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In the days before DNA testing became available for use in criminal cases, cops, prosecutors, judges, and juries relied on other physical evidence to send bad guys to jail—fingerprints and footprints, soil, glass fragments, trace evidence, etc. Those things along with confessions and eyewitness testimony were the building blocks used to convict the guilty.

Then, when DNA arrived on the scene, well, it soon became apparent that somehow officials had made a few boo-boos along the way and had sent more than a handful of innocent men and women to jail for crimes they didn’t commit. DNA testing of old evidence, in fact, exonerated people like our friend Ray Krone who served ten years in prison, three of which were on death row, for a murder he didn’t and couldn’t have committed.

Ray as an inmate at Arizona State Prison in Yuma

Ray Krone could’ve easily been eliminated as a suspect had DNA testing been conducted at the time of the investigation. Instead, his conviction was based on bite mark evidence, a test/examination/comparison method that’s been found to be unreliable.

DNA test results were used in court cases as early as the mid 1980s. Ray was convicted in the early 90s, without the benefit of DNA testing, a simple test that would have prevented him from serving time in prison as an honest, clean-handed man.

Nowadays, to weed out the innocent, DNA testing is routinely performed in the early stages of criminal investigations. And it helps … some. The use of DNA tests in post-conviction cases and appeals sometimes leads to exonerations, such as, for example, Ray Krone’s release from prison.

Electropherogram – a chart produced by testing equipment after DNA sequencing is completed.

Unfortunately, and what most members of juries do not understand, is that during a typical criminal investigation, in only about 10-20 percent of all cases do cops find testable biological evidence. In spite of this low percentage, some juries still expect a case to hinge on DNA results. However, without something to test, of course, there’ll be no electropherograms pointing to a specific suspect.

Sometimes, even with the presence of DNA, those results are not always definitive.

Electropheragram showing tested DNA of two subjects, and a mixture of DNA collected from a victim. Results showing a mixture make it difficult to point to any one suspect.

But let’s go back to the 10-20 percent figure, the number of cases where testable biological evidence is located and collected by investigators and then subsequently tested by laboratory scientists and other experts.

At the upper end, the 20 percent range, that leaves 80 percent of all criminal cases that are solved by using other means of crime-solving, such as the aforementioned fingerprints and footprints, soil, glass fragments, trace evidence and, of course, detectives going about the business of good old-fashioned door-knocking and talking to people. The combination of the physical evidence and confessions and eyewitness testimony is what leads to the majority of criminal convictions.

Sadly and dismally disastrous, without mostly foolproof scientifically tested evidence, courts must rely on human testimony, humans whose memories often fluctuate. Police investigators who enter a crime scene with a serious and dreaded case of tunnel vision. Prosecutors who do the same once the already skewed/tunnel-vision-tainted, unreliable witness’ flawed statement evidence is presented to them,

Overworked and underpaid public defenders aren’t always up to date on current scientific practices and the laws governing them. Those same attorneys carry heavy caseloads which stretches their time to a breaking point so thin that they can’t possibly devote the amount of time needed to decently defend their appointed clients. Their budgets are minimal, meaning expensive testing and other necessities for their clients’ defenses are practically nonexistent.

Post-conviction procedures (motion for new trials, ineffective assistance of council, appeals to address the lack of scientific testing to prove innocence) are a huge uphill climb for people who’ve been incarcerated. This is especially so for the poor.

Those of meager means often have no alternative other than to wade through prison law libraries, hoping to make sense of the legal jargon that fits their situation. They sometimes employ a jailhouse lawyer to help, paying for his services by whatever means available—cleaning his cell, cooking meals, shining shoes, and even purchasing items for them from the commissary, or having family members on the outside send money to the amateur legal eagle.

The wealthy, of course, have outside resources to help with the filing of necessary paperwork. But there’s sometimes a bad egg in this bunch, such as the high-priced, fancy-smancy defense attorney I overheard telling his client who’d just received 37 months in federal prison for possessing crack cocaine worth little more than $100, that for an additional $25,000 he could arrange to have him serve less time on home confinement. That’s fair, right?

And, there’s the Innocence Project who helps the wrongly convicted.

Aside from the obvious, there’s a real problem with the aftermath that’s sure to arise after retroactively clearing prisoners of their crimes based on DNA evidence.

Yes, when all the dust settles after all the men and women who’ve been wrongfully convicted and then cleared by the use of DNA evidence are out of prison with their recoreds expunged and their names cleared, there will still be hundreds if not thousands of people still behind bars because their convictions were based on the bad memory of a witness, a cop or prosecutor with tunnel vision, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, a mistake made at the lab during evidence analysis (mislabel an item, etc., tainted evidence, such as the accidental transfer of a fingerprint or even DNA evidence).

Someday soon there will be a false sense that DNA has cleared ALL the innocent people, leaving  those behind who  surely must be guilty of their crimes because there was no scientific evidence to prove otherwise. But we know this can’t be so. Why not? Because of human error.

Yes, it is indeed possible to transfer a fingerprint, even accidentally.

Tertiary DNA Transfer

It’s possible that DNA can be accidentally transferred from one object to another. A good example could be the killer who shares an apartment with an unsuspecting friend. He returns home after murdering someone and then tosses his blood-spatter-covered shirt into the washer along with his roommate’s clothing. The machine churns and spins through its wash cycles, an action that spreads the victim’s DNA throughout the load. Police later serve a search warrant on the home, seize the clothing, and discover the victim’s DNA on the roommate’s jeans. The innocent roommate is arrested for murder.

The list of human error possibilities is extremely long and, unfortunately, there’s no magic DNA bullet to help clear the innocent folks convicted based on an accident. Their battles are practically hopeless. Laws and courts make it nearly impossible for people already serving time to have a judge revisit their cases.

Odds are, that hopelessness follows a few of the condemned all the way to the execution chamber, where it is indeed conceivable that an innocent man could be, and most likely has been, put to death.

And, well, I suppose it’s possible that given the right/wrong circumstances, anyone, even you, could find themselves behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Proper evidence collection is a must if your protagonists have any shred of hope of winning a murder case in the fictional courtrooms you’ve fabricated solely from ink and paper.

In fact, the only chance your DNA DA has is to present fact when testifying to the make-believe judges and juries you’ve concocted in those fantasy worlds that live in the far corners of your twisted minds.

So here are a scant few basics to correct the errors I’ve found lately while reading during my personal graveyard shift, otherwise known as the hours between midnight and three when insomnia pulls my eyelids wide open.

Anyway, here’s how to properly collect and store the follow items of evidence (please do not use television as a source for this stuff!):

Cigarette butts – Do not use bare hands to collect. Instead, used gloved hands or forceps. Do not submit ashes. Always air dry the butts before packaging and, to preserve DNA, do NOT package in plastic bags or other plastic containers.

Chewing gum – Collect using forceps or gloved hands. As with cigarette butts, air dry and  then place into a clean paper envelope or similar packaging. Never use plastic bags or other plastic containers. Plastic acts as an incubator for bacteria, which could degrade or destroy DNA.

Hair – Use caution to prevent damaging the the root ball. Collect gently, using clean forceps (clean, to prevent cross-contamination of DNA). If the hair is wet or damp, air dry before packaging in paper with edges folded and sealed, or place and seal in a paper envelope.

Human or animal tissue – Collect approximately two cubic inches of red muscular tissue (if possible). As with other DNA evidence collection of solid material, use clean forceps or gloves. Remember to change gloves when handling different items to avoid cross-contamination. Place the tissue in a clean, airtight container. Never use formalin or other preservatives such as formaldahyde. When shipping to a testing lab, freeze the sample and send via overnight transportation service, packed in dry ice in a styrofoam container, or hand deliver.

Bones and teeth – Use forceps and/or gloved hands for collection. Collect whole bones if possible. Place bones and teeth in paper containers with sealed edges. Store out of light and humidity, and may be frozen if samples are previously air dried.

 

 

 

Blood and saliva –  Store out of light and humidity, and may be frozen if samples are previously air dried.

 

We’ve all seen the reports of innocent men and women who’ve been released from prison—exonerated—due to faulty evidence, cleared by DNA evidence, etc. But what was it about the evidence that robbed people of years of their lives by forcing them sit in a prison cell while completely innocent of the crimes they were accused of committing?

Let’s take a quick peek at the human hair. For many years, law enforcement collected hairs found at crime scenes and then delivered those hairs to their laboratories for examination and comparison (does the hair found match that of a suspect?).

If the examiner took a look under a microscope and then decided the hairs were indeed a solid match then his/her word was good enough for the courts. The suspect must be guilty because the scientist said that positively and without a single doubt the hair placed the defendant at the scene of the crime. Therefore, a jury or judge had all they needed to convict and send a bewildered person to prison.

Well, in 2015 the Justice Department revealed that FBI agents weren’t so sure that hair analysis was the most exact science in the world. In fact, they basically admitted that hair analysis, at best, is inconclusive. They no longer use it as a sole means to build a case against someone.

Santae Tribble was convicted of murder based on the analysis of a hair found at the crime scene. He spent more than 27 years in prison before DNA analysis of the hair proved his innocence. He was awarded  $13.2 million in his wrongful conviction lawsuit. A little something for his “minor” inconvenience.

Next comes bite-mark evidence. Not so long ago, within the past couple of years, the Presidents  Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) announced that forensic bite-mark evidence is not scientifically valid, nor is it likely to ever be validated. In other words, more junk science (skin may move after death during decomposition, skin and flesh are not stable material—may not hold a precise pattern, etc.).

Then there are tool marks, tire impressions, footwear impressions, and fingerprints. Yes, there are flaws within the testing of those items as well. Even the golden goose of all evidence—DNA—is not a perfect science.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 2155 people have been exonerated of crimes they didn’t commit. To put that in perspective … innocent people spent 18,750 years in prison due to someone’s error—flawed evidence examination, prosecutor or law enforcement mistake, evidence contamination, flawed procedures, flaws in the law, etc. 18,750 years, gone. Lives wasted.

A great example of how a flawed bite-mark examination sent an innocent man to death row is the story of our friend Ray Krone. Ray was … well, I think I’ll sit back and post Ray’s tale as he told it to me a while back.

Ray Krone Spent 10 Years on Death Row for a Crime He Didn’t Commit

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend Cheryl read a novel by Polly Iyer about a man who had been wrongfully convicted of murder, released, and then framed for a series of murders. As with all good fiction, there were elements of fact in this story. Polly’s description of the impact of wrongful convictions struck a chord with Cheryl, and she sent Polly an email saying so. That email started an exchange that led to me posting on this blog today.

My story isn’t much of a mystery, but it has twists and turns that wouldn’t make it past a fiction editor’s red pencil. Lee thought that it might be of interest to you, so here goes. I’m not a professional writer but I hope that I’ll be able to provide some useful insights into the ripples that result from sloppy police work, ineffective defense counsel, and overzealous prosecutors.

I won’t go into details about my life prior to my arrest and wrongful conviction. It was unremarkable as most lives are, except to the people who live them. I sang in the church choir, was a Boy Scout, and played team sports throughout my school years. I was never in any trouble, never even had detention in school. I grew up in a small town, joined the Air Force, and following my Honorable Discharge remained in Phoenix, AZ, my last duty station. I got a job with the United States Postal Service as a letter carrier.

Ray before his arrest for a crime he didn’t commit

At 35, I was single and living the good life. My salary allowed me to buy my own home and have lots of big boy toys—sand rail, Corvette, swimming pool. I had a loving family back in PA, and loyal friends all over the country. Little did I know that I was about to find out just how important those people were.

I’d always enjoyed team sports, and still do. A bar in my neighborhood sponsored volleyball and dart teams, and I played on both. On December 29, 1991, the owner found his night manager, Kim Ancona, on the men’s room floor. She’d been sexually assaulted and stabbed to death. A co-worker told police detectives Kim had said someone named Ray was going to help her close up that night. I had a casual acquaintance with this woman, and knew her only as a bartender and occasional dart player. She was living with a man and as far as I was concerned, that was as good as married and made her off-limits.

Detectives found my name and phone number in her address book and came to see me. It’s important to note at this point that my name and phone number were not in my handwriting or in Kim’s. How they got there remains a mystery to this day. I was questioned by the Phoenix Police, and cooperated—until I realized they were trying to pin this murder on me.  The legal wrangling is public record—you can Google my name and read countless stories about my case.

Being the one hundredth person to be wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die, only to be found factually innocent after spending years on Death Row and in prison, put me on the radar of a society that was beginning to question the value of capital punishment. My conviction was based solely on bite mark evidence. Because I refused to show remorse for a crime I didn’t commit, I was sentenced to death. After almost three years on Death Row, I was granted a new trial. I was again convicted, and sentenced to 23 years for the kidnapping, and 25 years to life for the murder. Only a random series of events would free me.  Court-ordered DNA would finally free me and identify the real killer. I spent a total of ten years, three months and eight days in prison for something I didn’t do. I was 35 when arrested and 45 when I was exonerated.

Ray as an inmate at Arizona State Prison in Yuma

The life events that other people take for granted were stolen from me, and no amount of money, sympathy or accolades will ever give me a chance to experience them. They are gone forever. Am I bitter? I try not to be—the family and friends who stood by me have helped me adjust and appreciate what I do have. I try not to focus on what I’ve been denied in this life, but what I’ve been given. I’ve learned the hardest way possible the true meaning of “you find out who your friends are.” Despite the love and support of friends and family, I still have moments when I feel rage at what happened to me, even after more than ten years of freedom.

Billboard on I-83 in Harrisburg, Pa.

There have been millions of words written and hundreds of television shows about the impact on men and women who were sentenced to die for a crime they didn’t commit. There are well-documented studies about innocent men and women who were executed in the name of justice. There are other victims of a legal system that penalizes the poor and rewards prosecutors for conviction rates without examining the accuracy of those convictions.  Not just the families of the wrongfully convicted, who often lose what little they have in the defense of their loved ones, but the families of the original victim, the new victims created by the guilty party who remains free, their families, the jurors who are denied access to all of the evidence in a case. The list goes on and on—I misspoke when I called it a ripple—it’s a tsunami, wreaking havoc and destruction, and in many cases, is preventable.

I’m part of a nationally-known group called Witness to Innocence. We have only one membership requirement, but it’s a tough one. You must have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die for a crime which you did not commit. Although many of us are unable to speak publicly about what happened to us, many others find it therapeutic to do so. We have spoken in front of groups ranging from high school students to Congress to the United Nations. We share our experiences at law schools, forensics conventions and gatherings of legal professionals—anywhere that telling our stories will help provide insight, and hopefully inspiration.

The Witness to Innocence photo above is of only some of the members. Left to right: Ray Krone, Albert Burrell, Kirk Bloodsworth, Gary Drinkard, Randy Steidl, Ron Keine, Delbert Tibbs and Derek Jamison. Each of these men (and our one female member, Sabrina Porter) have stories that defy belief, as do all of the members.

I’m honored to have been invited to address the readers of this blog. For more information about Witness to Innocence, stories of exoneration or speaker’s schedules, please visit www.witnesstoinnocence.org


According to the Innocence Project, since 1989, 353 people have been exonerated of their crimes based on DNA. Twenty of those people served time on death row.

A Murder.

No known suspect.

Evidence collection.

Let’s run down our checklist to be certain we’ve gathered everything because, as you all know, the crime-solving clock is ticking nonstop and valuable time is slipping away, and so is the killer.

Let’s see, we’ve got fibers, bullet casings, fingerprints, weapon, clothing, glass fragments, shoes, shoe and tire impressions, photographed everything, and … “Hey, somebody catch that mosquito. We need to take it in for questioning. It may know something.”

CSI Frank the Fingerprint Guy rushes out to the official CSI van to grab the Handy-Dandy Mosquito-Catching Net 700 (the model one-up from the 600 series) and sets out on the mission of snagging the elusive biting bug.

It’s on the ceiling. Now the wall by the light switch. Back on the ceiling, on the curtains, the window, the blinds, the ceiling again, and now … Got It!

Frank the Fingerprint Guy gently transfers the bloodsucker into a container that’s safe for transport and then off they go to the lab to see what this little guy can tell them about the crime of murder. Who knows, the insect may even be able to provide the name of the murderer.

That’s right, mosquitos are indeed able to spill the beans about a criminal’s identity, and here’s how.

First, what is it that so many jurors like to hear about? Yep, DNA.

You can talk until you’re blue in the face about all the fancy footwork and door-knocking and interviews and bullet trajectory, and more, but that’s not what makes jurors salivate like they do when they hear you found the suspect’s DNA at the crime scene. That’s the golden goose. The bestest prize what there ever was. DNA. DNA. DNA. Give ’em D-freakin’-N-A!

And what is that mosquitos enjoy more than buzzing around the ears of evening picnickers? Yes, feeding on human blood! And what’s found in human blood? Yes, DNA! Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner!

Scientists have learned that blood extracted from mosquitoes remains viable for DNA analysis up to two days after feeding. Therefore, a savvy crime scene investigator could save the day by simply catching mosquitos found flitting about at crime scenes.

A quick DNA test of the blood found in the belly of the bug could quite easily reveal the name of the killer (if his information is in the system), and how cool would it be to bring in Mr. I. Done Kiltem and notice he has a fresh mosquito bite on his cheek? I know, right?

At the very least, the DNA test could tell police who was at the crime scene. Might not be the killer’s blood in the bug’s belly, but it could be that of an accomplice or witness or someone who could help establish a timeline. Either way, Bug Belly Blood could prove to be a bit of extremely valuable evidence.

Imagine the headline …

Bandit Bagged By Bug Belly Blood

Unfortunately, the window for DNA testing of blood in a mosquito’s gut is limited to two days because the blood is completely digested by day three.

 

Think you have your police procedure correct? No mistakes? Well, here are 17 Facts About Police, Evidence, and Equipment. Let’s test the knowledge of your protagonists, starting with …

1. Revolvers do not eject spent brass with each pull of the trigger. Semi- and fully-automatic firearms, however, do eject spent brass.

Revolvers v. Pistols

2. Handcuffs are equipped with two locks. The first is the automatic lock that connects when the pawl hooks to the ratchet. This allows the officer to apply cuffs to the wrists of combative suspects without having to fumble around while trying to locate a lock, insert a key, etc., while the bad guy is throwing punches to the officer’s nose and jaw.

The second lock (double-lock), a button inset, is found on the underside of the body of the cuff near where the end of the ratchet exits the cuff body.

3. Speed Loaders https://www.leelofland.com/dump-pouches-v-speed-loaders/

4. Vehicles rarely, if ever, explode when hit by gunfire.

5. DNA evidence is NOT used to convict defendants in every criminal case.

DNA Facts:

Identical twins have identical DNA.

Humans are genetically 99.9% identical. Only 0.1% of our genetic makeup is different.

It takes about eight hours for one cell to copy its own DNA.

Red blood cells do not contain DNA.

DNA is used to determine pedigree in livestock.

DNA is used to authenticate wine and caviar.

Detergent and Alcohol will not destroy DNA.

DNA can be transferred from article of clothing to another, even in a washing machine. This is called secondary and tertiary transfer.

DNA testing is not 100% accurate.

6. The FBI does not take over cases from local police. They do not have that authority. Besides, they have their own cases to work, which do not include local murder cases. Those cases are worked by local police.

7. Kevlar vests worn by patrol officers (or similar types) are not designed to stop punctures from knives and other sharp objects. There are, however, other types of vests designed for those purposes, such as the vests worn by corrections officers working in jails and prisons.

8. Cops are not required to advise a suspect of Miranda (you have the right to … etc.) the moment they arrest someone. Instead, Miranda is advised only when suspects are in custody AND prior to questioning. No questioning = no advisement of Miranda. Some departments may have policies that require Miranda advisement at the time of arrest but it not required by law.

9. Police officers are not required by law (in every state) to wear seat belts while operating a police car. In fact, some state laws also allow certain delivery drivers to skip buckling up (USPS letter carriers, for example).

10. Not all deputy sheriffs are sworn police officers. For example, most deputies who work in the jails are not police officers.

11. Some California sheriffs also serve as county coroner. However, they are not medical doctors. They employ pathologists who perform autopsies.

12. Small town police departments investigate murder cases that occur within their jurisdictions. Not the FBI or Jessica Fletcher. If they need additional resources they reach out to the local sheriff’s office or state police. Again, this is not the job of the FBI. Sure, if they’re needed they’ll assist.

All police officers are trained to investigate crime, and small town officers investigate homicides all the time.

13. Robbery and burglary are not synonymous.

Many people confuse the terms robbery and burglary. I see the misuse of those two terms everywhere, including in books written by some of my favorite authors. I also hear the terms interchanged on TV and radio news. They are not the same, not even close.

Robbery occurs when a crook uses physical force, threat, or intimidation to steal someone’s property. If the robber uses a weapon the crime becomes armed robbery, or aggravated robbery, depending on local law. There is always a victim present during a robbery.

For example, you are walking down the street and a guy brandishes a handgun and demands your money. That’s robbery.

Burglary is an unlawful entry into any building with the intent to commit a crime. Normally, there is no one inside the building when a burglary occurs. No physical breaking and entering is required to commit a burglary. A simple trespass through an open door or window and the theft of an item or items is all that’s necessary to meet the requirements to be charged with burglary.

For example, you are out for the night and someone breaks into your home and steals your television. That’s a burglary. Even if you are at home asleep in your bed when the same crime occurs, it’s a burglary because you weren’t actually threatened by anyone.

14. Narcotics dogs are NOT fed drugs of any type during their training. Never. Not ever. NO. No. And NO!

15. Shotguns and rifles are not not synonymous.

Rifle v. Shotgun

16. Police officers are NEVER trained to “shoot to kill.” Instead, they’re taught to stop the threat. When the threat no longer exists the shooting stops, if it ever starts. Often, the threat ceases before shots are fired.

17. Cops are not trained to aim for arms, legs, and/or to shoot a knife or gun from a suspect’s hand.

Instead, officers are taught to shoot center mass of their target. It is extremely difficult to hit small, moving targets while under duress. Again, officers DO NOT shoot hands, legs, elbows, or weapons (well, not on purpose).

Shoot to Wound? No Way!

*Click the highlighted links above for additional information.

Fingerprinting birds. Sounds crazy, right? I mean, why would someone need to lift a print from a bird? Would an Emu stand still while a crime scene investigator dumped fingerprint powder on it’s beak? Probably not.

Have a seat for a moment and I’ll explain. This is good stuff, starting with …

Chicken Thieves

Years ago, chicken thieves were considered as the lowest of all crooks. After all, stealing someone’s chickens was to take away a family’s source of meat and eggs and even income if the farmer sold his birds to help make ends meet.

Therefore, it was not at all unusual for the local sheriff to receive a call about the shooting of a chicken thief. That sort of “farm justice” was unofficially permitted back in the day, because, well, why not?

Eggers

But it was easier to catch chicken thieves back then than it is to catch modern day bird bandits, the bad guys who poach or kill birds of prey and/or steal their eggs. The eggs, by the way, are most often sold to collectors known as “eggers.”

Eggers go to great lengths to obtain their prizes, climbing tall trees to reach hidden nests and venturing into other even more dangerous situations. For example, in 2006, a 63-year-old egger named Colin Watson fell to his death while climbing a 40-ft tree in search of eggs. Watson, by the way, had been convicted six times in the past, and for over twenty years was on the radar of authorities.

During a raid in 1995, police discovered a collection of over 2,000 eggs in Watson’s home.

The number of egg collectors has decreased over the years; however, the poaching of birds of prey has increased. Many of those killing these magnificent animals are ranchers and farmers who shoot, trap, and poison the birds who hunt on their land.

In the past, all officials could do was to collect the bodies of dead birds, many of which were discovered in odd places, places where deceased birds shouldn’t be found—at the bottoms of ravines, etc. In other words, they were found in locations and in positions that made it obvious they were placed or tossed there by humans who were attempting to hide their crimes.

DNA

DNA and toxicology testing are extremely valuable when investigating crimes involving wildlife (toxicology tells us an animal was poisoned and DNA can help establish whether an animal was involved in an attack, or not), but they’re not useful when it comes to pointing toward a lawbreaker. So …

A PhD student, Helen McMorris, at Abertay University (Dundee) has found a means to develop and record human fingerprints on bird feathers. The exciting discovery will now assist law enforcement with their investigations

In a recent interview, McMorris said, “The structure of a feather is very similar to the fine weave structure of some fabrics such as silk. It has recently been found that fabric with a thread count of three per millimetre can sustain a fingermark or grab mark and, after microscopic examination, it was found that bird of prey feathers have a barb count of three per millimetre, suggesting that they could sustain a fingermark.”

During her research, McMorris found that green and red magnetic-fluorescent fingerprint powder produced the best results when excited with a blue wavelength of light and viewed through a yellow filter. Doing so causes prints to fluoresce.

Bingo! If the person’s prints are on file, well, police would then have their suspect. At the very least, a fingerprint on a wild bird of prey’s feathers 100% proves a human touched the animal, telling authorities it was most likely man, not natural causes, that killed the bird.

There’s more to evidence collection than merely bagging and tagging bloody clothing and spent bullet casings. Crime scene techs are highly trained, skilled members of police agencies and forensic laboratories who more often than not provide the keys to solving cases.

In the “good old days,” many officers, including patrol officers (some still do, especially in smaller departments), collected their own evidence. They plodded into and poked around crime scenes, determining what items they thought might be of some value, and then tossed those things into some sort of containers—grocery bags, envelopes, boxes, and even the cellophane wrappings from cigarette packs. In those days there wasn’t a lot of consideration for sterility, and DNA hadn’t yet made it’s way on the scene.

When investigators finally discovered plastic sandwich and ziplock bags you’d have thought they’d won the lottery, because packaging evidence had suddenly become a breeze. The problem with those new-fangled containers, though, was that detectives were placing everything in them, not knowing they could be destroying or damaging evidence instead of preserving it. And that brings us to the question of Paper or Plastic?

There’s a simple rule of thumb for deciding which type of evidence packaging—wet evidence goes in paper containers (wet evidence can degrade if placed inside plastic containers) and dry evidence goes in plastic. Items that could be cross-contaminated must be packaged separately. There’s a rule of thumb for other types of evidence, too, and here’s a handy list for the proper packaging of those items.

Hair – Double packaging in paper is best. However, if the hair is completely dry, plastic will work in a pinch. Hairs recovered from different locations must be packaged separately and labeled accordingly. Tape all packaging seams.

Fibers – Dry, and tape-lifted, fibers may be placed inside plastic containers.

Rope, twine, and other cordage – Paper or plastic.

Paint chips – Place inside folded paper. Then place the paperfold inside an envelope.

Tools – Paper or cardboard.

Tape – Wear non-powdered gloves when handling tape. Submit samples inside plastic. If the tape is stuck to an item the item must be submitted with the tape still attached. Do not remove the tape!

Glass – Wrap in paper. Smaller pieces may be placed inside appropriate size cartons.

Arson and other fire evidence – Airtight metal containers. Unused paint cans work best.

Dried stains – Wrap stained item in paper or place inside cardboard box. Large items – moisten swab with distilled water, swab the stain, and package in paper or cardboard after drying.

Blood – Allow to air dry and then package in paper.

Evidence drying lockers

DNA – NEVER use plastic!
And when I mentioned that wet evidence is packaged in paper containers I did NOT mean to pour liquids into paper bags. Instead, items that contain wet evidence (bloody and/or semen-stained clothing, etc.) should be placed into paper containers.