it gets you out of the bloody lab.
They’re also the biggest pain in the neck. They’re never anyplace fun like a shopping mall or a museum, they’re places that are cold, muddy, or unbelievably filthy. They’re abandoned apartments crawling with cockroaches, streets where you automatically keep your head ducked just in case anyone decides to take a shot, houses that make you tsk and say, “I can’t believe anyone lives like this.”
I could write a book on houses. If you ever think your own place is a little messy, you should see the places I’ve seen. This crosses all ethnic, cultural, gender, psychological and economic lines. I guess some people are comfortable with clutter—imagine if you took everything out of all your closets and all your drawers, scattered it over the floor, and lived like that day in and day out—and some aren’t. This may sound like simply a pet peeve, but it actually complicates the investigation. How do you tell if something was ransacked? How do you tell what’s out of place?
In short, crime scenes should be glamorous, but they’re not. For one thing you usually don’t have more than a two-minute warning. Dispatch calls, and you’re given a sketchy summary (half of which will, more often than not, be wrong) and an address. For another, all the work that you planned to get done that day is not done by someone else in your absence—it’s still waiting for you when you come back, and your boss doesn’t care that you had to go.
The fun thing about crime scenes is that each one is different and, again, it gets you out of the lab. The pain-in-the-neck thing about crime scenes is that each one is different, and you can’t be positive that you’ve gotten every piece of relevant information. How do you know if the matchbook sitting on the windowsill was put there by the teenage son three weeks ago, or if the killer set it there while he waited for the victim? How do you know if the oversized pair of shorts on top of the laundry pile was for the victim’s ‘fat days’ or if they were left there by an irate, departing boyfriend? How do you know one of the forty thousand cards in the victim’s collection doesn’t contain the killer’s fingerprint? Answer: you don’t. You have to collect what seems reasonable to collect, and leave it at that. You can only do your best. Remember that during the exhaustive investigation of the Charles Manson murders, there was a pair of glasses left in Sharon Tate’s house that no one ever identified.
You never get all the answers.
Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. As a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s a certified latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral Police Department. Her books have been translated into six languages. Evidence of Murder reached the NYT mass market Best Sellers list.