Expert Witness: Behind the Scenes with a Real-life Forensic Scientist
“The CSI effect” refers to the influence of forensic science-themed TV shows on public perception, particularly when it comes to the courtroom. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, in case you’re completely out of touch, is the most popular TV drama in the world. In each episode, a group of crime scene investigators working for the Las Vegas Police Department uses forensic evidence to solve a gnarly murder, usually while wearing very smart suits and the occasional pair of high heels.
New Zealanders seem to love the show. While I was writing this, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation was playing on TV3 on Monday nights, with spinoffs CSI: New York playing late on a Friday night, and CSI: Miami showing on Sunday nights.
The success of CSI – as well as being hugely popular it has won American and international awards – has led to all sorts of lookalike shows. Some nights it is hard to turn on the TV without finding yourself looking at a crime scene. A skim through the New Zealand Listener’s TV pages shows that Criminal Minds, City Homicide, Body of Proof, Cold Case, NCIS, and Special Victims Unit are all playing at the moment. Forensic science programmes are hot. No wonder they influence public perception.
When it comes to the courtroom, “the CSI effect” has been blamed for giving jurors the expectation that every crime will be solved with excellent and incontrovertible forensic evidence. In her new book, Expert Witness, forensic science consultant Dr Anna Sandiford also blames “the CSI effect” for giving people a false idea about her job. They think, she says, that “it’s sexy, intriguing, indescribably useful and vital for case solving”.
So what is it really like? That’s what this book is about. Expert Witness is presented as “a real-life look at the inner workings of forensic science”, using examples from high-profile international cases and Sandiford’s own work in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
The opening paragraph is vivid, like the set-up for a TV episode:
I am standing in a large, old unfurnished room with a partially carpeted concrete floor and only one exit. A convicted murderer stands between me and the exit. There’s nowhere to hide. I’m kneeling on the floor with my head bowed down, close to the unmoving dirt and dust around the edges of the room. The air is hot, humid, heavy, oppressive. Sweat slowly rolls down through my hair and I hope he can’t see it – it’s a sign of weakness and I don’t want him to know about it. I can feel him looking right at me. I feel self-conscious and I don’t know whether I should meet his eye. As I look around, I see blood on the floor. Fresh blood. I’m so close to it I can taste it in the back of my mouth.
And I’m hooked. Sandiford goes on to reveal that the “notorious, infamous” convicted murderer she shares the room with is David Bain, and the “forthright and solidly built” man with him is Joe Karam. After explaining what she’s doing in a bloody room with Bain and Karam, Sandiford teases us by leaving full discussion of the Bain case, for which she coordinated the defence’s forensic evidence, to the last chapter.
The cover of the book, with its blood-splattered text and background image of a blood-smeared padlocked door, led me to expect page after page of dripping blood, knife wounds, and torture chambers inside dark basements. With that sensational promise, it was a bit of a letdown to find much of the first section given over to details of Sandiford’s career path and discussion of drunk-driving cases. While these include colourful portrayals of defendants (a surprising number of whom turn up to court drunk) and legal staff, and interesting details of how alcohol behaves inside the body, the book gets much more interesting when Sandiford turns to the stories which involve the “traces of all sorts of things” that are left behind in crime scenes. The sort of stuff CSI’s investigators do.
This is what we tend to think of as real forensic science: collecting and analysing samples – soil, pollen, ash, glass fragments, nail polish, ear wax, other bodily fluids – from crime scenes. And it’s not all about grisly murders. When the captain of an expensive charter vessel notices unsightly brown dots on his boat’s white paintwork he blames the scruffy trawler undergoing maintenance in the berth beside him. Enter Sandiford and her team. After collecting samples from both vessels, she subjects them to scanning electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction and reveals it’s more likely to be ash from White Island’s recent eruption. It’s a bit hard to sue somebody for that.
Pollen analysis, Sandiford explains, can be used to determine where cannabis was grown, where cocaine or heroin was “cut”, or for confirming or defending an alibi about where a defendant says they were. In a chapter on forensic toxicology, a science that crops up most commonly in rape and sexual assault charges, murders and prison drug tests, Sandiford leads us through the detection of drug decay products, or metabolites, in “blood, urine, stools or body parts such as a liver or liquid from the eyeball”, or as Sandiford puts it, “not the sort of [samples] that most people would want to handle just before lunch time”. But it’s all part of being a forensic scientist. “My job is to solve a problem using science and that’s exactly what I set out to do,” she says.
While she comes across as a successful and glamorous businesswoman – in her words she’s “40 years old and five-feet eight inches tall, with longish blonde hair” – my inner nerd was pleased to find a touch of the nerd about her too: after she and her colleagues get drunk at her work Christmas party they test the breath alcohol device against their own calculations of what their breath alcohol should be.
Business and glamour aside, Sandiford is first and foremost a scientist, trained in geology and then forensic science. As well as running her business and completing casework, she occasionally has time for her own research. On page 181 – by which time I was delighted to find some of the promised gore – we find her “boiling the snot of dead people” as part of a research project she designed to find a new way of collecting pollen from nasal passages.
The old method of collecting samples from a corpse’s nasal passages, Sandiford explains, involved:
removing the top of the skull with a saw, removing the brain … peeling of the basal lining of the skull, breaking through the bony base of the skull and into the nasal passage. The corpse is then turned on its side, a warm water and shampoo mixture is flushed through the nasal passages and the emerging liquid is caught in a bowl as it exits the nasal passages.
Sandiford’s research project is to find a way of collecting pollen samples from noses without removing brains – it should be faster and cheaper.
And while she can be funny – seeing a human brain for the first time, she says, was “the same as seeing Big Ben or a kiwi for the first time – they really do look like they look in the pictures” – the book has a serious side. “When your day-to-day job involves tripping around the countryside collecting fly pupae off rotting corpses, sometimes the circumstances get to you every now and then, you need help dealing with the disgustingness of it.”
One of the ways Sandiford’s work has impacted on her daily life is that she now seems to look at the world as if it’s a crime scene, finding herself watching people at the supermarket as if she’ll later be recalled to describe them to the police. And she’s vigilant in the way she lives her life:
I’ve stopped writing anything vaguely important on pads of paper because of the impressions left on underlying pages … . I drive with my car doors locked … . I park my car in well lit places, preferably with CCTV cameras, which I try to turn and face without drawing too much attention to myself … . I don’t put any personal information into rubbish bins and Facebook details are a no-no.”
With her eye for detail and vivid character portrayals, Sandiford has the descriptive capabilities of a crime writer. She also has the chatty, funny, informal style of a great talker. I look forward to hearing her speak about her work at Going West in September.
Science writer Rebecca Priestley will be in conversation with Anna Sandiford at the Going West Books and Writers Festival on 11 September.