One of the most frequently asked questions I am asked by fans is, "How do I get into forensics? What courses should I take? What should I get a degree in?"
The first thing that’s helpful to understand is the term “forensics” itself. Forensics is the process of applying a specific science to law. There are more sciences involved in forensics than you’d think... and they are usually under two large categories: Biological and Integrated. You could also add another category: Information Technology (IT). Most of the fields require a certain amount of training in science so if you want to get into forensics, start thinking scientifically, first!
Forensics has been well publicized over the last fifteen years or so and the portrayals on TV often give the impression that science holds the answer to all investigations. The scientific method is primarily used in forensic investigation, of course, along with meticulous detection, documentation and collection which is the major role of police and crime scene investigators. We are often required to testify as an expert witness, and must be qualified in a specific field of science in order to do so.
I’m a medical legal death investigator. That means I must have a knowledge of both the scientific method and the biological sciences. The data I need to tell the story of how and why a person died comes from an understanding the human body- both its anatomy and physiology. I must also understand odontology, entomology, radiography, taphonomy, toxicology, blood pattern analysis and DNA. In any of the integrated sciences there are a broad number of scientific studies in which the investigator needs to understand the data received from various experts. The data forms a web, with each aspect connected to another. The interpretive skill comes from making the connections.
A good scientist also understands the process of falsifiability. This means you form a hypothesis and then challenge it by testing and realigning your thinking to the data from your experiments. All of this requires learning the language of each particular science. If you want to go into police work, then a major in college like “Criminal Justice” is good, but may limit your options. (You may not get the job with a police agency. Security jobs pay almost minimum wage which is not very appealing considering student debt payments.) What is most needed in today’s society is the ability to think using deductive and inductive critical reasoning.
I can’t place enough emphasis on the importance of having a STEM background. STEM stands for a curriculum with emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math. With this broad base, you can pursue a forensic minor, and learn how to apply scientific knowledge to law.
Even if you can’t immediately enter a forensic position you can work in a scientific field in any number of positions in industry, research, medicine and government.
Dr. Robert Furey and I designed a forensics program at Harrisburg University School of Science and Technology. Our primary aim was to provide a major in the field of science and technology that was interesting for students and really engages them.
It’s a work in progress and a labor of love.
Today I remember the largest, most profound crime scene I have ever experienced. I was called to New York about a month after the horrors that happened on this day. A whole team of us, trained in Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, provided support to New York’s Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance (POPPA).
The POPPA Organization Office was right near the World Trade Center and 9/11 presented it with an overwhelming demand for response and action. POPPA had to deploy volunteer Critical Incident Stress teams as well as mental health professionals, all within a short period of time and under great strain. Teams of volunteers, of which I was a part, were sent to help people cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, including officers who had worked at Ground Zero, the World Trade Center morgues, or in the retrieval operation at the Staten Island landfill. It is incredible to recall the professionalism, compassion and fortitude of those working there.
Studies have shown that when one is debriefed or can talk to a peer about their situation, it improves the chances of them being able to handle the aftermath of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We were the first line of this process and we also worked the scene both at Ground Zero and at the landfill where there was an endless search for tissue, ID, and other artifacts. It was the largest crime scene in American history and the longest burning structure fire in America. I have seen humans perish in every possible way, but I never saw a death scene like that one. To this day September 11th brings back so much emotion it is hard to describe.
I will never forget walking up to St. Paul’s Chapel on Wall Street, and passing the old church yard cemetery. The tombstones were almost completely covered to their crescent tops with about two feet of grey, heavy, toxic dust. It looked like the cemetery was captured in a black and white photo of a snowstorm. A cosmopolitan power center had been reduced to dust. There was evidence of great melted and curved steel girders, rebar and some chucks of cement...but mostly there was dust; grey horrific dust... and the thought of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
The city changed on September 11 and so did America. There was a clear reminder of that which is temporal and that which is immortal. People for a period of a year or so thought about the lasting values of truth and soul. People in movie theaters and meeting places would say, “God bless America.” Life kind of returned to a more basic premise, as communities helped their neighbors bury the dead. Sadly, in our busy world we have short memories from one week to the next and we forget the lessons learned that day. Life once again becomes about “me.” We now fight and fester over our differences rather than our common bond as human, mortal beings--Americans with a common dedication to freedom.
I remember sitting in St. Paul’s sanctuary. It was quiet even though it was full. Some people just stared and pondered their experience and others slept sitting up, exhausted. I thought about April 6th 1789 when George Washington came to this very church and expressed his thought that “Providence” was the reason American succeeded in conquering the British army. He believed, without defining it, that a great power was involved in this human experiment.
It is important that we learn our lessons from “Providence” both in victory and in distress. May we never forget the brave men and women who served our country, and all those who lost their lives, in the largest crime scene in American history.
It’s never easy, and certainly not common, to exhume a body. In the case of Robert Curley, however, it was imperative to finding out the truth surrounding his death. The trace evidence provided in a single strand of hair told the whole story.
Trace evidence is evidence so small that it is hard to see without magnification or enhancements such as alternative light spectrums or chemical treatment. A pioneer in this was Dr. Edmond Locard, who applied scientific methods to the interpretation of trace evidence. Locard’s exchange principle states that “every contact leaves a trace.” Meaning that a criminal will always (unknowingly) bring something on to the crime scene, and leave the crime scene with something.
A common item used in trace evidence is hair. Not only is it a valuable factor in the exchange principle, but a single strand of hair contains an incredible amount of information. We pull head hair on every homicide, especially in cases where long-term drug exposure is in question, or when needed for identification purposes. Some basic questions we must ask: Does the hair belong to the perpetrator or the victim? Was the hair cut or pulled? Is the sample good enough for DNA studies?
Information contained in hair was so important in this case, that it led to the decision to exhume the corpse. Despite atrophy of the body after years of being buried, we were able to retrieve a hair sample to perform hair segmentation analysis. Hair grows at a standard rate in humans, about 1.25cm a month. Certain drugs and heavy metal will cause lines in a hair follicle at the point of ingestion. It was clear in the case of Mr. Curley that he had ingested thallium salts, which a strand of his hair recorded, line by line. Given the constant rate of hair growth, we could go back from the closest marking on the hair to the scalp and do a retrogression analysis to observe the number and times of the exposure to the poison.
A strand of hair provided a virtual road map to the victim’s suffering and ultimately his murder. In this way, the body spoke to me from the grave.
More than once I have explained that my senses are heightened when I approach a crime scene. This is also true when I open a folder and review a case for the final declaration of death. I concentrate on data and the relationship between one fact and another. In short, I am looking for patterns, which give me the “why” of how things happened.
In this episode, blood patterns played an integral role in understanding what happened in Sam’s apartment. I had to examine the nature of each blood spatter pattern on two levels: macroscopically and microscopically. This is a fancy way of saying that I studied the overall scene and then studied the nature of each blood pattern to determine what they revealed about the movement of the players in the room.
This process told me that the assault started at the door. Sam had opened the door and was immediately attacked frontally. Finally, the attack move deeper into the room, with the last stab wound most likely in his final moments of struggle.
Wound patterns on the body that were examined in the autopsy are also very important. As my forensic pathologist and I studied the body we were able to determine the approximate length of the knife and also that it was a single-edged blade. We were also able to compare the lack of defensive wounds on Sam’s body and concurred that this was consistent with the blood pattern analysis. So you can see that once all data is collected, investigators move from the “how” to the “why,” looking at the macroscopic picture of the whole scene, not just its individual parts.
I noticed on social media during the show that there was a good deal of conversation about the subsequent sentencing of all those involved in the death of Samuel Gore. His ex-wife was a suspect, but it was determined that there was not enough evidence to convict her as a participant in the murder. We must understand the high threshold that is required in criminal court: beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil cases where only monetary damages are involved there is a lesser requirement for conviction, which is the preponderance of the evidence, meaning the weight of the evidence. In other words, it’s like a scale.
One of the most famous cases in criminal history was the O.J. Simpson trial, in which he was acquitted in criminal court because of faulty forensic processing, which left a reasonable doubt. He was later convicted in civil court due to the preponderance of the evidence.
I believe in this strict standard in criminal court because of the disastrous consequences of being convicted for a crime you never did, even to death.
Thanks so much for watching. You've made this show a success and I couldn’t be more grateful.
A little boy is walking along a beach where many starfish have been stranded by the tide, certain to perish in the hot sun. The boy observes an old man bending down to carefully pick up the starfish, throwing each one back into the ocean. The boy ponders the futility of the action, given the large amount of starfish, and the reality that the next incoming tide would likely bring them back in again. He approaches the old man. “Why are you trying to save the starfish? You can’t possibly save them all and the tide will only bring more back in. What does it matter?”
The old man slowly turned towards the boy, clasping another starfish. “You’re right. I can’t save them all... but I can save that one.” He gazed into the horizon as he threw the starfish back into the ocean. “It matters to that one.”
The effort did mean something to those he tossed back into the sea of life. We do what we can to make the world better. Our efforts and their outcomes are never perfect or guaranteed, but they are meaningful. We must take action with no attachment to the outcome, but a faith in the inherent goodness of the deed.
Most of my life I have been involved in service to our country or the community. I say this not to toot my own horn, but because much of my life and duties have been public or community service-oriented. I owe this largely to my father. He embodied pastor and author Rick Warren’s adage that “the purpose of influence is to help those who have none.”
One of my projects has been a non-profit that my wife and others founded about fifteen years ago called Estamos Unidos de Pennsylvania. The purpose of the organization is to help others help themselves through education. Projects like these plus my work at the Coroner’s office fill most of my waking hours. Even so, sometimes it feels like I am not really making much of a difference. But recently, I was reminded of the power in the meaning of the starfish story. A special starfish resurfaced in the past weeks. His name is Nelson.
Years ago, I was helping to give out scholastic scholarships to Estamos Unidos candidates. One went to a long-term heroin addict who successfully beat his addiction, had gone back to school and was now being awarded our scholarship. He told me the story of how he had been an addict for about fourteen years. He explained that first he blamed the police...then he blamed the dealer.... until finally he blamed himself—Nelson, and was able to take full responsibility for his life and actions. Through introspection of the subconscious triggers that had facilitated his addictive patterns, he broke through what tragically, many, many people cannot. He had tears in his eyes as he told me that he had just bought a home and was on his way to getting his MSW in Social Work so that he could work at a drug-free clinic.
Fast-forward many years later to last month, when I was a keynote speaker at a Central Pennsylvania Addictions Conference. During my presentation, I told the story of Nelson to an audience of about three hundred people. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a man gesturing to me, grinning and pointing at his nametag. It was Nelson. I was dumbfounded; I had not seen him in years. Nelson was at the conference representing the Spanish American Civic Association, where he works as a counselor, changing the lives of many who need a guide on the path to recovery and sobriety.
Now, whenever I feel discouraged, I think of Nelson, who is not only my “starfish” but a true star, in the community and beyond. Maybe I couldn’t reach them all, but Nelson made it and now he, in turn, walks along the beach and does what he can to make a difference. Carefully picking up each and every one of those lives, examining them with love.
Never tire of doing good because you never know how many lives you can impact, in ways you can’t begin to imagine. Surrender the outcome of your actions...have faith in the good intention behind the action itself.
Did you ever walk through your house and just out of the corner of your eye something seems out of place? It could be a picture on the wall slightly askew or maybe a chair that’s just a little closer to the fireplace. Your peripheral vision is continually reading patterns in your environment and sends deviations of those patterns to your frontal lobes asking for an explanation. Patterns are what forensic investigation is all about.
Every time I duck under the yellow line of crime scene tape, my senses heighten. I have formats or decision trees I follow for all types of deaths from heart-related natural deaths to brutal homicides. The formats contain patterns and through the comparison of patterns the direction of my investigation starts to take shape.
One of the most instructive testimonies I have ever witnessed was from a great pathologist, Vincent DiMaio. He is truly a leader in modern forensic pathology. In his testimony, he pointed out that yes, he was a trained medical doctor but if you were sick you wouldn’t want him for the cure. Dr. DiMaio’s focus is in describing a disease or a trauma, not treating it. He is also specialized in the recognition of gunshot wounds.
In his testimony, he discussed a gunshot wound to the chest. He explained the body position of the person when he was shot and how far away the gun was from his chest when it went off. He did this through an analysis of gunshot residue on the victim’s chest and an artifact called gunshot tattooing. The tattooing happens when unburnt gun powder marks the skin from its fiery contact. His analysis and description was based on science, meaning that through experimentation he could duplicate the results, thus proving his theory.
In one of the upcoming episodes of season two, I do the same testing as Dr. DiMaio, which is called the white board test. It enables me to approximate the distance of the gun from the subject. I should note that Dr. DiMaio wrote the premier book of the study of gunshot wounds called “Gunshot Wounds: Practical Aspects of Firearms, Ballistics, and Forensic Techniques.” Forensics owes him a great debt of gratitude.
Looking forward to sharing this case study analysis with you next season. . .so stay tuned for more!
We are currently filming for the second season (!) and my day-to-day now involves a lot of interaction between two teams: my medical legal death investigative team and the production team from Discovery. It struck me the other day how similar the skill sets are that are needed to both tell the story of the deceased, and portray it to a TV audience. Both teams function with a high level of diligence, detail, and dedication.
They also have same ultimate goals:
When I am at a crime scene, I must recognize what is evidence during an investigation. I must communicate with others to tell the whole story. Each team member has his or her own special area of expertise, but also must have knowledge of all the other component and skills needed to tell the whole story. Death investigation is visual, knowledge-based and incorporates critical thinking. Likewise, producing a story about death investigation requires many of the same skill sets and the same type of dedication. Just as I know the field of pathology, but am not a pathologist, so the producers of the show must understand the thinking of the camera crew, the needs of the sound people, and the logistics of getting everyone to do what they do in a coordinated way.
I wanted to shed some light on the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes, because it really is tremendous. Death investigation is complex, as is telling the story about the investigation. First and foremost, there is the need to tell the story in a respectful way to protect the innocent and give multiple viewpoints. It requires researching hundreds of cases and determining which one is a good story, if it is appropriate, and determining whether or not it will provide insight into the death investigation process.
Once the episode is chosen, the data is put into a story form. This is a real talent; being able to interpret the information, process the meaning of each fact, and then sequence the information as it should be revealed in an hour-long episode. The story must also be told in such a way as to hold the interest of the person watching, while at the same time, educating the viewer.
As I often say, being a medical/legal investigator is a calling, not a job. It is also true of those who tell the story of my process. Their life is to bring stories to life. It is all about the story until the final cut is made and then they can breathe. The producers don’t have a nine-to-five occupation; they are busy creating a reality. I admire their dedication just as I admire the work of my deputies, police and forensic scientists.
We can’t wait to show you what we’ve been working on.
It was autopsy day at my forensic center. I arrived while it was still dark. These are long days that start early and are intense. It is my job to help with the autopsy but also record and document the findings both in written form and photographically.
As I walked into the operating suite I saw the body of a black male. He was clothed in a body bag and picked up at a hospital after having organ and tissue donation. He caught my attention because I was listening to the news on the way into work and there was noisy and senseless banter on the radio by political pundits. They were arguing about race relations. It was Martin Luther King Day, this time last year, and the debate was a non-debate by two angry individuals wed to their position, not really seeking resolution. As I gazed upon this man I thought, “how tragic.”
You see, the black man before me was almost fifty percent white and the other fifty percent was dark pigmentation. Since he had been an organ tissue donor, he had gone through the process of being a skin donor. This is a process where the outer layer of skin is removed for transplantation on those who need the protective layer because of burns or pathologies such as cancer. It struck me how absurd the perception of skin color has become a source of judgement and conflict. His gift was a prime example of the stupidity of mankind dividing itself by skin color. There is no real skin "color."
Sometimes the best thing when trying to find out someone’s positions on a subject is to go directly to the source. This is what I did when I was asked by my wife to write a speech for her for a Martin Luther King breakfast. My wife is Mexican American and very active in the inner-city charities. I used as my source “A Testament of Hope” which is a compilation of speeches and letter written by Reverend King and edited by James W. Washington. It was a revelatory read for me.
In reading his works from Birmingham prison which he penned in 1967 I found a reverent man, deeply Christian in point of few but open to the opinion and fears of others. He was a man that believed in change through moral example and embraced the work of Gandhi by making change through nonviolence. Reading the book made me realize that much of his message had been distorted by power sources that saw the movement as a solely political movement. In fact, Reverend King wanted to extract the movement from the political to a moral imperative.
The key to his movement was love not hate. He believed that we are all God’s children, created with an innate dignity no matter our station:
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well. No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”
Reverend King pointed out that man’s dignity came not from his social status but rather from his attitude towards his own self-worth and excellence. All stations in life have dignity.
In Birmingham prison he called on all men and women to action:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied." We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights.
In the above quote from a letter to clergy he made the case that evil will triumph if good men do nothing. He called on a nation to have a moral examination and change the selfishness and folly of race division and embrace each other as brothers and sisters.
As I looked at the young black white man on the gurney I thought of those who still perpetuate racism on both sides and realized that this was not King’s message but rather a message distorted by political vendors. Individuals and groups that insist to divide us by color and gender take the very opposite position of the man I regard as one of the most honorable and important men of the twentieth century. We should all read or reread his own words. His ultimate goal was a color-blind society. A society based not on melatonin but rather the dignity of each created individual. In his own words:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."…
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
We must stop classifying each other by the superficial and see each other as individuals, simply part of a greater whole.
Read his words, not the comments of others.
Have a blessed day.
The Man at the Door
If your soul had a door
With yourself on the other side
Would you recognize who’s knocking?
Would you open wide?
Would you see a person, with whom you would spend a day,
Or only an intruder, you wish would go away?
Would you want yourself to be your guest?
In the stillness of life, when all is quiet and the day is at an end,
Is the person at the door a stranger or a friend?
Recently, I had the joy of playing Santa for about nine hundred kids, for a non-profit my wife and I helped found called Estamos Unidos de Pennsylvania which provides educational scholarships and leadership opportunities for the youth in our community who otherwise don’t have access to appropriate resources or funds. This is my fifteenth year playing Santa Claus.
The organization is totally volunteer-run. The annual Christmas party for the children, called La Fiesta de Niño, started as a sub sandwich sale in the hopes of feeding some people and giving toys away for those who needed a little Christmas cheer. Over the years the project grew beyond what we could ever imagine; there is now entertainment, community-service vendors, and over a thousand gifts are donated and given away to families and children.
La Fiesta de Niño is always the day that Christmas begins for me. It is a day to remember how fortunate I am to have been given so much through my life. I had a stable home, complete with storybook Christmas Eves, tree decorating and Christmas cookies. Toys and gifts abounded and the aroma of food fill every room in the house. I fondly remember those moments. When the kids look into my eyes with such awe, I realize that most of them never will have the Christmas experience I had growing up.
I am in a curious position, being the coroner of Dauphin County. December is busy for me; homicides, drug deaths and accidents always increase over the holidays. Each day I am reminded that as songs of joy and hope play over the radio, and grocery stores and department stores fill up with last minute shoppers, there are others out there just praying for another day of survival.
We must be aware and share the gift of love for those who have never had that storybook Christmas. It is when we give that we realize that this is the greatest gift of all—knowing that we are all brother and sisters.
Happy Holidays & Merry Christmas to you and your loved ones.