Miniatures have always intrigued and impressed me, whether individual glass creations or furniture/decorative pieces made for dollhouses. The detail and craftsmanship needed for the exquisite designs requires a steady hand, lots of patience, and really good eyesight. A great magnifier comes in handy as well.
Not long ago, I binge-watched an old police procedural show, Rizzoli & Isles, that usually got the details right and often featured interesting forensic tools used during the investigations. One of the episodes showcased crime scene dioramas, an item new to me, but not to the field of forensics.
I researched the method of replicating specific scenes as shown in R & I and found that the technique originated back in the 1940s with Frances Glessner Lee, a woman fascinated by, and well versed in, miniatures. The first woman police captain in the U.S., she devised the dollhouse sized true crime scenes to “find the truth in a nutshell,” and to assist in training investigators to search for details they might otherwise miss. Her work in this area earned her the name of “mother of forensic science” as well helping to found the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University, where the dioramas were kept and studied.
The dioramas are so true to life that they contain details like teeny bullet holes, blood pools, headlines on newspapers, ‘rope’ made from thread, made-to-scale (one inch to one foot) bodies with accurately placed wounds, fully stocked kitchens, and much more. This fascinating way of studying grim crime scenes, preserved the information gleaned from the evidence in a way that no other method at the time did. Some crime scene photographs were taken back then, but not with the inch by inch digital coverage or video that we employ today. Lee took meticulous notes at the actual scenes and transferred that to her dioramas, sometimes taking five years to complete.
After Lee’s death in 1962, the nineteen remaining dioramas were transferred to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, Maryland, and were on display at the Smithsonian in 2017-18. Modern day homicide investigation trainees can still benefit from these re-creations and in fact participate in classes where they study the dioramas and come up with solutions to the crimes depicted. Emily Rancourt, former police crime scene investigator now teaching at George Mason University, toured the Smithsonian exhibit with colleagues and said, “You don’t want your first time coming on a crime scene to be a real crime scene.” Trainees have an opportunity to develop observational skills before having to do so in the field.
The 21st century has brought a renewed interest to crime scene dioramas. One person in this specialized arena, Abigail Goldman, creates modern day ‘Dieoramas’ that have been featured in art galleries, on radio shows, and innewspapers in the United States. She has worked as an investigator for the public defender in Bellingham, Washington, re-creating murder scenes. Her larger dieoramas are 1:87 scale — the human figures in each work are under an inch tall. The scenes range from 8 inches square to more than 3 feet long.
Interested in making a diorama of your own? Some high schools and colleges assign the projects, requiring the work to be done with miniatures readily available in toy stores and to be presented in shoe boxes. If you do make one, let us know the challenges in doing so.
*Dioramas by Lee photos: courtesy of the Smithsonian
*Rancourt quote: Washington Post, November, 2017. “Can bloody dioramas show how to investigate a murder? These forensic experts say yes.” By Tom Jackman
Forensic: relating to or dealing with the application of scientific knowledge to legal problems (Merriam-Webster dictionary definition)
Back when I began in the Police Department (longer ago than I care to admit) the word ‘forensic’ was rarely used by police officers on the street. We knew to be careful if we were first to arrive at crime scene so that potential evidence wouldn’t be compromised, and the detectives pointed us to what needed to be preserved or uncovered so that a case could be proved. We dealt with physical collection, not analysis.
Analysis of the evidence is in the purview of the forensic scientists, the detectives, and the D.A.’s office.
Forensic Science is the broad term encompassing a wide range of forensic specialties and these days, is often shortened to ‘forensics,’ as in: ‘Let’s take a look at the forensics on the case.’ But what area of forensic science is required to solve a case? It depends. The prosecutor doesn’t need the findings from a dental x-ray when dealing with a known victim, but might need the results of a forensic toxicologist’s tests to determine a seemingly suspicious cause of death.
Most evidence is collected from the scene of the crime by trained local law enforcement personnel (that includes the photographer and the fingerprint person) in smaller jurisdictions, specifically assigned crime scene investigators (CSIs) in larger municipalities, and if needed, the forensic scientists themselves.
For the most part, the processing of body evidence is completed in labs or during autopsies in hospital, police, or State morgues. Other than body tissue or bodily fluids, things that shouldn’t be there (bullets, metal fragments, gravel, etc.) are sent out for testing. Experts might be tapped for their opinions about certain marks on the body that would have caused a blunt force trauma or other types of violent death, or for the condition of recovered remains.
Non-body evidence would be gathered from the scene and sent for processing to a lab that specializes in that area of analysis. Most States in the USA have centralized labs for various umbrellas of expertise, since smaller towns just don’t have the financial wherewithal (equipment and personnel) to handle finite investigations. In these days of post CSI TV shows, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike need to nail down the suspect’s guilt with absolute certainty for the public, so they rely on forensic test results and/or experts in the field to convince the jury of a suspect’s guilt or innocence.
So, who does what and how do they help the prosecution or defense teams? Listed below are some of the many forensic specialties.
Bloodstain Pattern Specialist determines the point of origin of an impact pattern as well as the movement of people after being hit or shot.
Digital Forensic Analyst recovers or investigates data from electronic or digital media, including audio and video recordings, and computers. These days, the skill set may also include the ability to investigate cellphones and other mobile devices for the call history, deleted messages, and corrupted SIM cards.
Forensic Accountant finds accounting discrepancies and interprets them for fraud or tax evasion cases as well as other criminal activities.
Forensic Anthropologist helps identify skeletonized human remains.
Forensic Ballisticsexpert investigates the use of firearms and ammo from a crime scene.
Forensic Botanist can determine where a body or suspect may have been because of the plant life found in or around the body or suspect.
Forensic Chemist detects and identifies illegal drugs seized during a drug bust, or found in a body.
Forensic DNA analyst does paternity/maternity testing or places a suspect at a crime scene.
Forensic Document Examiner interprets document evidence to determine authenticity of wills or potential forgeries.
Forensic Entomologist exams insects in, on, and around human remains to help establish the time and place of death.
Forensic Facial Reconstructionist works with the skulls of recovered remains to identify them.
Forensic Geologist analyzes trace evidence establishing where a body was killed or whether it was moved to a different location.
Forensic Limnologist analyzes evidence collected in or around fresh water sources. Examination of biological organisms can connect suspects with victims.
Forensic Odonatologist compares dental records with teeth of the corpse when facial recognition isn’t likely or possible.
Forensic Pathologist applies principles of medicine and pathology to determine a cause of death or injury for legal purposes.
Forensic Photographer creates an accurate photographic record of a crime scene to aid investigations and court proceedings.
Forensic Serologist tests body fluids for rape cases or to determine if blood on the body belongs to that person or someone else.
Forensic Toxicologist analyzes the effect of drugs and poisons on the human body.
Trace Evidence Analyst analyzes trace evidence including glass, paint, fibers, hair, etc. that occurs when different objects contact one another.
Shoe companies, gun manufacturers, tire companies, etc. all keep records of their products made and distributed over time. In the age of computers, some enterprising criminalists created a variety of national databases with information on multiple companies and their products. The goal? To make it easier to match up shoe prints, or skid marks, or bullets to a particular person or crime scene. With a little luck, and research/chemical testing, even filed down serial numbers can be revealed, and a firearm can be traced back to its manufacturer, point of sale, and the owner. Tire impressions at a crime scene can be matched to a database to discover the make and model of a vehicle that may have been there. Distinctive shoe prints in the mud outside a house can be matched to a suspected burglar, or rule him/her out.
Who makes sense of all of the information observed and gathered at a crime scene? Generally, it’s a team effort, not the achievement of just one person that heroically solves the mystery of the who, what, when, where, and why of a crime scene. But the Forensic Scientists (or Criminalists) play a big role in identifying the pertinent pieces of the puzzle. They can answer questions about what they discovered while comparing body evidence, trace evidence, fingerprints, footwear impressions, drugs, ballistics, paper trails, etc., and the detectives or investigators most familiar with the case pull it all together.
Somebody asked me recently if just anyone can tack ‘Forensic’ in front of their job title. Not likely. For instance, a Forensic Accountant is much more than a savvy bookkeeper. They have advanced degrees and certifications specifically geared toward discovering whether a crime has occurred in complex situations, evaluating whether there might have been criminal intent, and then communicating that information in a way that a layperson can understand it. From Investopedia.com: “The reason we understand the nature of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme today is because forensic accountants dissected the scheme and made it understandable for the court case.”
This level of expertise is required in every area of forensic analysis.
NOTE: This was updated in August, 2019 to reflect new information. 🙂
Part 2 – information about Evidence Collection Training Classes held at SIRCHIE.
Click here for Part 1 – PW: “Have you been fingerprinted?”
During the first two days of Evidence Collection Training, we used a number of chemicals, fingerprint powders, and brushes, and employed several different fingerprint lifting techniques on a variety of tricky surfaces. We discussed the benefits of both cheap and costly Alternate Light Sources.
Our notebooks were filling up and theories of the perfect crime were flying around the class. We kept quizzing Robert Skiff, our instructor, (Sirchie Training Manager/Technical Training Specialist) about ways to ‘get away with the murder of the decade.’ But, as we learned, there is no perfect crime. That pesky trace evidence will always be waiting at every scene for the investigator to discover it, photograph it, tag it, bag it, and transport it without losing the integrity of the sample.
It was time to visit the plant – see how the powders, brushes, and other crime scene paraphernalia were made.
Sirchie manufactures most of its products in-house. The specialized vehicles for SWAT, bomb rescue, arson investigation, and surveillance work, etc., will now be built in North Carolina, along with the smaller products.
Security was carefully controlled throughout our tour. Most of our group writes crime fiction, so we are always looking for a way our fictional criminals can break in (or out of) a wild assortment of locations. As we walked through the stacks and aisles of products, we commented to each other on the smooth organization and many checks Sirchie had in place. Cameras everywhere. Limited access to the assembly floor. Labyrinths a person could easily get turned around in. If we got separated from the group while taking an extra photo or two, we were found and escorted back by an always friendly employee.
Of course, we couldn’t turn into rogue students anyway. Our fingerprints littered the classroom and they knew where we lived.
Security plays a part in the assembly model as well. Each product they create is put together from start to finish by hand. There are no assembly lines because of trade secrets and a dedication to preserving product integrity. Personnel are carefully screened before being hired and qualification for employment includes graduate degrees. No criminal history whatsoever is allowed. Every employee comes through the Evidence Collection Training Class so that they understand what Sirchie does as a whole.
Templates for the various products are created in-house. The operators of these machines are highly trained experts. Quality control is paramount, so training is constant.
All the printing is done in-house. The printing area was stacked with cases of items being packaged for shipment. We saw strips large enough to process tire treads.
Field Kits are created for general use by investigators, but can be specifically designed for a special need. The small vials contain enough chemicals to test unknown stains and substances at the scene. Note the dense foam holding the vials and bottles firmly in place. The kits are usually kept in the trunk and probably get tossed around quite a bit. The foam insures against breakage during car chases and while bumping across uneven road surfaces.
There are fiberglass brushes, feather dusters for the very light powder, regular stiffer brushes, and magnetic powder brush applicators.
We were lucky enough to see fiberglass brushes being made.
If a handgun is seized for evidence, there needs to be a simple, yet effective way to track chain of possession.
*Bag the gun to preserve the fingerprints and
*drop the gun in the box.
*Then fill in the blanks on the box.
*Easy to stack and store until needed.
Think of all the cases that may be ongoing in a large jurisdiction – the evidence is not sitting at the police station. It’s in a warehouse someplace, and needs to be easily identified when required for court. In addition to several sized boxes for guns and knives, etc. Sirchie also provides an incredible assortment of resealable plastic bags for preserving evidence like clothing, unidentified fibers, etc.
Magnetic powder was being processed that day and then put into rows and rows of jars and jugs. Before it is sent out to the customers, each lot is tested for moisture content, appropriate ratio of ingredients and other trade secret tests. We joked about taking some back to class for the next round of fingerprint study and were surprised by how heavy the jugs were.
No, she’s not making bullets. She is assembling the cyanowand cartridges used for fuming with superglue.
SIRCHIE makes riot gear.
This is not a photo of something from a SyFy movie. At the center of the shot is a helmet template. The drills encircling the template are aimed at spots where holes are needed for each helmet, depending on the type of helmet in production. All the holes are drilled at the same time.
The Optical Comparator, as well as the other machines, is built to order by hand.
While in the warehouse, we learned that if a product is discontinued, it is still supported by Sirchie. That means that if a law enforcement officer calls up with a problem a few years after purchasing a machine, he can still get help. Reassuring for jurisdictions with a tight budget that can’t afford to replace expensive equipment every year or two.
Sirchie sends supplies to TV shows, so next time you’re watching a fave detective or examiner lift prints with a hinge lifter, it may have come from Sirchie.