Interview with Tom Adair

Tom, welcome to TheCrimeHouse!

Tom Adair is an internationally recognized forensic scientist from Colorado with 15 years of forensic experience. We are excited that Tom agreed to answer our questions. Read more about Tom here.

What are the most important qualities you need to have to become a good forensic scientist?

This is a critical question that employers and criminalist have struggled with for decades, especially as our profession becomes more technologically advanced. In the “old days” many crime scene investigators were simply detectives who, for one reason or another, were assigned to the crime lab. Many of these guys had great “street sense” and reasoning skills but may have lacked a true scientific background. Today, many criminalists are required to have a strong scientific background and be technically savvy. I suspect the best criminalists have both qualities; that is a mixture of deductive/inductive reasoning and technical proficiency. I have written a guide for prospective students looking to begin a career in criminalistics that addresses many of the issues that can make or break their efforts to obtain a career in law enforcement. That guide can be found through the following link.

What type of training/education do most people who work with forensic science have?

This can really vary from person to person and agency to agency. Some agencies require certain types of degrees while other smaller agencies may not. Today most “new” criminalists have a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in the biological sciences, chemistry, or criminal justice. Having said that, I have worked with CSIs having only an Art degree. Today, there a numerous degree programs in forensics at the university level but that wasn’t always the case. In any event, the training received at most universities is theoretical for the most part with some hands-on laboratory exposure. As such, the university degree is just a starting point. Much of the criminalists training come in the form of crime scene/laboratory work by mentorship and attendance in specialized schools or training seminars. If you’ve ever been in the military you’ll be somewhat familiar with this process. You may end up taking several weeks of specialized training each year (budget allowing) in addition to what they learn “on the job”. Beyond training, there are a variety of board certifications that one can test for. Each of these fields have certain pre-requisites for the testing process and then require a certain amount of training specific to that field every five years in order to maintain it. This is in addition to published papers or teaching seminars.

How many forensic scientists are usually working on a case (with one victim)?

Again this is sometimes more of a function of agency size than crime type. It is possible to have only one criminalist available to respond to a crime scene (even a homicide) for a variety of reasons. Others may be tied up on other scenes, they may be testifying in court, be sick, or on vacation to name a few reasons. In “less serious” crimes like burglary, assault, recovered stolen vehicles, etc it would be common to send only one criminalist to process the scene. Major cases like homicides or crimes having multiple crime scenes (like a bank robbery and the site where the getaway vehicle was dumped or the suspect’s house, etc) may require several criminalists to respond. Sometimes scientists respond because they have a particular expertise like bloodstain pattern analysis, footwear analysis, meth lab response, entomology, etc. that the general CSI may not have. On really big scenes like school shootings or other sites of mass murder you might find dozens of experts from a variety of agencies because of the shear size of the scene.

Who collects the forensic evidence at a crime scene?

If the criminalist responds to the scene they usually take responsibility to collect all evidence, but criminalists don’t respond to every crime scene. Detectives and patrol officers also collect evidence unless there is something about the evidence requiring specialized equipment to detect and collect it. Now if an officer or detective “finds” the evidence before the criminalist arrives (like during the search of the suspect or his/her vehicle) then they have to book it into evidence and maintain the chain of custody. Those scenes on television where the detective finds the gun hidden somewhere and then nonchalantly hands it to the CSI saying “Book this into the lab for me” doesn’t (or shouldn’t) happen. If this has to happen then at the very least the detective has to file a supplemental report detailing where they found it, the condition of the item (was the gun loaded? Safety on? Round in the chamber? Etc) when they found it and whom they turned it over to. Then there is more paperwork in the evidence section.

Is it the same people who also handle the evidence in the lab?

In some cases yes, others no. In the career preparation guide I mention above I describe the different types of CSI positions. There are some scientists who do a majority of their work in the laboratory. These people are referred to as specialists/bench analysts and can include DNA, drugs, fingerprints, etc. They can respond to crime scenes but that may be infrequent. In some laboratories there is a squad of CSIs who only respond to crime scenes. They do not process evidence in the laboratory (maybe some minor things like photography or fingerprint processing) at the specialist level. In other laboratories (like the ones I’ve worked in) the CSI responds to crime scenes and then processes evidence at the specialist level (if it is in their field of expertise). If your characters are based on a real world agency then I’d suggest you check with them to see how they assign their duties.

Are people who collect evidence at a crime scene required to wear hairnets?

This is a question relating more to an agencies policy. Criminalists routinely wear personal protective equipment (PPE) like latex gloves to protect themselves as well as to keep them from leaving their own DNA and fingerprints on objects they may collect. On some scenes they may wear full Tyvek (bunny) suits or full biohazard suits with SCBA’s but I have found this to be rare in the US. European agencies seem to wear suits with more regularity. As to hair nets I’ve never seen anyone wear one at a crime scene. If hair evidence (structural; not DNA) was important on scene the lab could always collect samples from the people on scene for comparison and elimination. Today, hair evidence is examined as much for DNA as it is for structural features. Remember, the first responders won’t be wearing this kind of protective gear and may shed evidence or destroy it in their duties. It’s something we have to deal with no matter what.

How much does different things cost, e.g. how much does it cost to do a fingerprint analysis?

Cost is rarely a consideration for law enforcement agencies in the US as the work is done “in-house”. These examinations are measured in time (backlog) and not really in cost. We have a pretty good idea from past year’s statistics how many exams we will be performing and we always have money in other funds that can be used if need be. A fingerprint examination may use chemical reagents while others may just require an examiner to look at a latent lift from a crime scene to the inked impression from a suspect. When using certain reagents the most cost effective approach is to mix your own from bulk stock supplies. You may spend $100.00 on bulk chemicals for a particular exam but by mixing them yourself can get dozens or hundreds of exams from that stock. Some agencies rely on pre-mixed or pre-measured “kits” which increases costs per test but also reduces time needed to prepare reagents. For example, if you bought dental stone in bulk for casting footwear impressions it might only cost around $2.50 per cast while buying a pre-measured bag might cost $10.00 per cast depending on the product. Every agency I have worked in buys products in bulk when they can and then measures them out in quantities that make sense for them, but bottom line cost is not typically the driving force.

Evidence that has to be submitted to a private laboratory can be very expensive. This might be done if the test is very rare or requires specialized state of the art equipment not available to the agency. Some examples might include transferring old video or magnetic data into a modern format, non-human DNA analysis or species identification, specialized chemical analysis, etc that only a handful of laboratories may conduct. These exams could cost several thousand dollars a piece. Between the FBI and other federal labs there are few exams that can not be conducted (at no cost to the requesting agency) and there are a number of University labs that may conduct examinations at no charge “for the public good”. In my fifteen years we only required outside testing to be done in three or four cases. In one of these cases we requested a well known research hospital to test a tissue sample for a genetic anomaly that may have contributed to the victim’s death but the examination was conducted at no charge to us.

Are there financial considerations when you do a DNA test?

Again, general DNA testing is so common that testing is pretty well budgeted annually. I can’t imagine a test wouldn’t be conducted based on cost unless the test was unwarranted. For example, I’ve seen detectives request DNA testing on blood on gauze or wound dressings from the victim. There’s really no doubt who the blood came from so the testing is not needed (we’d draw blood from a victim for testing). But cost wouldn’t be a consideration on a bloodstain found at the crime scene unless it was part of a larger pattern that has already been tested. For example, if we collected blood samples from a walking blood trail that traveled a hundred feet down a sidewalk we’re not going to swab and test every single droplet in that trail. We might test one at the beginning, middle, and end but not every one.

How long does it take to get a response?

Cases are typically done in order of crime severity. A homicide is going to take precedence over a burglary. On expedited cases you can get results back in 2-3 days. Other cases might take a few weeks or months depending on case backlogs which are effected by availability of personnel, equipment (only so many samples can be tested at a time), number of testing samples to be tested (a homicide with 50 samples is going to tie up machines longer than a burglary with one sample), and other considerations like court ordered tests.

Is it possible to speed up the process if it is urgent?

The process can’t be sped up but the order of testing can be changed (your evidence goes to the front of the waiting line). Judges may also issue a court order to test certain items for trial to ensure the defendant is allowed a speedy trial. So you could have DNA evidence from a burglary that is tested before a homicide because the court orders it so. There is also a phenomenon of the abused “rush request” that can cause havoc in the lab. Prosecutors and detectives soon learn that if they have a “rush” request they will get their results back sooner. The “rush request” is only meant to be used in true emergencies (like you have a serial rapist on the loose) but the process can be abused and some detectives will put a “rush” on every case regardless of the circumstances because they simply want to get the results ASAP without consideration of the other people waiting on results in their cases.

In the TV series CSI they seem to spend a lot of resources on each case. Is it financially possible to do that in reality?

If the laboratory already has the equipment and capability, then yes. Interestingly, time is scarcer than money at times. The call load of a particular lab may prohibit them from spending a lot of time (and thus resources) investigating a case. You know those episodes where they spend days setting up lasers and doing mock-ups? That may be nearly impossible because other calls for service are coming in or they have other required commitments (like court) that pulls them away. I wish it wasn’t the case but it is in some places. I’ve been pretty fortunate to work in agencies that had a pretty manageable case load. If we needed three days to process a crime scene it typically wasn’t a problem. In high crime areas they may not have that luxury, even if they have the equipment (lasers) and experts available.

What are some things that movies imply are possible that are not possible at a real crime scene in terms of linking suspects to a crime?

While many of the things you seen on television and movies are based on real world capabilities they are usually taken out of context or applied as a “common” practice as opposed to a technological possibility. Hollywood is the absolute worst purveyor of truth and a lot of misconceptions have been presented as fact. If people regarded the information purely for entertainment then there would be no real harm but people’s faith in television to “teach” has led to what we call the “CSI Effect” where juries begin to expect certain results in real cases that they have seen on television or in movies. Here are a few examples. There are no “universal databases” that contain everything from a person’s driver’s license, employment records, security footage, and all the other data that seems at the CSI’s fingertips. I love how investigators can ask for anything from phone records, to health records, to their library account and all the CSI has to do it push a button or two. Even if this data was available you’d have to get a warrant for most of it and then write the software to use it in the ways they do. Another one I love is video resolution. In real life the image quality of most surveillance video sucks. You can’t zoom in on a license plate from two blocks away and read it as if you were standing next to it. There are some military and other government agencies that have access to high resolution satellite imagery but it isn’t available to the local law enforcement agency. Facial recognition is another technology commonly misrepresented in movies. In order to have a face to search they have to have been entered into a database. Most people don’t even have their fingerprints on file let alone their face in a law enforcement database. You pretty much have to commit a crime or be an employee to be included in a database. It’s also comical to see a CSI run a search for a particular person (like a white male) but on the screen you’ll see images of women and black or Hispanic males flashing by too. It kind of defeats the purpose of having a searchable database if you can’t limit the search criteria to race or gender!

How are TV series like CSI affecting people’s view on forensic scientists and their/your work?

I mentioned above the “CSI Effect”. It is real and it can be very problematic for a case. Juries are supposed to make decisions based on the evidence presented but if they feel like you’ve done a poor job (by not conducting certain exams) then they may not convict. We don’t do tests or run examinations simply to do them. There has to be a reason to do it and we expect there to be some probative value of the result. For example, if an officer makes an arrest of a person and in searching that person finds drugs or a gun in their pocket we’re not going to test that item for DNA or fingerprints. Think about it. Finding fingerprints confirms what we already know (they had possession of it at some time). Not finding fingerprints doesn’t negate the fact that it was found on their person because there are a lot of reasons why identifiable fingerprints can’t be recovered from an object (like rubbing against fabric inside a pants pocket). In the case of date rape where both parties agree that sexual intercourse occurred then running the suspect’s DNA seems like a waste because he’s already admitted to the intercourse (he just argues it was consensual). So evidence has to be placed in a context to give it real value. Simply finding evidence may not really address certain legal elements of the crime.

Do you feel that movies and TV series have given criminals too much advice on how not to get caught in terms of forensic evidence?

No, not really. The information has been out there since the mid-19th Century if people want to search for it. In a way it’s similar to freemasonry in that it is described as a society of secrets but most of those secrets have been published for centuries. Think of the simple issue regarding fingerprints. Every criminal on Earth knows that police will look for fingerprints. Gloves cost less than a dollar (especially latex) yet few criminals actually wear them. Additionally, as I’ve described on my blog we (CSIs) do this work for a living and we are very good at our jobs. We spend more time thinking about crime than most criminals. Time is on our side and criminals just can’t account for everything.

What can a criminal (killer) do to ”trick” investigators, e.g. can a killer keep a body warm and throw the investigation off course that way?

Criminals can try a variety of things to alter evidence or stage a crime scene but it is typically very easy to detect. Keeping a body warm may affect one test for a time since death estimate, but it may not affect another. Even so, there may be other evidence linking the suspect to the crime and the exact timing may not matter. I don’t know what you were thinking in terms of keeping a body warm but if you turned the thermostat up, as an example, then police would see that too. Most time since death estimates are not accurate to the minute anyway so we are almost always dealing with a range of possible times.

Could you please tell us about a case that was extra complicated?

I can’t talk about any of my still open cases but I had a suicide by fire several years ago in which a young woman climbed into her car trunk and set herself on fire. We all thought it was a homicide. Through the course of the investigation we were forced to conclude that it was in fact a suicide which was hard to believe. The details are a bit too complicated to get into here but you can read about the case here.

Anything else you would like to share with TheCrimeHouse and our visitors?

I always welcome questions at my blog forensics4fiction and I hope to see you there often. It has been a great privilege to work in this field and I love the idea of continuing my passion in fiction writing. Be forewarned though…as a new author I may ask questions of you too!

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions!

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