Posts Tagged ‘Robert Jones’


December 19th, 2008 4 comments

Although I had an essay prepared to submit this morning, I think many readers might find a recent e-mail to be an interesting substitute.  It describes a recent and much-publicized event to which fictional accounts we might have read and seen in various media, or perhaps might even have written, bear a strong resemblance.  This account describes a real event as witnessed from the unique perspective of someone caught in the terrifying midst of it.  The author is an airline pilot who was on layover in Mumbai, India just a few days ago.

Sent: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 6:31 PM

Subject: “Not a very normal” layover in Mumbai!

One of those “not very normal” layovers in Mumbai! From a pilot
that earned his pay on that trip!!

To all my friends and relatives:

It has been a week since F/A Daryl and I were released from the
Trident/Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai, India.

First, a sincere and heartfelt “Thank you” to all for keeping us in
your thoughts and prayers. Believe me when I say, “we needed them!”

Here’s my story: Timeline starts Wednesday night 26 NOV (all times
local BOM)

2100:  Returned alone from dinner(luckily not Leopold’s).  Headed down
to 10th floor aircrew lounge to use the computer.

Made a couple of calls to the USA using Skype connection.
Read more…


July 19th, 2008 6 comments

The subject of this essay was suggested by one of our readers named Fotini, whom I thank.

Systems designed by nature are sometimes less than perfect, and those designed by humans are ocertainly not perfect. An example is our criminal justice system.

A 1995 book describing a 10-year study of evidence and assessments gathered from criminal justice system personnel indicated that approximately 0.5 percent of persons convicted of felonies were probably innocent. If the estimate is accurate, that amounts to some 10,000 innocent persons per year being incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. Understandably, officials complained that the rate estimate was unreasonably high.

Then, along came DNA testing. Based on DNA analysis, a more recent book placed the estimated rate of innocent persons being convicted close to 10 percent. Pretrial tests performed at the FBI and other crime labs on DNA samples from 18,000 prime suspects exonerated 5,000 (more than 25 percent) of the suspects. In the U.S. during the last two decades, the number of persons on death row who were proved innocent amounted to an error rate of more than 12 percent. The State of Illinois had an error rate of more than 50 percent. The Illinois governor imposed a moratorium on the death penalty until problems could be resolved. There are now reportedly more than two million persons in U.S. prisons and jails. Even if the innocent represent only 0.5 percent of that amount, it means that there are some 10,000 persons staring out from the wrong side of concrete and barbed wire.

For those innocents whose cases involve it, DNA can quite literally be a life saver. Think of all the persons in prison whose innocence cannot be proved by DNA, however, all those who were convicted because of improper investigations, incompetent legal representation, confused or biased testimony, etc.

According to a U.S. Department of Justice study, “The most common cause of wrongful convictions in our judicial system is mistaken identification.” Juries place a lot of trust in eyewitness identification. Unfortunately, as overwhelming evidence indicates, eyewitness identification is often highly inaccurate. A 1987 study revealed that some 300 of 500 wrongful convictions were the result of mistaken eyewitness identification.

Who determines the credibility of eyewitness testimony during a jury trial? That responsibility falls almost exclusively on the shoulders of jury members who are often ignorant of the iffyness of observations and memories. Giving untrue evidence can seriously sabotage the integrity of a trial, but eyewitnesses can be confident their testimony is accurate and yet be unaware that it is not. Jurors decide in secret whether or not the testimony given is true or not and need not reveal their reasons. Only rarely will factual questions lead to successful appeals, so most parties in trials get only one opportunity for justice. In view of the foregoing, it should be apparent that the exceptional influence of eyewitness testimony needs to be balanced by at least an awareness by judge and jury that an eyewitness might not have to lie to give inaccurate testimony.

Believe it or not there is more than one theory about possible causes of eyewitness unreliability, and the included comments are based on those that are reasonably mainstream. Memory, of course, plays a large part in eyewitness unreliability. Memory does not simply record pictures, sounds, tastes, tactile sensations and odors as they are sensed. It (actually they) is much more complex. The following is a (very) brief and bony summation of the MEMORIES (plural) believed to be possessed by humans, but it offers a whiff of the complexity of their functions.

There are four major types of memory. The first type is sensory. As one might expect, sensory memory is divided into iconic (visual), echoic (auditory), taste, tactile and olfactory types. The second memory type is short-term. It is also known as primary, working or active memory and keeps a small amount of information, usually between three and nine elements (numbers, letters or words) readily available for somewhere between two and 60 seconds depending on which theory is being quoted. It retains information just pulled from a sensory memory or from long-term memory. It can also pull up information resulting from mental processing; but that usually falls into the domain of working memory, which modern theorists define as including (being generic to) the older concept of short-term memory. Working memory is also divided into a central executive system that controls cognitive processes, a phonological loop system that deals with sound information and a visuospatial sketchpad system that holds information about what one sees.

The third type is long-term memory, which can retain information from a few days to a lifetime. It is divided into implicit and explicit memories. Implicit memory stores previously learned information that remains essentially unconscious, e.g., how to ride a bike or roller skate. Explicit memory stores things that one consciously recalls and can verbalize, and it is subdivided into semantic and autobiographical memories. Semantic memory stores facts, e.g., historic dates, but not details about how one learns them, and information someone related, but not the exact words used to do so. Semantic memory is actually more similar to knowing than to recollecting. Autobiographical memory involves a recollection of events or episodes in one’s life. Often, it enables one to remember what was said in the past quite accurately. It is from the autobiographical memory that eyewitnesses are most often asked to recall and report information. The foregoing should give readers the idea that some memory theories are divided, subdivided, sub-subdivided….

So why is eyewitness information so unreliable? Obvious reasons for visual inaccuracy include conditions during an observation, such as lighting, distance, distraction, movement, orientation and motion of the object observed and duration of the observation. Noises and distance can interfere with auditory accuracy, and the physical and mental states of the observer can influence both visual and auditory accuracy. Regarding perception, we are not like cameras that record every detail. Our consciousness is not privy to raw data that we sense but only to an interpretation of it. Also, much of the raw data is discarded, leaving only an interpretation; and we are left with no awareness of what facts have been deleted or modified. When there are gaps in reception of visual and auditory information, persons tend to fill them using information from memories, biases and expectations and to interpret what they believe they see and hear and what they expect to see and hear. Most of us have caught just a few key words and mentally transformed them into a meaningful sentence and have seen a few lines and mentally turned them into a sketch of a recognizable object or scene. Interpretation proceeds as a memory forms, and distortion of the memory proceeds right along with it.

An example of an erroneous initial perception based at least partially on expectations is well illustrated by what began with a series of common events and ended with a dreadful climax. Two young men had been hunting bear in a wooded area all day. It was beginning to get dark, and the men were tired. They had been hoping to spot a bear and had been thinking and talking about bears as they walked along a path. Rounding a bend, they spotted a large object in the woods about 25 yards ahead. It was moving, and they heard noises coming from it. Thinking the object was a bear, both men fired at it. Unfortunately, the object was a yellow tent . The movements and noises came from a man and woman making love inside. The woman was killed by one of the bullets. The jury before whom the man whose bullet had struck the woman was tried could not understand how anyone could mistake a yellow tent for a growling bear. The man was convicted of negligent homicide, and he later committed suicide.

An interesting phenomenon, known as memory source confusion, comprises a memory incorporating another memory from a source such as a conversation with another witness or with police or even from an imaginary event. The phenomenon is an example of semantic memory butting into biographical memory territory.

An example of a person confusing information sources (and of stone-headed officials acting unbelievably badly) ironically involves an Australian eyewitness expert. He participated in a discussion of eyewitness memory unreliability on live TV and was later arrested for having raped a woman. He was identified by the victim after having been placed in a lineup. The rape had occurred while he was on TV with other members of the discussion group – not to mention having been watched by what must have been at least thousands of viewers. The discussion group also included an assistant commissioner of police. Despite all that, the police charged the expert with rape. Fortunately, the incident was investigated; and it was discovered that the victim had been watching the very TV program upon which the expert had appeared. She had mentally confused the face of the expert she had been watching with that of the actual rapist. The expert was “eventually” cleared.

Picking perpetrators from a lineup, which can be either simultaneous or sequential, represents a great opportunity for misidentification. Choosing a face that is the most similar to the culprit’s face is known as a relative response. Choosing a face by strictly comparing it to a memory of a perpetrator is known as an absolute response. Eyewitnesses tend to pick a person who most resembles their memory of a perpetrator RELATIVE TO OTHER MEMBERS in the lineup. This is bad enough if a real perpetrator is in fact in a lineup. Even if s/he is not, there will still be someone who most resembles the perpetrator, and an eyewitness is still inclined to pick that person. Misidentification is dramatically reduced if eyewitnesses are told that a perpetrator might or might not be in a lineup. Even so, some eyewitnesses still choose based on relative appearances.

In both simultaneous and sequential lineups, innocent look-alikes are more often misidentified when the similarity of those in a lineup is relatively low as compared to when it is relatively high. Position and order in a lineup have an effect on eyewitness identification. The use of foils, or distractors, in lineups reduced both false and true identifications.

Assembling a lineup including a tall suspect and noticeably shorter foils, including a suspect of one race and foils of another, including a bearded suspect and clean-shaven foils, etc. can obviously bias eyewitness identification. Asking an eyewitness to “take another look at number four” can certainly do the same. Asking an eyewitness to “take another look” at a particular mug shot or leaning forward, raising an eyebrow, voicing approval-sounding noises or gesturing when an eyewitness focuses on a particular picture in a photospread can also transmit signals that bias an eyewitness toward selecting that picture. All this indicates that double-blind procedures should be made standard practice.

Kindly keep in mind that the foregoing text barely scratches the surface of what is behind perception, memory and eyewitness unreliability.


Contrary to popular belief, studies indicate that airplane pilots and police officers are no more exempt from making misidentifications and giving inaccurate testimony than the rest of us.

Third parties can also influence the reliability of testimony. Even questions that differ in but one word can be used to do so. For example, asking an eyewitness to estimate the speeds of cars that “smashed” into each other tends to yield higher estimates than for cars that merely “hit” each other. Asking whether a driver stopped at a stop sign can encourage an eyewitness to assume there was a stop sign and to say later that there was such a sign even if there was not.



June 19th, 2008 13 comments

If there ever was someone who seemed destined to lead a life of crime, it was Ernesto Arturo. He was born in Arizona in 1941. By the time he was in the eighth grade, he had already been convicted of a crime. The following year, he served a year in reform school for burglary and, a month later, was sent right back. He moved to Los Angeles and was soon arrested on suspicion of armed robbery and minor sex offenses. He was acquitted of the robbery charge but was subsequently deported back to Arizona.

Ernesto joined the Army and was charged numerous times with being AWOL and for spying on other persons engaged in sexual activities. He spent six months doing hard labor in a military stockade. He was ordered to consult a psychiatrist but attended only one session. Not surprisingly, he was given a dishonorable discharge. While drifting from state to state, he was jailed in Texas for living on the street, having no money and having no place to live. In Nashville, he was arrested for driving a stolen car. Since he drove it across state borders, he received a sentence of a year and a day in the Federal Prison System.

While living with a married woman and her two children, Ernesto managed to find a few jobs and avoided arrest for several years. According to Phoenix police, however, he spent a portion of this time abducting, kidnapping, raping and robbing young women. Unfortunately for Ernesto, he chose his victims from a relatively small area. One of the rape victims had described to her brother the vehicle in which she had been transported. The brother later spotted the vehicle and gave the police a description and partial license plate number.

The police arrested Ernesto and placed him in a lineup. After the lineup, Ernesto asked about the results; and the police implied that he had been positively identified. After two hours of interrogation, before which he had not been advised of his rights, Ernesto confessed. In fact, when Ernesto was taken to meet the victim for a voice recognition test, HE identified HER as having been his victim. His victim also identified his voice as being that of her abductor. Ernesto then wrote his confession. The following had been printed at the top of every page: “…this statement has been made voluntarily and of my own free will, with no threats, coercion or promises of immunity and with full knowledge of my legal rights, understanding any statement I make can and will be used against me.”

An attorney was assigned to represent Ernesto at trial, which took place in June of 1963. The attorney objected to having the confession – which was the only evidence offered by the prosecutor at the trial – admitted; but his objection was overruled. The court found Ernesto guilty of rape and kidnaping, and he was sentenced to 20 to 30 years on both charges. The attorney appealed to the Arizona State Supreme Court, but the verdict stood.

The attorney that had represented Ernesto was elderly and in poor health, and the ACLU requested three Phoenix attorneys to represent Ernesto. The U.S. Supreme Court heard Ernesto’s case with those of three other similar cases that were combined to clear misunderstandings stemming from a previously decided case.

Following oral arguments involving Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights (a right not to incriminate one’s self and a right to counsel, respectively), the Court rendered its opinion in favor of Ernesto. It resulted in police departments using a warning named after the appellant. His full name, in case you haven’t guessed yet, was, of course, Ernesto Arturo Miranda.

The decision included the following statement, which has been adapted to the form used by most police and is typically heard on TV police dramas. The decision stated that:

The person in custody must, prior to interrogation, be clearly informed that he has the right to remain silent, and that anything he says will be used against him in court: he must be clearly informed that he has the right to consult with a lawyer and to have the lawyer with him during interrogation and that, if he is indigent, a lawyer will be appointed to represent him.

Ernesto was retried without benefit of his original confession, was convicted of rape and kidnaping by virtue of other evidence, and was sentenced to 11 years. After finally being paroled, he made some money selling, of all things, autographed Miranda warning cards. He was arrested a number of times for minor driving offenses and was charged with being in possession of a firearm. The charge was dropped, but the arrest violated his parole; and he spent yet another year in prison. After his release, he was eventually stabbed to death following a bar fight. A suspect was soon apprehended. When the police read him his Miranda rights, he took advantage of them and refused to cooperate. Due to a lack of sufficient evidence, and thanks to his alleged victim, the suspect walked.

The foregoing account illustrates some of the history behind the Miranda warning and some of its commonly misunderstood consequences. The following includes additional information related to the Miranda warning.

Police can ask persons questions such as their names and addresses and social security numbers to identify them without arresting or Mirandizing them, and police need not Mirandize anyone to arrest them. Arresting someone requires the police to have probable cause to believe they have committed a crime; but, only after persons have been taken into custody and before they are interrogated must they be given a Miranda warning. Whenever a person is placed in an environment, no matter where it is, in which they believe they are not free to leave, they are considered to be in custody. If a confession is made during a custodial interrogation before which a suspect has not been Mirandized, the confession may be disallowed during a trial; but the arrest may still be legal. If incriminating information such as a confession is given spontaneously by a suspect in custody, even if a suspect has not been Mirandized or has requested a lawyer who has not yet arrived, it is admissible as evidence provided it was not given in response to questioning or other police conduct likely to induce an incriminating response .

A dilemma probably encountered more often on TV than in real life might occur if a suspect has information, for example, about the location of a bomb or an abductee. In such a situation, a “public safety exception” would apply; and responses by a non-Mirandized suspect would be admissible as evidence even if the information incriminated the suspect.

If a suspect does not initially request a lawyer but changes his or her mind during interrogation, the questioning is discontinued until a lawyer arrives. Whatever the suspect said prior to asking for a lawyer, however, would still be admissible evidence.

A defendant whose confession has been ruled a violation of Miranda standards should understand that, if he or she chooses to take the stand, the confession may still be introduced as a prior inconsistent statement to cast doubts on his or her credibility.

A suspect who relies on sign language must be provided with a qualified sign interpreter. It should be noted, however, that the abilities of qualified sign interpreters to explain accurately and completely Miranda warnings to deaf persons has often been called into question.

A suspect who is not a U.S. citizen is allowed to contact his or her country’s consulate prior to any interrogation.

Courts have ruled that any waiver of Miranda rights must be knowing, intelligent and voluntary. Those words have been interpreted to mean that a suspect reasonably appears to know what he or she is doing. Indeed, a Colorado court ruled that it was completely irrelevant whether or not the suspect may have been insane at the time. Also, since being in custody can itself be coercive, the issue of whether or not waiving Miranda rights can always be a matter of free will has been raised. A suspect can be held for some time, alone in a small, soundproof room where everything he or she might want – a cigarette, a drink of water or a bathroom break – is under control of an interrogator.

The Miranda ruling naturally raised a fear in those who opposed it that it would cause an increase in crime and in the number of criminals going free. Gradually, however, many interrogators learned to honor the letter of the law but not its spirit as they figured ways to get around Miranda. It took the Supreme Court to stop Missouri police from withholding Miranda warnings until after suspects had confessed. The police would then Mirandize the suspects and have them sign waivers and confess again.

Many of the techniques were not as blatant and were not considered coercive, according to judicial interpretation; and the confessions they produced were almost always admitted as evidence. Subtle techniques included reading the Miranda warning in a manner that suggested it was simply a perfunctory ritual and not important enough to warrant serious consideration. In reality, it is so important that, reportedly, “if a confession gets before a jury, a defendant’s prospects of acquittal are virtually nil.”

An interesting facet of interrogation is known as the Stockholm syndrome. Persons, such as hostages under total control, begin to identify and empathize with their captors. In isolated captivity, this can occur after as few as ten minutes. An interrogator can sometimes build trust by pretending to care about a prisoner and becomes the prisoner’s only source of social reinforcement.

Reportedly, many police departments train interrogators in procedures that influence suspects to waive their Miranda rights. Some interrogators try to get suspects to speak before being Miranized without actually asking them to do so. An interrogator might recite in some detail all the evidence against the suspect and then encourage him or her to discuss it. Suspects will often then try to refute the evidence. An interrogator might sit silently with a suspect and simply do paperwork. Silence often induces suspects to speak. Although such tactics are obviously designed to get around the rules, they have been held to be valid by courts. Civil rights groups, of course, consider them to be deceptive

This brings up the subject of the legality of using deception during interrogation. Suspects can be told their DNA or fingerprints were found at the scene of a crime, that someone witnessed their illegal activities, that another gang member already confessed, that they failed a lie detector test* or that a person they shot dead was only grazed and was returned to perfect health by application of a simple bandage. There is no law against using such deceptive measures. Promises of leniency by the police in exchange for confessions are quite common, but such promises are not binding on the police or district attornies. Unless they have a strong case, district attorneys are usually more likely to plea bargain for a reduced sentence if there is no confession.

Unfortunately for society, such deception by some police erodes our law enforcement system. When juries cannot trust police, more guilty persons will be free to damage the fiber of our society. Statistics tell us there are some 6,000 false convictions for felonies in the United States per year, and false confessions are a major reason for persons being convicted of crimes they did not commit.

Many who opposed Miranda warnings now favor them. Thinking that Miranda prevents involuntary or coerced confessions can discourage jury members and even judges from considering the fact that confessions might be the result of sophisticated deception and psychological coercion.

Extra facts:

* Innocent persons who are nervous are more likely to fail polygraph tests than are self-confident, guilty psychopaths; so such test results are not always considered by courts to be meaningful.

Every interrogation scene I have seen on TV shows an interrogator sitting across a table from a suspect. Reportedly, they sit beside or at an angle to him or her. Moving into the suspect’s space increases anxiety, and moving away when information is forthcoming is rewarding. Of course, when left alone, the suspect is observed through a one-way mirror, or other device, to help gauge his or her level of anxiety.

In Australia, an act of inventing a false verbal confession by a police officer is referred to as “verballing.” Police testimony about unrecorded confessions is now admitted in trials only under exceptional circumstances.

Forensics 109: Questioned Document Examination

May 19th, 2008 22 comments

There have always been those who would cheat if but given an opportunity to do so. No sooner had the bright light of writing been born as a means of communication, than forgery, which was especially profitable at a time of widespread public illiteracy, came along as its dark and unwanted sibling. The combination eventually led to the birth of forensic document examination. As the latter improved, so did the forgers’ skills. Some forgers developed amazing skills. Many, however, were not as clever as they thought they were.More than 200 years ago, someone produced what he claimed to be a manuscript, written by Shakespeare, of a version of Kinge Leare. Having what he thought was a clever idea, to match the age of the paper in his fake manuscript to the age of Shakespeare, he had paid a bookseller to allow him to cut blank pages from old manuscripts on which to forge the Shakespearian work. His idea was indeed clever but only to a point. The paper was the proper age; but, oops, the collected pages bore some twenty different watermarks.

More recently (1928), during an inheritance litigation case, a woman claimed that she had written the names of her two children and the dates (1887 and 1889) of their births in her Bible soon after they were born. Oops! The Bible bore a copyright date of 1890.

Even more recently (circa 1972), as you might remember, a writer named Clifford Irving used documents he claimed were written by Howard Hughes to convince editors at McGraw-Hill and Life Magazine that Hughes had authorized Clifford to write his biography. The documents even included a letter to the editor of McGraw-Hill to confirm Hughes’ permission. Hughes contested the claim.

Forgers have two tasks when forging. They must imitate someone else’s writing characteristics; and, while doing so, must suppress their own. The more they write, the greater is the probability that they will unconsciously let some of their own writing characteristics slip into the forgery. This is one reason it is easier to prove that someone did not write something than to prove that someone did. In the Clifford case, there was sufficient evidence to convince U.S. Postal Inspection Service experts to testify that the questioned documents were not written by Hughes.

Most documents probably involve paper, and paper analysis of QUESTIONED DOCUMENTS (often referred to as QD’s) can extract an impressive amount of useful historical and physical evidence. A qualitative analysis discloses materials, such as fibers, of which a paper is made and materials, such as ink, that are present in the paper. A quantitative analysis indicates how much is in the paper. A chemical analysis reveals composition and pH, and a physical analysis measures gloss, strength and color. An organic analysis discerns carbon-based traces of plants and organisms, and an inorganic analysis fingers minerals and pigments in ink. Instruments used to perform such analyses range from simple optical magnifiers to molecular spectrometers.

The handwriting of persons of a particular language group is sufficiently similar to enable others in the group to read and understand it. The handwriting of individuals within a group, of course, has characteristic variations. The trick for handwriting examiners is to be able to distinguish between mere variations and true differences. Handwriting identification involves comparing handwriting characteristics in authenticated samples of handwriting with the characteristics in what is referred to as QUESTIONED WRITING to determine who wrote, or did not write, the latter.

Many factors can influence handwriting. These include anatomical limitations, actual writing ability, health, mood, writing background, alcohol and drug use, injuries, and stress. Physical factors include writing surface smoothness, types of writing instruments and whether or not writers are trying to disguise their handwriting. All these factors and more contribute to differences in handwriting from one moment to another. It is generally accepted that it is highly unlikely that anyone can write his or her own name in exactly the same manner twice during an entire lifetime.

While we’re on the subject of handwriting, this seems an appropriate place to mention that there are no reliable methods to identify the gender of a writer from a sample of their writing. Also, although some left-handed writers leave what seem to be obvious indications (left-slanting characters and smudged ink) of their handedness, there are also no absolutely reliable methods for separating the writing of lefties from that of righties. It should also be mentioned that determining anything about writers’ personalities from their handwriting is not the mission of document examiners. That is left to graphologists, who claim to have that ability.

All documents, of course, are not handwritten. Many are created using typewriters and a variety of impact and other printers. Impact printers can be individually identified by typeface damage and/or wear and can be generally identified by such things as type of ribbon (fabric or carbon film) and typeface design. Nonimpact printing employs a variety of techniques whose number and relative complexity are such that I won’t abuse your interest by including their details in this essay.

We have probably all noticed that, when writing, indentations, referred to as INDENTED WRITING are often left on an underlying paper. Directing light at an oblique angle (RAKING) can often make indented writing, as well as other surface characteristics such as watermarks and various types of damage, visible and photographable by creating shadows in depressions. I seem to recall Sam Spade or Sherlock Holmes lightly rubbing a soft pencil over indentations to make indented, undarkened characters visible. This method, however, can easily destroy evidence.

An electrostatic detection apparatus (ESDA) is now commonly used to produce and record visual images of indented writing on film. This nifty device can sometimes recover indented writing that is four or more sheets below an uncontaminated sheet bearing the original writing. The apparatus is so sensitive that it sometimes detects fingerprints. It can even betray differences in pen or pencil pressures applied by different persons while writing on the same paper. Also, as might sometimes be desirable, the ESDA is nondestructive and leaves no trace that it was ever there.

An even more sensitive device with which to compare marks is an electron microscope. It can indicate whether a fingerprint on paper is below ink or above it. It can also indicate which of two fingerprints is on top of the other.

Another helpful device for assisting in questioned document examinations is a video spectral comparator (VSC), especially where portions of documents are obliterated or altered. With a VSC, an examiner can scrutinize a suspected area using infrared light and a charge-coupled-device (CCD) camera as a detector. An image is displayed on a monitor and is digitally processed by a computer. The device can be used to reveal concealed or masked information, examine watermarks, reveal the use of different inks, visualize indented writing and embossing, match tear profiles and logos, measure document feature dimensions, indicate color differences and examine machine-readable zones on passports.

Another handy dandy device is a laser-scanning confocal microscope. It can scan specimens multiple times at difference surface depths and then combines the scans to form a dimensional image.

It would be difficult to overemphasize the potential importance of a bit of paper when one considers what information it might bear. As Melville wrote: What we take to be our strongest tower of delight, only stands at the caprice of the minutest event – the falling of a leaf, the hearing of a voice, or the receipt of one little bit of paper scratched over with a few small characters by a sharpened feather.

Extra fact:

A forensic document examiner makes scientific examinations, comparisons and analyses of documents to:

1. establish genuineness or nongenuineness, or to expose forgery, or to reveal alterations, additions or deletions,

2. identify or eliminate persons as the source of handwriting,

3. identify or eliminate the source of typewriting or other impressions, marks, or relative evidence, and

4. write reports or give testimony, when needed, to aid the users of the examiner’s services in understanding the examiner’s findings.

R. C. Jones


March 19th, 2008 19 comments

According to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, a poison is “a substance that through its chemical action usually kills, injures or impairs an organism” or “a substance that inhibits the activity of another substance or the course of a reaction or process.”

Since there are many types of poisons, only a few of those commonly encountered in novels have room for mention here. For the same reason, acute (relatively quick-acting) poisoning rather than chronic (relatively prolonged) poisoning will be addressed. Many novels and films involved arsenic, cyanide or strychnine. In the film, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, a pair of spinster aunts murder lonely old men by poisoning them with all three – a glass of home-made elderberry wine laced with arsenic, cyanide and “just a pinch” of strychnine.

Since pathologists now have the ability to detect most poisons, poisoning is no longer the preferred murder method du jour; but there are still enough poisonings to keep pathologists busy. There is no one-test-reveals-all detection system, and pathologists must determine for which poisons they should test. To do this, they evaluate clues that suggest what poison or poisons are involved and how they were administered.


is a level five (the next to highest, extremely toxic, level) toxin; and it affects the digestive system. Its most common form is arsenic trioxide, a white powder. Other forms include arsenous oxide and arsenic trihydride. Arsenic fumes often have a garlic odor.

Note that a character in your novel who sips a cocktail laced with arsenic should not gasp the words, “You dirty rat,” drop immediately to the floor and neatly expire. Symptoms of arsenic poisoning primarily include severe gastric distress. Other symptoms include esophageal pain, vomiting blood, diarrhea and falling blood pressure. These are often followed by convulsions and coma, and death is usually the final result of circulatory failure.

The symptoms begin after about 30 minutes and death might follow within a few hours but might not occur for some 24 hours. If a victim dies quickly, an autopsy will reveal only an inflamed stomach and perhaps traces of the poison in the digestive tract. Red blood cells will be destroyed, and skin might take on a yellow cast. If death is delayed for several days, arsenic may also be found in the liver and kidneys.

Since arsenic is found in common household items, notably pesticides, it has been a convenient means of murder. Although it is usually swallowed, it can also be inhaled as dust or as arsine gas. Inhalation of arsenic, however, is usually associated with industrial environments. An interesting property of arsenic, although of no concern to victims of acute poisoning, is that it is carcinogenic.


is a level six (the highest, supertoxic, level) toxin; and it interferes with the absorption of oxygen by the body’s cells. Its most common forms are potassium cyanide, sodium cyanide and hydrogen cyanide. Hydrogen cyanide is also known as prussic acid and hydro cyanic acid. Cyanide involved in television shows is often detected by a bitter almond odor. In reality, it does not always have a detectable odor. Also, some persons are, for genetic reasons, unable to detect the odor. Could these facts be clues in someone’s story? Speaking of clues, note that some burning plastics and fabricated fibers release cyanide gas. Many fires also produce carbon monoxide.

Since cyanide interferes with body-cell absorption of oxygen, it does most harm to the heart and brain, which demand a large amount of oxygen. Although ingesting and absorbing cyanide through the skin can also be toxic, breathing it causes the greatest harm. During WWII, Nazis used hydrogen cyanide in some of their gas chambers. Also, some of our states used it for executions before lethal injections were initiated. Readers might also recall that, in 1973, someone in Chicago laced Extra-Strength Tylenol with cyanide, which killed several persons. Also, in 1978, some 900 cult members at Jonestown, Guyana drank grape-flavored Flavor-Aid laced with cyanide.

In addition to murdering others, cyanide has also been used by many persons to kill themselves. Among the names of those you might recognize are Eva Braun, Delphine Delamare, Hermann, Goering, Heinrich Himmler, Adolph Hitler (cyanide and gunshot), Erwin Rommel and Alan Turing. In addition, of course, are myriad fictional spies who carry cyanide suicide pills to swallow if they are captured. Your cocktail-sipping characters won’t fall immediately to the floor and die after having sampled a cyanide-laced cocktail either, especially if it follows a full meal. A swallowed, lethal dose can produce convulsions, which can be followed by death, but usually only after some four to twelve hours. Sniffing a toxic dose of cyanide in the form of a gas, however, can cause immediate unconsciousness, convulsions and death within fifteen minutes. In fact, hydrogen cyanide, in high concentrations, is known as one of the “one whiff” knockdown gases.


is a level six (again, the highest, supertoxic, level) toxin; and it works on the central nervous system. It is a colorless, crystalline powder that has a bitter taste. Strychnine is usually swallowed, but it can poison if it contacts the skin or eyes or its dust is inhaled..

The symptoms of strychnine poisoning are almost identical to those of lockjaw and tetanus, and appear after ten or twenty minutes unless ingested after a heavy meal. Symptoms begin with a victim’s face and neck becoming rigid. This is followed by stiffening spasms in arms and legs. The stiffening continues until the victim is arched backward with feet and head on the supporting surface. Pain is intense; and, in contrast to the effects of other seizures, the victim is clearly conscious during the spasms.

Immediately upon death, rigor mortis sets in. A dead victim is left in its arched position, its eyes open and its facial expression still reflecting the excruciating pain of the spasms. Possibly because of the shock value of the throes of agony caused by strychnine poisoning, they are commonly described and portrayed in books and films. Fortunately, such poisonings occur far less frequently in real homicides.

Strychnine no longer has medical applications, except perhaps as used in small doses by South American missionaries to kill their own intestinal worms; but it is still used in some rodent poisons. It is also sometimes used to cut various street drugs.


1. In a 1997 survey, a ranking of poisonings as cause of death was compared to age groups. Below are the results.

1-14 first

15-23 third

24-44 fifth

45-64 sixth

65+ seventh

2. Arsenic turns into a liquid when subjected to a pressure equal to one or more than 20 atmospheres; therefore, its melting point is higher than its boiling point.

3. In case you haven’t been able to place Delphine Delamare, she was a French housewife whose adulteries served as inspiration for Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary


How many readers remember Gene Autry’s theme song, BACK IN THE SADDLE AGAIN? I see quite a few hands. For those who don’t know the song, its lyrics include:

I’m back in the saddle again.

Out where a friend is a friend.

Where the longhorn cattle feed

On the lowly gypsum weed.

Back in the saddle again.

Millions of kids used to sing that song. How many readers know that the gypsum weed is in the Nightshade family and is also known as angel’s trumpet, apple of Peru, crazy tea, Datura stramonium, devil’s balls, devil’s seed, devil’s snare, devil’s trumpet, ditch weed, Jamestown weed, jimson weed, Korean morning glory, loco weed, mad apple, mad hatter, malpitte, moonflower, stink weed, thorn apple and zombie cucumber?

Hmmm. I don’t see nearly as many hands. That’s not significant, but what is of potentially critical importance is that we should know that the plant is categorized as a level six (the highest, supertoxic, level) toxin.

In the United States, the plant can be found in most areas where there is nutrient-rich soil, especially in the South. It has been used to smoke and to make tea for use during Native American ceremonies, and it can cause delirium and hallucinations. It is also used by some persons as a substitute for illegal drugs. Unfortunately, there is not much of a margin between doses that cause noticeable effects and doses that kill. The Navajo have a saying:

Eat a little and go to sleep.

Eat some more and have a dream.

Eat some more, and don’t wake up.

Reportedly, this weed has poisoned more persons than has any other plant.

Gene Autry also recorded GOODNIGHT LITTLE DARLIN’ – GOODBYE.


February 19th, 2008 8 comments

Lord Byron wrote: But I hate things all fiction…there should always be some foundation of fact for the most airy fabric – and pure invention is but the talent of a liar.

Most persons would agree that adding facts to a fictional novel, especially one that includes technical matters, can improve it on several levels. Obviously, facts can make stories more realistic. To readers who enjoy learning things, facts are manna. Readers who especially cherish them are those who can directly relate to factual descriptions and comments written about such things as places, activities, items and persons with which and with whom they themselves are familiar. For all readers, facts help paint a more complete image of the sphere within which a story takes place. If they do nothing else, they can make a story more interesting.

Some subjects promote greater expectations of accuracy than others. For example, most readers of Tom Clancy’s book, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, would expect quite a few accurate details about nuclear submarine technology and operations, which Mr. Clancy delivers. If he did not, his readers would surely be disappointed.

Readers learn much from literature. It provides answers to many questions most readers might not even think to wonder about until it is brought to their attention by a story. Once questions are raised, though, many readers want answers to them. But how many stories have we read that involve, for example, smuggling? And how many authors have explained just why widgets are worth more in one location than in another and just why governments discourage free transfers between them? The existence of these two facts is the reason smuggling exists in the first place.

One of the appeals of the James Bond series of novels was that the author, Ian Fleming, would have James, early on, show off his encyclopedic knowledge by explaining such things to another character and, of course, simultaneously, to readers. The latter receive a double reward: that of having been entertained by an engrossing story and also that of having been educated. And, for those readers who need it, the educational aspect helps justify the time invested in reading the book.

One thing that writers might consider a disadvantage to adding facts, but that can often be just the opposite, is the frequently attending need for research. This activity is one where writers, as well as readers, can share rewards. Researching almost any subject opens a treasure chest of information that can lead to new ideas that can be applied to present or future stories.

The importance of using factual information can be somewhat metered by readers’ comments about its presence and absence in novels they have read. Some readers who blogged their opinions didn’t much mind inaccuracies. Many certainly did. About the ones who did, the following paraphrased remarks are telling, especially about how seemingly small inaccuracies can trigger surprisingly intense reactions by readers.

* I insist that every detail be accurate.

* If you claim something is real, it had better be accurate.

* Being incorrectly stereotyped bothers me. The Canadian-English “eh” has a specific placement in sentences, and that placement is not at the end of every single one. Having recently just begun reading a book and finding an “eh” in the wrong place, I was so annoyed that I put the book down. That might have been an overreaction, but I’m sensitive.

* Readers knew the character was from the South because the author had him use “y’all” whenever he spoke. I haven’t read that author since.

* When writing about a place I’m familiar with, I introduce much more local color. Having an accurate picture of such a place makes it fun to write about.

* If a character is supposed to be an expert on some subject, a writer had better ensure that everything the expert says is accurate.

* When reading about a real location, I automatically assume that all the details are accurate.

* One story took place in a location that had special meaning to me. The many wrong location details made it difficult and frustrating book to read.

* If writers create a fictional town, they can do whatever they want to with it. If it’s a town that really exists, then most of the details should be accurate.

* If writers create a fictional location, then everything should be fictional.

* Introducing fictional places in a real city is acceptable if done to protect a reputation or to avoid a lawsuit.

* It bothers me more when TV shows use jargon that is inappropriate for the location of a scene.

* I never found the Georgetown Metro stop that was mentioned in a book as being in Washington DC. Finding it would have spared my feet a long walk from Foggy Bottom.

* If a character drives to an incorrectly located street once, that’s no big deal. If the street is referred to repeatedly, however, it should be located accurately

* Bending the truth is fine, but impossibilities bug me.

* Even though I love books with local settings and like the author, when she had a main character drive down one street to another when the two do not, in reality, cross, I stopped reading the book.

* I read that one of the first authors to include detailed descriptions of actual places in a fictional novel was Bram Stoker when he wrote DRACULA. Doing so was tremendously effective in providing his vampire persona with a cloak of legitimacy.

* In some major languages, the spelling of such words as articles and adjectives are gender specific. Using a masculine-spelled adjective to describe a feminine character can be jarring, especially during a love scene.

* I put up with a heroine acting out of character for her historic period and perceived upbringing; but, when the author blatantly introduced chocolate, I refused to read another word. Improbable heroines are bad enough, but tampering with chocolate is unforgivable.


Experiments have shown that some persons tend to accept as facts information presented to them in books and movies. Surprisingly, after having read a few short stories, and after a relatively short delay, they would use information included in the stories to answer questions in subsequent general knowledge tests. Even more surprisingly, in time, the information had apparently settled in so that many believed they had known the information before the experiment had even taken place.


December 19th, 2007 5 comments

In a previous piece, I questioned the advisability of handling crime- scene objects, as they do regularly on television, while wearing gloves. It seemed to me and several commenters that this would damage if not destroy any fingerprints that might be present. Subsequent research supports this assumption. Experts state that touching objects such as a gun, knife, bottle, credit card, etc. where fingerprint impressions might reside can indeed destroy prints. Objects, such as paper, that absorb the residue of fingerprints can be handled with gloves or a handkerchief provided they are not contaminated with anything, for example, oil, that could also be absorbed by the object.

How many times have we watched television investigators drop nonporous objects into plastic bags? Don’t do that either, say the experts. Fingerprints reside on the surfaces of nonporous materials such as metal, glass and plastic and are fragile. How many times have we watched the investigators dust hard, nonporous surfaces with fingerprint powder? The slightest contact by a bag or almost anything else – including a fingerprint powder application brush – can destroy prints. The experts recommend placing bottles, for example, in boxes so that they extend from one corner to a diagonally opposite corner, where they will be secure and prints are not likely to be touched. Ideally, they recommend that objects be treated with cyanoacrylate fumes before being transported.

Fingerprint residues reacts with cyanoacrylate fumes and atmospheric water vapor to create a white powder known as polycyanoacrylate. The powder traces the configuration of fingerprint ridges and makes hard, white, visible impressions that can be photographed, processed and recorded. Prints can be further enhanced by applying a luminescent or nonluminescent stain.

Those who have watched evidence suspected of bearing a fingerprint being fumed on television in a state-of-the-art CSI laboratory fuming chamber might wonder just how someone examining a crime scene could possibly do that at the scene to preserve prints. A recent CSI segment showed an investigator setting up a collapsible, rectangular tent over a woman’s body to expose fingerprints lrft on her skin. (Fingerprints, usually contaminated prints involving body fluids, lipstick, etc.,transferred to a surface by fingers, can be retrieved from a body’s surface. Today, fingerprints can be harvested even from such items as cigarettes, fruit, stones, bed sheets and many more materials – any surface that is about as smooth as the ridged surface of your fingers.) In the absence of such specialized equipment, fuming can still be done without too much trouble.

If you were a character in one of your stories, investigating a crime scene located far from a lab, you would need a cardboard box, or a similar enclosure, to serve as a fuming chamber and a small supply of cyanoacrylate to provide fumes. Cyanoacrylate can be found in many stores, sold under the trade names of Superglue and Krazy Glue. A simple cup of hot water, or a handy cup of hot coffee, could serve to provide water vapor. Some aluminum foil could be used to support a half-inch-diameter pool of the glue, and a piece of string could serve to suspend a suspected object, say, a pistol, in the box.

It would be preferable to have a warming device, such as a 65-watt light bulb or an electric coffee-warming coil (never a hotplate), to speed evaporation of the glue. To provide a monitoring device, rub a finger along a side of your nose to pick up some oil, and roll the finger on a piece of the aluminum foil to create a test fingerprint.

Bend another piece of foil to form a pan-shaped platform just above the light bulb or heating coil and squeeze the measure of glue onto it. Make certain neither the bulb nor the coil is touching the cardboard, close the box and switch on the light or coil. After ten minutes, check the test fingerprint. If it has not developed, continue fuming.

Two important things to keep in mind are:

(1) Fume only in a well ventilated area, and

(2) If you use a cup of coffee to humidify the fuming chamber, DO NOT drink it afterward. The prefix, cyan, in cyanoacrylate is the same prefix that appears in cyanide.

Another thing that puzzles many CSI viewers is why investigators run around in dark rooms with flashlights when they could easily turn on lights. Light from a single source, shown at an angle, often exposes fingerprints that aren’t readily visible under general lighting. Such a technique is also handy for finding footprints on dusty floors. Using laser lights that emit light of only certain wavelengths make some prints glow. Luminol is a chemical that exhibits chemiluminescence when it is mixed with an appropriate oxidizing agent. It is sometimes sprayed onto areas where the presence of blood is suspected. Even if the area has been cleaned, blood traces will often be revealed by a striking blue glow. It’s the iron in blood that catalyzes a chemical reaction that results in the glow. The glow is observable in a fairly dark room. It lasts about 30 seconds and can be photographed with a camera capable of timed exposures.

What is not usually mentioned in television shows is the fact that luminol also fluoresces in the presence of copper and its alloys, Even horseradish, feces and certain bleaches will cause a glow. In fact, bleach presents a big problem. It can make an entire, bleach-cleaned room glow, thus obscuring any trace of blood. Fortunately, DNA can still be extracted from samples after they have been treated with luminol.

Of interest but of only passing relevance to the subject matter of this essay is the fact that, in addition to humans and other primates, koalas have fingerprints. In fact, their fingerprints are reportedly difficult to distinguish from those of humans. Also of interest is the fact that koalas have front paws with five digits, two of which are opposable, like thumbs, to the remaining three. All three remaining digits have claws. The rear paws also have five digits. One is broad and opposable, like a thumb, to the others, but it is clawless. The next two digits are fused together and have two claws. The remaining digits each have one claw.

Happy holidays to everyone.


Creepy Crawlies

November 19th, 2007 9 comments

For the files of murder mystery and horror story writers.

Benny was feeling luckier than he had ever felt before as he carefully picked his way through dark woods skirting a long-abandoned logging road. After weeks of effort to gain the trust of a major drug dealer, he was about to meet and make a buy from one of the dealer’s runners. The returns he would get when he distributed the drugs would finance a legitimate business he had been planning to establish for years. Profits to be made in the dope trade could be high, but so could attending risks. Benny was about to learn just how high the risks could be.

He heard a rustle of leaves behind him, but the sound of a gunshot probably had no time to register in his brain as a bullet tore through the back of his skull. A cash-filled briefcase he was carrying hit the ground just before his body did. A gloved hand reached down and retrieved the briefcase. Unhurried feet crunched through dry leaves as they casually made their way toward the road. There was a sound of a car stopping on the road, a door opening and closing and then the fading sound of the car as it drove away. The killing site was quiet. The killer had gone; and, although his body remained, Benny had gone too.

The Sun was just clearing the woods of a thin morning mist when the first insect, a blow fly, arrived at the body. Of the many insects that ultimately appear at such a site, blow flies are usually the first (often within a few minutes of death) and most numerous to arrive and begin colonizing a body. Blow flies have a keen sense of smell and are attracted by odors associated with decay, the odors primarily being the result of actions of bacteria on dead tissues. Blow flies are also the most studied because they usually provide the most accurate information with which to estimate a minimum value for what is known as a post-mortem interval, or PMI. From a minimum PMI, one can estimate a time of death, often referred to on criminal investigation shows as a TOD. Determining a minimum PMI is the primary purpose of forensic entomology. Such information can often be used to narrow a field of murder suspects. The relatively few persons who specialize in studying insects in relation to dead bodies are known as forensic entomologists.

Forensic entomologists are not usually involved in cases that are less than 72 hours old. Prior to that time, other techniques are equal to or more accurate than those involving insects. If a death has occurred more than three days before, however, insects provide the most accurate and often the only method of estimating a minimum PMI. Taking the temperature of a body that has not reached the temperature of its surrounding environment can provide useful information, but its usefulness declines as body temperature drops. Also, since the rate of decreasing body temperature varies from one individual to another, the estimated minimum PMI can vary by as much as two hours.

After about two days, putrefaction begins and body temperature will begin to rise. Chemical reactions of cells in a living body function both aerobically (needing oxygen) and anaerobically (needing no oxygen). Cells that function anaerobically produce lactic acid, which, in a living body, can be reconverted as oxygen is inhaled. In a dead body, of course, this cannot happen; and the lactic acid rises to high levels in muscle cells. Actin and myosin fuse to form a gel, which causes a stiffness known as rigor mortis. It begins about three hours after death, reaches maximum stiffness after about 12 hours, and then gradually dissipates. The latter process is known as resolution of rigor. High environmental temperatures can decrease the reaction time and running or other aerobic exercises before death can produce higher initial levels of lactic acid. In a body submerged in cold water, even after several days, rigor mortis might not begin until the body has been removed from the water. All these factors must be considered when estimating minimum PMI.

During their life time, blowflies pass through four distinct stages. They begin as eggs, of which some 250 might be laid by a fly in body openings such as eyes, noses, mouths and wounds. They then move on to become larvae (maggots), pupae and finally adults. Large numbers of larvae tend to hatch at the same time. They maneuver about a body as a mass, disseminating bacteria and secreting enzymes that enable them to consume nearly all soft tissues of a body.

Time intervals marking the first three of the four stages are relatively predictable, although they vary as a function of factors that include temperature and available food (in the maggot stage). Size and body configuration are the time indicators of maggot stages, known as instars. At a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit (about 22 degrees Celsius), a black blow fly would typically spend 23 hours as an egg, 27 hours as a first instar larva, feeding on the corpse, before molting (shedding its outer layer, or cuticle, to allow growth), 22 hours as a second instar larva before molting, 130 hours as a third instar larva before its outer layer hardens into a puparium, and 143 hours as a pupa before hatching as a fly. The instar stage of a larva can be determined by the number and size of its breathing holes, which are known as spiracles. (Before we take leave of the word spiracles, of interest, but of no particular relevance to the subject, is the method bees use to kill some species of wasps. Rather than stinging them, which often kills the bees themselves, they simply plug their spiracles.)

Surrounding temperatures, and cloud conditions during the periods of insect development must be estimated from records of the nearest weather stations. At warmer temperatures, and with more food available, growth is accelerated. As maggots mass together, their metabolic activity can produce an increase of temperature between 5 and 20 degrees Celsius above that of a surrounding environment. This, of course, represents another variable that must be considered when estimating a minimum PMI.

If there are traces of such toxins as cocaine and heroin in a body, they can increase the growth rate of larvae. If clothing is permeated with such items as oil, paint or fuel, they can slow the colonization rate of insects in a body. Certainly, if a body has been buried, wrapped or refrigerated, that can also slow the growth rate of larvae. Even a lack of insect evidence on a body can be of value. If a body is obviously several days old, and it is summer, the absence can indicate that the body was kept somewhere free of insects until recently.

In addition to the body itself and its clothing, ground beneath it and surrounding it must be examined for insect activity. While in the last instar of majestic maggotry, a full-grown larva eventually stops eating and crawls off, sometimes up to 50 feet, to find a cool, dry place to pupate. It then loosens itself from its outer skin, which hardens (tans) into a hard shell that becomes its puparium. Within the puparium, the now pupa continues to develop until it emerges as an adult. The emerging fly has an interesting system of egress from its puparium. On its head the fly has a sac, known as a ptilinum, that it alternately inflates and deflates to hammer through an end of the puparium.

Other insects also covet dead bodies, each insect having its own cycles to follow. Larvae sometimes have to be reared to adulthood to identify their species. This is important because some insects come at different phases of body decomposition. This is known as insect succession, and it also can provide clues to help estimate minimum PMI. Some insects prefer bodies in sunlight, some in shade, some in open meadows, and some in thickets and dense woods. Different insects are active in different areas in different seasons. All such facts must be considered as potential providers of clues useful in estimating the minimum PMI.

Incidentally, insects can provide useful information concerning more than just PMI. Wounds are sometimes obscured by the effects of decomposition. Since insects usually lay eggs in body openings, activity at a different spot can indicate a possible wound site. In fact insects usually colonize wound sites first. An example is wounds on the palms of hands, which could be indicative of defense wounds.

Since insects also colonize wounds in living persons, they can be used to help estimate when such wounds were inflicted, for example, on an abused child. Maggot presence can also be used to estimate when diapers were last changed on a neglected child or an infirmed adult.

Even if there is insufficient tissue left to determine drug presence, since maggots bioaccumulate, an analysis of their bodies can determine what drugs might have been present in a corpse before death.

If a body has been moved, identifying insects on the body that are native to the original site, where the murder might have occurred, but not to the second, can help locate the original site.

If a killer returns to a murder scene, it often disturbs the insect cycles; and not only might the minimum PMI be determined, but also the date the killer revisited the site.

Insects have also been useful in placing a suspect at a crime scene. A rapist was tied to a rape site using an insect found inside a cocklebur.

As the foregoing attempted to demonstrate, the job of a forensic entomologist involves collecting and evaluating a stupendous amount of information under far less than pleasant conditions.

Two last bits of potentially interesting information: (1) The number of plants pollinated by flies reportedly equals or exceeds the number pollinated by bees (in fact, trees having fruit seeds from which chocolate is ultimately produced are pollinated by flies); and (2) If you open your violin case and find the bow strings ravaged, look for a fly or two. Some flies find horse hair delicious.

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Autopsy of the Mind

October 19th, 2007 8 comments

During his seven years on Earth, Devin had not spent much time with his father.  The latter was a heavy drinker and was spending increasing amounts of time away from home.  When his dad was home, he would frequently have intense arguments with Devin’s mother; and many fights were about Devin.  His mother had never wanted him in the first place, and she had often reminded both Devin and his father of that fact.  On Devin’s eighth birthday, his father had left and never returned.

Devin’s mother was overbearing and had made most of the decisions for the household and most for her husband also.  She had always been strict with Devin, and her resentment of him never slackened.  Indeed, it reached new heights when he began to wet his bed, which he continued to do well into his teens.  She rarely struck him, but she frequently abused him verbally by telling him that he was no good, was stupid and would never amount to anything.  She began to date and sometimes brought men home for the night.  Devin would have to stay quietly in his room whenever this happened.

There were no other children nearby with whom he could play when he wasn’t in school, and Devin gradually became a loner.  As such, he never developed socializing skills he would need in adulthood.  He also acquired no capabilities for feeling remorse or empathy.  He effectively lacked a conscience.  As his isolation solidified, his own thoughts and daydreams were all that kept him company.  He had a fertile imagination and was soon getting lost in his own fantasies.  He was to develop an addiction to his fantasies about which his life would turn.  What portion of Devin that remained in the real world would become but a shell.  Fantasies would become his crutch, his coping mechanism for dealing with everyday life; and he would go to extremes to preserve the addiction and, therewith, his coping mechanism.  Addiction is often a mystically comforting presence in the lives of those addicted, and it is a progressive disease.

Devin had long been fascinated by fire, and he used to experiment by burning various materials.  He enjoyed the hypnotic way flames danced and smoke curled.  Somehow, he didn’t feel as lonely or worthless when he was playing with fire.  It had come to represent something akin to a comforting friend.  It wasn’t long before he began to set fire to rubbish and piles of leaves.  Once, his fire spread to a nearby garage.   That brought a fire truck with its siren wailing and neighbors gathering to watch firemen extinguish the blaze.  Devin was the last to leave the scene and frequently returned to view the charred portions of the garage.  It gave him a feeling of power in a strangely sexual way.

After that, his fire-setting regularly included igniting things that belonged to others.  He also began to deface, break and steal things.  Devin had never had a pet but enjoyed playing with neighborhood animals.   His play, however, gradually become rougher and eventually progressed
to outright torment.   While watching the suffering he inflicted on animals, his usual feelings of being inefficacious were replaced by feelings of great power and control … again in a strangely sexual way.

Devin’s isolation and addiction to fantasies grew as did his antisocial behavior.  He killed his first victim with a knife when he was 28.  The victim was tall and had long, dark hair that she wore parted in the middle.  By the time Devin was 34, he had killed seven more woman, all of them tall and having long, dark hair, parted in the middle.  With each killing, Devin had been sharpening his terminating skill to coincide with the perfection of his fantasies but had almost been caught during the last killing.  Devin feared the police might be watching him and that the next killing might be his last, so he wanted it to be perfect.

He selected his victim very carefully.  She lived alone in a small house on a quiet street.  It was Halloween night, and he dressed darkly as appropriate for an executioner.  After the last group of children had received their treats and left the woman’s porch and before the last light in the house had been extinguished, he rang her doorbell.  He stood close to the door and clutched a long knife just inside his open coat.  The woman was apparently expecting to find more children at her door, because she was carrying a basket containing candy when she opened it.  She was tall and had long, dark hair; and it was parted in the middle.  Registering surprise at being confronted by an adult, she took a step backward.  Devin quickly stepped inside.  Closing the door behind him, he said, “Good evening, mother.”


The foregoing description is not that of a real person.  There are a number of theories about what factors during childhood lead some to become serial killers.  Some researchers think that the condition is genetic, and some think it is a result of a killer’s environment,  Others think it is the result of both.  What I’ve attempted to offer with Devin’s story is a representative composite of a developing serial killer.  The background of the character described contains a constellation of experiences that are common to many serial killers.  Foremost among them are those known as the MacDonald, or terrible, triad:  These include bed wetting (nearly two-thirds of serial killers wet their beds past the age of 12; fire starting (many serial killers had a fascination with arson or started fires as children; and animal torture (many serial killers progressed to human victims after abusing small or dead animals).  Obsessive daydreams are also common factors.  It is, of course, important to note that few persons having such childhood experiences become serial killers and that daydreams and fantasies that are not obsessive are quite normal; but the daydreams experienced by serial killers are aggressive and develop and expand into their adulthood.  With each victim, they attempt to fine tune their performances so that their real experiences will be as perfect as their fantasies. Serial killer Ted Bundy referred to this as a “learning curve.”  A serial killer learns from the past and is constantly improving.  The emotional stimulation that results seems to induce ever bolder and more frequent attacks, sometimes with a complete disregard of personal risk.  At this stage, there are insufficient internal forces remaining to stop killing.  The only things that can stop the serial killer now are incarceration or death.  Fortunately, most persons who come even from extremely unhealthy backgrounds manage to control antisocial urges that might result from their childhood experiences … but there are always a few who do not.

Many serial killers have an experience known as a precrime stressor as a source of motivation.  In Devin’s case, it was his mother’s rejection.  Killing women like her was his attempt to gain emotional release.   Many serial killers also have particular methods of killing, and they can become the killers’ “trademarks.”

It should also be noted that serial killers rarely harm the major objects of their resentment.  In the foregoing story, Devin killed his mother simply to fulfill the October-horror-story tradition of Storytellers Unplugged writers.  Often, in fact, a serial killer does not even recognize the source of his or her resentment.  For example, David Berkowitz  (aka Son of Sam) reportedly stated that he had nothing against women and that he had no idea why he killed them.  Like Devin, however, he had been unwanted by his mother; and most of the women he killed resembled her.

Psychology is not an exact science, and attempts to categorize persons with psychological problems have led to categories that are not perfectly consistent.  Medical and legal definitions differ, and the latter even differ from state to state.

The following is an attempt to provide writers with information that is generally representative of a majority of serial killers.  To begin, let’s differentiate between types of multiple murderers – those who have killed at least two other persons.  As typically defined, major types include the following:

Mass murderers are those who kill at least four victims at one location during one continuous period.  The period can extend from the time it takes to fire a gun four times to a number of days.  The victims can be persons who live or work together or who simply happen to be at the same location.

Spree killers are those who kill at least two persons, each at a different location.  The killings are grouped as a single event because there is not what the FBI refers to as a “cooling off” period between murders.

Serial killers are those who kill at least three persons, each on separate occasions.  They usually plan ahead to murder selected victims, and they have cooling-off periods between killings.  Some kill victims in one area and others kill in distantly spaced locations.  Serial killers can be placed in two categories:  psychotics and psychopaths.  The former are legally insane and cannot differentiate between right and wrong.  Psychopaths are in touch with reality and can differentiate between right and wrong and appear to be normal, but they lack much of a conscience.  Psychopaths arguably have the most deviant minds that exist and should be the most feared.

Additionally, there is a subgroup of serial killers:

Visionary killers are commonly psychotic and murder certain persons because “voices” order them to do so.  Only about 10 percent of serial killers are psychotic, however.  David Berkowitz is an example of a psychotic.

Mission-oriented killers try to fulfill a “mission” to rid society of certain groups of persons, for example, prostitutes, that they consider as being too unworthy to live.

Hedonistic killers murder because they enjoy the pleasure it gives them.

The most common type of serial killer is out for power and control over their victims.  These often engage in rituals that mimic abuse they themselves suffered.

There is commonly a sexually related motive involved in male serial killings, and they are typically violent.  Most merge sex and violence into a single fantasy.  Male serial killers usually kill for elusive psychological gains.  They more often kill strangers, torture or mutilate, and report a sexual motive.  Money is a far more common motive for female serial killers, and the manner in which women kill is usually not very violent.  Poisoning is a fairly commonly used method; and their victims are usually husbands, persons in hospitals or nursing homes and relatively defenseless children and elderly persons.  Note, however, that it is not at all rare for females with antisocial personality disorder (APD) to manipulate a male to kill for her. That fact might produce an interesting plot twist.  Heterosexual male serial killers usually kill women and children; homosexual male serial killers usually kill gay men, prostitutes and hitchhikers.

Studies show that potential serial killers became solidified in their loneliness between the ages of 8 and 12, and such isolation is considered by some experts to be the single most important aspect of their psychological makeup.  Isolation, though, does not mean that all potential killers are destined to be introverted and shy.  Many are extroverted and conversationally adept, which belies their inner isolation.  Many believe that all serial killers are insane or are driven by voices only they can hear and/or hallucinations that only they can see.  These are categorized as visionaries, and they are relatively rare (only about ten percent of serial killers are psychotic), but voices reportedly told Herbert Mullins to kill to prevent earthquakes in California.  During his trial, he took pains to point out that, during his 13-victim murder spree, California was indeed spared from earthquakes.

Fantasy cannot be overemphasized as being an extremely important factor in the development of a serial killer.  Some have daydreams about domination and murder even prior to their adolescence.  Often, elements of their fantasies carry over into their subsequent real crimes.

The following are some serial-killer-related statistics (some of which vary from source to source):

Most are in 20s or 30s when first they kill
Less than 20 % kill for money
22% kill at least one stranger
58% set fires, destroy property and steal
62% kill strangers exclusively
67% are rebellious  and have nightmares
68% are bed wetters
71% kill in a specific location or area
71% have isolated childhoods and lie habitually
80% run away from home
83% have severe temper tantrums
85% are Caucasian
88% are male

Note that the foregoing statistics are generally shared by serial killers but should not be assumed to apply rigorously to a specific individual.

Now that you all have the foregoing to keep you awake at night, I must add that serial killings are not necessarily the work of lone killers.  One can share his killings with another person while still being addicted to the same fantasy.  In fact, killings have been recorded that were done not only by pairs but by dysfunctional families.

As you might imagine, there is a huge amount of information about serial killers in the form of accounts and theories – much too much to include in a simple essay – so I have mercifully limited these remarks to a piece that will take readers less than a whole afternoon to read.

Have a  haunting Halloween, everyone; but be careful for whom you open your door.  THEY are out there . . . somewhere.


Swimming with sharks

October 11th, 2007 5 comments

I read on the first that October is typically a month for short fiction. Well, I’m not an author, so I figured I’d pass on that tradition.

Then I saw how many other people were passing on that tradition as well, and changed my mind.


I regret to write that as of this issue, we will no longer be featuring original poetry.

For the readers who have paid for subscriptions based solely on our magazine’s reputation as a publisher of new material, I wish to say that I share your disappointment, and I deeply apologize for the format change.

Those who remember last month’s editorial may remember that I promised to give the reasons for any future alterations of format. That was written in anticipation of this column.

It has become an accepted policy to cite polite fictions… pardon the irony… for such changes. As we have never followed the pack, however, I am going to provide a quick summation of the reason for the change.

1) Harper v. Hill. While this case was celebrated in the media at the time, it has since become the obvious tipping point. Miles Harper was reading a book by Joe Hill while in the bathtub. His wife surprised him by opening the door unannounced, and he banged his head against the tile and subsequently drowned. Harper’s son sued, claiming that the novel had gotten the normally languid husband into the state of excitement which caused his rapid movement and death. It was revealed that Miles Harper, while a prodigious reader of more than six books per year, had never read horror or suspense fiction before, and had been encouraged to do so by the ad campaign. Despite the wealth/poverty and racial issues brought forth during argument, the lack of familiarity with the format proved to be the linchpin of the case. Cutting through the legalese, Hill was found partially complicit in Harper’s death.

2) National Athiest Action League v. Lewis. An attempted class action suit against the estate of C.S. Lewis, claiming damages from the theological messages within Lewis’ fiction. This established the precedent that lawsuits could not be brought against authors or their estates for work published prior to Harper v. Hill if physical injury could not be demonstrated. The wording of the decision, however, led to a flurry of similar, more successful lawsuits against subtext and meaning in popular fiction.

3) Consolidated Avionics and Robotics v. Silverberg. This lawsuit nearly bankrupted Robert Silverberg, one of science fiction’s most successful authors, when C.A.R. successfully argued that the capabilities of a vehicle in one of Silverberg’s recent stories created undue pressure upon the industry to meet those capabilities in reality. Using precedent of Harper V. Hill, Thomas v. Palahniuk, and others, the ruling stood a challenge at the Supreme Court.

Unsurprisingly, these and associated rulings have diminished submissions of new fiction to nearly zero. We have been successfully (or so we hope) researching and reprinting some of the best fiction of the previous century, and we have been printing new poetry and nonfiction.

Last month, a decision was rendered in Dobson v. Jacob in which Charlee Jacob was found liable for use of “objectionable imagery” in a two-word segment of one of her poems, and fined $25,000. In light of this, we have decided to shield our poets from potential damages, and have instead used some public domain work from a long-deceased poet named Clark Ashton Smith to fill out our pages.

As always, we hope you, the reader, continue to enjoy the magazine at it evolves and grows.


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