06 July 2014

Impossible Things Before Breakfast, 1


by Leigh Lundin

Before writing mysteries, I paid no attention to true crime. I thought it tabloid-lurid, the stuff of National Enquirer and its sisters. The only killer I could name was Richard Speck whose name figured prominently in Simon & Garfunkel’s chilling 7 O'Clock News / Silent Night.

Verisimilitude… When writing mysteries, I feel a responsibility to get details right– biology, criminology, psychology, and technology. Don’t believe this is as onerous as it sounds– I enjoy research and my peripatetic wanderings take many detours.

Go Ask Alice

“Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” said the White Queen.

I’ll ask you to believe only one today, maybe another next week and perhaps another later. First, try to imagine the curve of technology in the thousands of years of human history. My grandmothers and perhaps yours went from driving a horse and buggy to seeing spaceships land on the moon. I feel awed by the jaw-dropping upward progression of technical development that bridges these events.

DNA
In the world of crime, technology continues apace. Bad guys figure out ingenious ways of committing crimes and the good guys figure out new ways of solving them. It’s become part of our news and now part of our entertainment. People have come to except high-tech solutions. Not long ago, a lawyer told me that jurors are now conditioned to expect DNA and advanced technologies in the simplest of court cases.

Now that the human genome has been decoded, research presses forward unlocking the chromosomal language that create individual characteristics. We don’t yet know how genes do this, but we’ve come to know what they are. In the world of crime, that means a lot.

Criminalists once needed relatively sizable amounts of source material and once it was used up, that was it. Now microscopic specks can be replicated, 'photocopied' if you will, and tested to a far greater degree of accuracy. Some dream– or justifiably fear– testing for criminal chromosomes might become a dystopian reality. Indeed, states are moving forward in attempts to collect DNA from anyone who crosses paths with the law.

The Impossibility

Now for believing one impossible thing. Wrap your mind around this:
  • Victim A is violently killed.
  • Victim J is killed 3 weeks later.
  • DNA evidence suggests A killed J.
Wh-h-at?

This was the conundrum that confronted British forensic scientist Dr Mike Silverman in a 1997 case: Imagine a woman found murdered; let’s call her June. The lab found DNA under her fingernails, a nearly certain sign she scratched her killer. In fact, authorities identified the murderer as ‘April’ and they had her in custody…

On ice, in the morgue.

April, the believed killer, had been murdered a few weeks before June, her supposed victim.

Excitement at identifying the DNA became consternation. How was it possible June had fresh DNA under her nails from a woman who died nearly a month earlier?

After investigations by separate investigators, police came to believe the two women not only had never met, they had nothing in common except for the London forensic laboratory and the mortuary.

Written in Blood
System Reset

Those with training in the sciences can experience a special kind of disbelief, a crashing back to earth and sensing one’s own fallibility. A rule in science and engineering says when something goes wrong, look first to human error. Thus Dr Mike Silverman turned detective.

Could the nail samples have been mislabeled or mixed up in the lab? Dr Silverman examined the clippings with their distinctive nail varnish. They matched June’s fingernails exactly. Records showed the samples had never been checked out at the same times or by the same people. No mix up. Dr Silverman also ruled out contamination by autopsy instruments.

But wait. What about the morgue?

It turned out April’s body had been kept in the freezer during the investigation. A pathologist had taken samples of April’s nails the day before June arrived. The scissors were then routinely cleaned.

But Dr Silverman discovered the same scissors had been used to clip June’s nails. Intrigued, he wondered if cells from April had survived the cleaning and contaminated June’s samples. He tested the scissors and found DNA from three separate sources– material from three different people on supposedly clean scissors.

For the first time, researchers began to understand how powerful and sensitive DNA analysis could be. Refined DNA techniques could potentially detect the faintest touch that might leave body oils or skin cells. Criminalistics would never again be the same.

DNA

16 comments:

Dixon Hill said...

Great post, Leigh. Check this site out for more (and more frightening) information about what it takes (or perhaps doesn't take) to become a forensic expert.

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/criminal-justice/real-csi/dr-cyril-wecht-the-benefits-of-forensic-credentialing/

--Dixon

Fran Rizer said...

Leigh, DNA fascinates me as did this case. I hope you do a blog on chimerism, the sometimes situation where one person has two distinct blood types and DNA patterns,and Lydia Fairchild, whose DNA "proved" she was unrelated to children she'd birthed. Meanwhile, keep educating and entertaining me.

Louis A. Willis said...

Leigh, as usual, you have written another very interesting and informative post. I’ve been putting off reading my books on forensics, especially DNA, but now I’ll have to read them because you’ve made the subject seem so fascinating.

Leigh Lundin said...

Thank you, Dixon. I listened to the interview and am starting the article.

Fran, that's a great idea. Some of those DNA anomalies can seem confusing.

Louis, thank you. I know you already have a huge reading list.

Eve Fisher said...

Fascinating - I've heard of chimeras, and I've heard of DNA lasting far longer than anyone thought. I've also heard - thanks to the movie "I Am" - that the traces of DNA we leave behind everywhere not only last a very long time, but change as we change, an example (?) of more "spooky action at a distance" on that weird molecular and sub-molecular level. It's a very strange world below cells; But then, to quote Niels Bohr: "If quantum mechanics hasn't profoundly shocked you, you haven't understood it yet." I think that applies to DNA, too.

Leigh Lundin said...

Eve, that's a cogent comment by Bohr: I know a little more about quantum physics, but I'm blest/cursed with a weird brain. I hadn't realized that about DNA. If you have a moment, can you send me links?

Peter DiChellis said...

Great post, and the solution to your April-June mystery isn't as uncommon as popular tv shows would have us think.

A few years ago, the National Academy of Sciences issued a scathing report on forensics evidence, ripping into lax oversight at labs and the fundamental lack of reliability of many common forensics techniques. This aspect of forensics provides some superb story material - I actually used the NAS findings for a private eye story published last year. 

Leigh Lundin said...

Peter, your report (and Dixon's above) are dismaying. I'm surprised national aren't in place!

Where can we find your story, Peter?

A Broad Abroad said...

Fascinating article. Amazing strides in technology – recently, Dutch forensic experts have discovered how to accurately determine the age of fingerprints.

Peter DiChellis said...

Leigh, The NAS study recommended national standards, but as far as I know nothing moved forward. To read a no-jargon public radio summary of the findings, Google: national academy of sciences forensics "serious problems" NPR

My story was published in The Shamus Sampler private eye anthology (first volume). Because the story was positioned first in the TOC, Amazon's 'Click to Look Inside' feature covers all of it (as well as a great Reed Farrel Coleman essay on the PI subgenre). Shameless Plug: The antho is loaded with great PI stories: from JL Abramo, Bill Crider, many others!  

John Floyd said...

Great column, Leigh. As Fran said, entertaining AND educational.

Peter, congrats on the Shamus Sampler story. I'm headed over to Amazon to check it out.

David Dean said...

A good illustration of why circumstantial evidence (so discredited these days by over-reliance on DNA) remains relevant.

Jeff Baker said...

"And another thing, this stiff they just brought in? We had him in here last week!"----Morgue attendant to Kolchack, "Zombie" episode of "Kolchack, The Night Stalker." (I thought it fit the mood!) Great story!!

Leigh Lundin said...

Peter, thanks for both tips. I agree with John: Congratulations and I will read the story!

ABA, you’re right. That’s certainly going to change criminalistics.

Thanks, John, I appreciate it.

Good point, David. At times fingerprints and DNA simply aren’t available.

Jeff, that Kolchack comment is hilarious. Thank you.

Dixon Hill said...

Jeff, I think I saw that Kolchack episode last month on NetFlix. Gotta love that stuff! LOL

--Dixon

CarolynJenkins said...

Science was not my best subject in school. But now you give me a reason to start reading up on DNA. Very interesting article. Very interesting DNA mystery. What seems impossible is very possible.