The boring life of a forensic scientist

photo credit: dhammza via photopin cc
photo credit: dhammza via photopin cc

I’m up to my eyeballs in life. So much so, that I can’t find any time to write. Not a blog post, not a critique, not an email, not even a Facebook post. So I’m squeezing this post in while printing reams of case file. Why? Because I’m consulting on a large criminal DNA case.

In my past life, I used to be a forensic scientist. Not the cool CSI kind that goes to crime scenes, analyzes evidence, confronts suspects, and solves the case all while the detectives look on with interest, but the real kind–the one that wears a lab coat, works in a lab, analyzes evidence, writes reports, and sometimes testifies. No cool dialog. And only some of the cool toys you see on TV.

I told my critique partners I was going to be taking a hiatus until I get this case review finished and they were jazzed. They want me to write murder mysteries and cool crime things. If I write a story about working in a crime lab, it would be a great bedtime story for its soporific effects. (In common lingo, it would put you to sleep). Nonetheless, while my printer keeps malfunctioning, it does give me time to pontificate about my ex-forensic science status, and I was looking for something to post, so…

Let me give you a brief idea of what life was like, and then you guys ask me questions and I’ll answer them. Just keep in mind, I can talk in general about cases, but I can’t give out details of cases I’ve worked. Also keep in mind that I worked in a DNA lab, which meant that about half of our cases were personal crimes (assault, sexual assault, homicide). Many of the things I’ve seen, read, and worked are either disturbing or for mature readers only.

photo credit: jurvetson via photopin cc
photo credit: jurvetson via photopin cc

Each crime lab does things slightly different. I can tell you this, because I’ve audited several of them. I enjoyed visiting other labs and seeing how they handled the basics of dealing with evidence–receiving it, storing it, analyzing it, reporting it.

Public crime labs, which are run by city or county governments or police departments, have their own jurisdictions. Rules of evidence vary from state to state. Some states require crime labs to be accredited, some do not. Some crime labs require their analysts to be certified, most do not. The federal government counters some of this variability by requiring any laboratory using their national DNA database, the COmbined DNA Index System (CODIS), to show compliance with their standards, including accreditation, procedures for dealing with evidence, personnel training and qualifications, facility requirements, etc. (Am I boring you yet?).

The basic point is that while most crime laboratories have to comply to a national standard, and it is not a strict as what you might expect. Some laboratories go above and beyond the standards and do a rigorous and thorough job (like the lab where I worked), and others struggle to meet minimum requirements whether due to budgetary constraints, lack of training, or other problems.

That’s where our adversarial judicial system becomes important. While I worked for a county crime lab for almost eleven years on the prosecution side of DNA cases, I am now consulting for the defense. My job is to look at the laboratory documents produced on discovery to see whether they make sense. Did the lab do their job? Did they follow their procedures? Are their procedures in line with the national requirements? Do their conclusions make sense? In other words, I’m there to look at the case and make sure the defense attorney understands what the reports mean and whether there were any problems in the case file. 

I’m done printing, so it’s time to get to work. I’m happy to answer questions. Let’s have fun with this.






14 thoughts on “The boring life of a forensic scientist

  1. Very interesting. Did you ever have to report on a case where the evidence was presented to you/the lab with a story of what had happened in the crime scene and you had to disagree based upon your findings? (That would make a great story…. hollywoodized of course for effect.


  2. So you’re like Abbey in NCIS? 😉

    Wasn’t there recently a big thing in the news about a woman out east who had been taking advantage of her position in a lab to fabricate evidence? I seem to remember hearing about something.

    Anyway, I’m pretty sure I have a “cousin-in-law” who works for Wyoming State Forensics in a lab. But I haven’t heard any stories. I *have* heard, though, that TV drastically over-exaggerates what is really possible?


    1. Yes, indeed. I used to have to give tours to groups that would come to visit our office. The first thing you have to do is dispel the myths behind the TV shows. Also, when you testify, you have to dispel the myths for the jury.

      The only problem? I don’t watch those TV shows. 😉 But this is worth a post for sure. Thanks!


      1. My husband watched a few Criminal Minds before deciding they are much too dark for him to be comfortable with, even though he loved the psychology in them. I watched a few CSI episodes but they always have the camera zoom along after the bullet inside the person so you can see it tearing blood vessels or break bones – too graphic for me. NCIS we both love but I always have to look away from the screen whenever they are in the autopsy room, which is too often. *sigh* Monk & Psych are safest but they don’t tend to deal with forensics as much!


  3. Doesn’t sound boring at all! We are huge fans of Criminal Minds so we get into this kind of thing. I’m pretty sure all the nifty resources the BAU uses aren’t available in real life. What ONE thing do you wish was at your disposal that all the cool TV characters routinely use?


    1. Time. Everything goes so fast on TV but not in real life. I’ve only seen Criminal Minds a couple of times (a long while ago). I don’t much watch TV, and then usually not crime shows. My husband finds me annoying when I laugh and laugh during TV dramas. 😉


      1. Ha – it’s always neat to get the perspective from someone in the know, but I can see how it would be tough to watch those shows. Like a lawyer watching legal shows or a doctor watching medical shows. In a similar vein, I had to quit reading the Left Behind series when I tried several years ago. My husband enjoyed the series so I wanted to share that with him. But let’s just say I hold to a less popular end-time view and so I didn’t take the books as seriously as he’d have liked. 😉


  4. Very interesting, Lisa! I’ve been on a couple juries that used lab info. Can you comment on the HPD crime lab troubles without getting too disparaging?? Or is that more specific than you’d care to be?


    1. I’d be happy to talk about the HPD issues. I think I can offer a unique perspective that wouldn’t be disparaging. At least, not any more than the truth is disparaging. I’ll add it to the list. Thanks!!


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