Sunday, August 19, 2007

Trace Symposium: Clearwater, FL

The trace symposium in Clearwater, Florida was very informative and actually quite fun. I met some of the leaders in the field whose papers I've been reading for the past few years. We had morning presentations at 7am that were not mandatory, and yet, I still got up to watch them since they were so interesting.

One was about Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, and what went wrong with that trial. One of the guys who presented was the LA crime lab director. From all the things I had ever heard of the case, I thought there were problems collecting evidence from the scene. That was totally not the case - it was OJ's spin doctors that made me think that. They showed us the evidence that was "planted" by the police department, and how that just couldn't have happened. The problems were the prosecutors and defense attorneys not using the specialties of the lab personnel in the right way. They put on their own presentations without consultation. They made this a DNA case, when really, it shouldn't have been. We got to see all the trace evidence (mostly fiber evidence) that either never saw the light of day in a court room, or the importance of which was never understood because the judge wouldn't allow certain things to be said because they weren't properly discovered to the defense. It was fascinating. And while it's not my job to determine guilt or innocence if I'm not on the jury, from the crime scene photos and evidence, I can tell you that OJ Simpson was there... and it didn't appear that anyone else could have been.

Another case we got to see presented was that of the Green River Killer up in Washington. Holy crap... this one was scary. This guy - Gary Leon Ridgway - confessed to killing 48 women, and claims he couldn't remember all of them, but there could be upwards of 70 or more. He'd pick up runaways and prostitutes and kill them, then dump their bodies in groups of 3 or 4 in abandoned, desolate areas. He even said that sometimes he'd come back days after they were dead and have sex with the bodies.

These were all cold cases until the advent of PCR STR DNA technology came along, and they finally linked four of the dead women to him. But, knowing that he was the guy and that he must have killed more women, they called up Skip Palenik (a legend with microscopy) and asked if he could link any more of the women to him. In fact, he could. Unfortunately, it was only women who had been found with their clothing. He linked all the women through tiny balls of hallow paint that form when you spray paint something. It was a very specific kind of repaint from DuPont that was used to paint cars - or in this case Kenworth trucks - where Ridgway worked.

The DNA evidence never flustered Ridgway. Sure, he was known to visit prostitutes. So what? His DNA might be there, but he wasn't the one to kill those women. But when he and his lawyers heard of Skip's work... he made a plea. He promised to plea guilty and tell about all the other women, just as long as he didn't get the death penalty. The deal was made to give closure to families with missing loved ones. He confessed to 48 murders and got a life sentence for each - all because of spray paint.

One of the final "really cool" cases that was presented was that of the DC Sniper (John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo). There was LOTS of trace evidence to connect them, but I don't think any of it was presented in court. I think it was all about guns and bullets. But, I guess it didn't matter much, as they both got convicted.

Much of the symposium was about the influence of DNA on our field and how it's expected that there should be DNA evidence. Not like it was in "the good old days" before we had such technology. Frankly, it was kind of irritating. I don't care what evidence there is, as long as it builds a case against the correct bad guy. Both DNA and trace evidence are not infallible, but when used in combination, they can be much more convincing.

Also, we talked about working trace cases more quickly so that any information we find can be used as investigative leads. That works in a world where we don't have to worry about backlogs and is a fabulous idea. I just don't know how practical it is.

Overall, the symposium was great. I even got a Forensic Files pen. =) And nightly, a group of people would... mingle and make new contacts and share information while drinking alcohol.

The hotel was nice. It was right on the beach and had a lovely pool. And people played volleyball almost every night, although, I think they were a bit too serious and competitive for my liking, so I stayed out of the game. Overall, it was a good trip.

Oh, and I think because it was the trace symposium, they had to make sure that I was still looking at someone else's dirty underwear, even on the beach. Never forget where you come from...

(I know, I have such a glamorous job. Really, CSI doesn't do it justice.)

When I got back to the airport, I found that my car's battery was completely dead. Even my keyless entry didn't work. Did you know that there's no way to open my back hatch when the battery has died and it is locked? Me either. So, after stuffing my suitcase in my back seat, I called the airport service people and they came out and jumped my car... for THIRTY dollars. Because... that costs them a lot.

Anyway, my car is back in order and I still have no idea what drained my battery.

The good news is that I got to see part of the family my first night in Florida, and I swindled a coworker into waiting for my bag after I'd already waited an hour and it was nowhere in sight. I ate dinner with Bethany and the grandparents and made it to the hotel before my people even arrived. They had to wait for our bags for THREE hours. The excuse was something about lightning.

So, there were a few snafus in the overall plan, but the trip in general was pretty great. The food was pricey, but thankfully, I wasn't paying.

End Blog.

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