Sunday, September 14, 2014

Crime Scene Plotting Gems: Info for Writers w/ USA Today Bestseller Jamie Lee Scott



USA Today bestselling author, Jamie Lee Scott joins me today.

Jamie, as you know, I love to learn how to write it right. And, like me, you like to get down and dirty with the learning process. I know that for your novella you went out on a ride along in Thibodaux, Louisiana thanks to our fellow author Police Chief Scott Silverii. And we were in classes together at the Writers' Police Academy, recently.

Before we get started sharing some of the crime scene plotting gems that you picked up, can you tell us about yournovella?
USA Today Bestselling Author, Jamie Lee Scott

Jamie Lee - 

Uncertain Beginnings -
When Sergeant Wyatt Burke goes to the house of one of his officers -  after the man doesn't check back in for duty after his dinner break - he finds him face down on the floor at the foot of his stairs inside his house. What first looks like an unfortunate accident, soon becomes a murder investigation, and takes Sergeant Burke into darker shade of blue.

Though my novella, Uncertain Beginnings, is the first in my "uniformed" police procedural series, I've written six private detective agency novels prior to this series, and I've used the information I've learned from law enforcement and crime scene investigators to write both the P.I. novels and the police procedurals.

Fiona - 
And of course we know that when you said a darker shade of blue, blue refers to cop culture. Would you say your novella is a police procedural?

Jamie Lee - 
Yes, a police procedural. I incorporated what I learned riding with Scott's cops and CSI to catch the killer in my novella. In this case, it's what you can't see that may be the evidence that solves the case.

The seed that started this series was a 12 hour night shift with the Thibodaux police. I watched, followed and listened. It helped to get the details of how cops interacted with the public and how the public interacted with them.

Fiona - 
And today we are going to be sharing gems from your CSI class.

One thing that doesn't show up in many books is that there is a series of hand offs in a criminal death (or an unexpected death).
1) The police have to give the okay that the area is safe before the
     EMT can go help someone.
2) The EMTs go in and help the injured person or declare the
    person deceased and give them a time of death. The official
    time of death is when the EMT makes the declaration and has
    nothing to do with the actual time that the person died.
3) The EMTs hand the scene over to the medical examiner or their
    representative. The ME takes pictures and conducts specific tests
    on the body that will help them to make a determination about
    whether an autopsy is required.
4) The ME hands the scene over to the detective - but the body is in
    the custody of the ME

But that's not always true.

Jamie Lee -
In my CSI class at WPA, I learned that not all states have an ME who comes to the crime scene.

The CSI unit works in tandem with the detectives to be sure the scene is processed properly and that the evidence isn't contaminated.

Many CSI investigators aren't police, they are hired companies. The CSI is a trained layperson. In this case a layperson means that they have not taken a police officer's oath.

When the detective determines there's been a crime, they call in the CSI unit, who then comes in with their gear, completely suited up. They expect anyone on the scene to be suited too. This includes booties, gloves, hair nets, white suits (Tyvek).

Fiona - 
When they enter the crime scene can you go through the CSI unit's priorities?

Jamie - 
The scene is first photographed, long distance, to get an overall picture of the scene, then middle distance, gives objects relationship to one another, then close ups.

English: A crime scene. .
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Nothing is touched until ALL photographs are taken, and CSI is satisfied.

After the initial photos, and possibly video is taken:
* Numbered tents are placed
   for possible evidence
* Items are again
   photographed. At this
   time the evidence may be
   collected. There are
   different types of 
   collection containers. 
The containers are usually paper, 
   but may be hard plastic, in the
   case of a container for a knife.

Patti Phillips, photographer "Grab the CSI Kit"

Fiona - 
What are some details that you found surprising about the packaging?

                                                               Patti Phillips, photographer "Grab the CSI Kit"

Jamie Lee - 
All wet evidence is dried before packaging, and rarely is plastic
   bag used unless there is zero % chance of mold.
* DNA is packaged in paper.
* When the evidence is sealed, it is taped. 
* The information is written across the tape, so that if there is
   tampering, it will be evident. 
* All evidence bags have handwritten Incident Report #, 
   Date sealed, Time, Initialed, #items, and new opening each
   time the package is opened.
* The information is written on the package every time it's opened,
   and the new info is again written across the tape.
*  Only CSI can touch the contents. Lawyers can look at it, but not
   touch, but then no one wants to touch if they don't have to.
* Each time the evidence bag is opened, it must be opened from a
   different side, so the original seals are never disturbed. 
* Once all of the openings are breached, that package will be put in
    a new container, to start over with the original seal.This helps
    with chain of custody.
All evidence is kept indefinitely until released by the courts.
* There are warehouses of evidence from cases that have been
   cleared by the courts, but the statute of limitations hasn't cleared,
   so the evidence is kept.

Fiona - 
Tell us about any evidence collection that was new to you - surprising. 

Jamie Lee - 
When hands are covered for evidence, they are covered with paper bags, to avoid sweating, as that will ruin any evidence.

Fiona - 
On a dead person or on the way to the hospital?

Jamie Lee - 
Any person who was at the scene and may be a witness or a suspect.

Fiona - 
Alive then - who knew!

Jamie Lee - 
We can talk about "swabbing the log"

Fiona - 
Yes, let's do that. what is it?

Jamie Lee - 
When looking for DNA evidence, you need skin.

English: Overflowing toilet
English: Overflowing toilet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If you have nothing, you can wait for your suspect to take a poop. Then you "swab the log" because there will likely be some skin shed in the process of eliminating the fecal matter.

The matter itself is worthless, but the skin cells that may have been deposited at the time of defecation can give detectives the DNA they need.

Fiona - 
Argh. So how do you stop them from flushing? And how do you swab a log?  - So awesomely gross!

Jamie - 
I'm not sure how they get the fecal matter in the first place. But if they aren't letting the suspect out of their sight, they may have them go in a facility that they've clogged, or somehow if there are "skid marks" that may hold some matter. 

Swabbing the log would consist of the same protocol as swabbing the inside of a cheek. Only I'd think they'd try very hard to swab the entire surface, as to not miss a chance at getting skin cells.

Fiona - 
And this is why I write about CSI but don't actually do CSI.
Other gems?

Jamie Lee - 
Interesting: GSR, gun shot residue will show on anyone in the room when the gun was fired.

GSR is also extremely fragile and must be processed within four hours.

The most important thing is that ANYTHING can be evidence.

Fiona - 
Give me a "for instance".

Jamie Lee - 
A person who put in a job application on Monday may come back and rob the place on Tuesday. Now you have the robber's address.

My biggest surprise was learning that they use Mylar and a form of electricity to pick up prints.

Fiona -
Wait - how do you do that with a stun gun?
Jamie Lee - 
* They place the Mylar over the fingerprint, then make the
   electrical charge with a stun gun, which lifts the print into
   the Mylar,
* The static charge on the dust particles cause the Mylar film to be
   sucked into the surface.
* T
hen the air bubbles are rolled out with a fingerprint roller, and
   the print can be examined with a light. A flashlight will work. It's
   just to make sure you got the print before you affix it to a more
   secure surface. And it absolutely can't be in contact with plastic
   because it will remove the static charge.

Fiona - 
Affixed with superglue?

Jamie - 
It is photographed immediately.

That photo is an electronically-lifted print

I know your readers enjoy video quick studies. Here's one I found on Electrostatic Footprint Lifting with Dr. Shaler. In this film he:
* Shows the film
* Shows the electrostatic lifter
* Step by step procedure including using a brayer to get rid of air
* Electrostatic print can be lifted from paper, carpet, almost any
   surface. But the print can not be made with water. It must be
   made with dust.

Fiona - 
Very fun stuff! Thanks so much Jamie Lee for stopping by ThrillWriting to share. Before you go, we always like to hear your favorite scar story.

Jamie Lee - 
I have a scar on my face, under my nose on the left side, and everyone always thinks it's a pencil mark, if they see it at all. I was in a car accident when I was 5 years old. 

My dad was driving our Riviera on a raining night, we were coming home from my grandfather's art gallery on Cannery Row in Monterey, CA, and he tried to pass a motor home. The motor home sped up, and my dad lost control of the car and hit a tree head on, I went through the windshield. Yes, I had a seat belt on, but in those days it was only a lap belt. 

The cut was on the left, and my body was black and blue on my right. I have no recall of the accident, or several days after, nor do I have any memory of my life before the accident. I'm probably one of the few kids who has no memory of kindergarten. 

Fiona -
Thank you Jamie 

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.


  1. I'm curious about this. "Many CSI investigators aren't police, they are hired companies." Do they hire companies or was the word supposed to be "contractors?"
    Also, Illinois only has a Medical Examiner system in Cook County. All others still elect a coroner who may or may not be an MD...usually not. In any case, coroners may not perform autopsies themselves so they hire forensic pathologists, often sharing them between jurisdictions. Either the coroner or deputy coroner will travel to a scene if necessary. In Cook County, I believe ME investigators handle the scene work.

  2. Great! The transferring of evidence, the custody process—seal, unseal, repeat— is a lot more complicated than one would've thought. Cool stuff!