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Never Suck a Dead Man's Hand: Curious Adventures of a CSI

Never Suck a Dead Man's Hand: Curious Adventures of a CSI

by Dana Kollmann


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Step past the flashing lights into the true scene of the crime with this frank, unflinching, and unforgettable account of life as a crime scene investigator. Whether explaining rigor mortis or the art of fingerprinting a stiff corpse on the side of the road, Dana Kollmann details her true, unvarnished experiences as a CSI for the Baltimore County Police Department.

Unlike the popular crime dramas proliferating on today's television networks, these forensic tales forgo glitz for grit to show what really goes on. Kollmann recounts stories that the cops and the CSI's usually leave in the field, bringing the sights, smells and sounds of a crime scene alive as never before.

Unveiling the process and science of crime scene investigation in all its can't-tear-your-eyes-away fascination, Never Suck a Dead Man's Hand takes you into the strange world behind the yellow tape, offering a truly eye-opening perspective on the day-to-day life of a CSI.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806541266
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 05/25/2021
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 334,967
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Dana Kollmann has eleven years of experience working in a crime lab with the Arlington County (Virginia) and Baltimore County (Maryland) police departments. She has handled thousands of crime scenes, hundreds of death scenes, a multitude of homicide scenes, has testified in court on dozens of occasions, and has appeared as an extra on Homicide. She holds a bachelor of science degree in anthropology from Towson State University, a master’s in forensic science from George Washington University, and a doctorate in anthropology from American University. She teaches graduate and undergraduate forensics, criminal justice, and anthropology courses at Towson University in Baltimore.

Read an Excerpt

Never Suck a Dead Man's Hand

Curious Adventures of a CSI
By Dana Kollmann

Kensington Publishing Corp.

Copyright © 2007 Dana D. Kollmann
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8065-2822-2

Chapter One

Cock-and-Bull ...

Before you even ask the question, the answer is no! No, no, no, no, no! No, you can't get fingerprints off of rocks! No, I don't watch CSI! No, crime scene investigators don't interview suspects! No, I wasn't interested in the O. J. case! No, I wasn't a cop (and no, I didn't decide to do Crime Lab work because I couldn't get into the police academy)! No, luminol doesn't glow blue hours after it's sprayed! No, Crime Lab doesn't respond to only murders and high-profile crimes! No, I didn't wear a miniskirt and heels to work. And No, I don't know who the hell killed JonBenet Ramsey!

So, where did all these misnomers come from? You guessed it-Hollywood. Anyone who has recently done any channel surfing knows that television is flooded with forensic programs. These highly popular shows, like CSI, Without a Trace, Navy NCIS, and Crossing Jordan represent a recent trend in prime-time crime dramas-a trend where scripts no longer revolve around the characters, but around science. In today's cop shows, state-of-the-art laboratories replace interrogation rooms, microscopes take the place of handcuffs, and the only high-speed action you'll see is in the form of photography. Through the use of fancy gadgets, wild camera stunts, and a case clearance rate approaching 100 percent,these shows have successfully transformed the stereotype of science from something geeky into a discipline that is now hot and sexy.

There is also an array of fact-based forensic shows such as Cold Case Files, New Detectives, Forensic Files, FBI Files, Autopsy, Body of Evidence, I Detective, and Dr. G.: Medical Examiner-just to name a few. Through the profiling of real cases, these programs validate the methods, techniques, and instruments that viewers see being utilized in the fictional crime dramas and emphasize the fact that forensic possibilities are limitless given the technology we now hold in the palms of our hands.

But this inundation of television with forensic programs, including the fact-based ones, also has a downside. By portraying forensic evidence as the key witness in case after case and in show after show, attorneys are finding that many jurors have unrealistic expectations about what forensic science is, what it can do, and, more important; what it cannot do. We are learning that most jurors actually anticipate the presentation of forensic evidence at trial and await the testimony of experts in the fields of serology, latent prints, firearms, blood spatter, documents, computers, toxicology, footwear, and so on. If forensics doesn't play a prominent role in a case, or if no forensically valuable evidence was recovered from a crime scene, then interested parties increasingly develop the misguided notion that a case is weak or that the police and CSIs were negligent in their duties. The reality of the matter is that many, many, many cases are still solved on the basis of good detective work and good detective work alone. Forensic evidence is not always there, it does not always solve the crime, and it is not infallible.

Another effect of these prime-time crime lab dramas can be seen on university campuses throughout the country. Over the past few years, there has been a dramatic and well-documented increase in the number of undergraduate- and graduate-level forensic science programs as well as mounting numbers of students declaring forensics as their major. In 2005 at Buffalo State College, over 150 students were enrolled in the forensic chemistry program compared to the 40 who were reported for 1996. At West Virginia University, forensics majors jumped from 4 in 1999 to 400 in 2006, and the renowned John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York reports similar growth, with the number of majors increasing from 554 to 762 in recent years. An Internet search for "undergraduate forensic programs" results in nearly 1.6 million hits, so I won't continue with the statistics. Even high schools are getting a piece of the action. If you don't know how to prepare and evaluate DNA autoradiographs or determine the time of death from blowfly larvae, just ask a tenth grader.

The unfortunate part about the huge number of wannabe CSIs deluging forensic science programs is that far too many have a Hollywood mentality about a Hell's Kitchen kind of job. At the risk of sounding clichéd, I have to say that television and the real world really are two entirely separate entities. I have been teaching graduate- and undergraduate-level forensic science courses at a local university for about seven years and while my lectures are designed to give students a basic knowledge of the interdisciplinary facets of the discipline and introduce them to the theory, methods, and techniques of CSI, I find it is just as important to deconstruct the stereotypes of the field that pervade too many of these young and impressionable minds. I feel strongly about this because I know that the dreams of many students, or maybe I should call them starlets, will be shattered when they discover that the job of a real CSI involves duties and a wardrobe nothing like those portrayed on CSI. I don't recall Gil Grissom responding to any "burglary" calls where the only evidence of the crime was a stranger's turd found floating in the toilet, and when was the last time Catherine Willows came home after handling a decomp and found a dead maggot in her bra? Did Warrick Brown ever earn overtime because a junkie died after eating the living room sofa? And I must have missed the episode where Sara Sidle was directed to process a tree house for latent prints.

I find that many students think that if they study hard and graduate with a high grade point average, doors to crime labs across the nation will magically open and they will be beckoned inside, handed a fingerprint brush and a jar of powder, and put to work experimenting on the individuality of nose hairs and the possibility of determining the brand of toilet paper from residues recovered from butt cheeks. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Thanks in part to all the forensic programs, there is absolutely fierce competition for positions in the field. Many jurisdictions require CSI wannabes to be a police officer with several years of experience in patrol before they are eligible for a position in the Crime Lab. That isn't to say that forensic science students need to start jogging a mile a day and practicing their trigger pull, because other departments only allow civilian investigators into the Lab. What catches many job applicants and interns off guard is the background check. Forensics and integrity go together like maggots and a decomp, so those who have been packing funny tobacco into their Philly Blunts, or have had a felony conviction, a recent DUI or misdemeanor conviction, a negative employment history, a poor driving record, recurrent financial problems, or a dishonorable discharge from the military might as well forget it. The closest these people will get to a position in forensics is selling popcorn at the movies for the premiere of Bone Collector II.

If students do land a CSI position in a middle-sized city suburb, they'll quickly realize that there isn't time for any of those nose hair or butt cheek experiments because they will be constantly running from call to call to call, and very few of these calls will be of the caliber of those that occur weekly at 9:00 P.M. on the television sets in Las Vegas, Miami, and New York. Within a year, they'll have handled 150 burglaries, 100 domestic abuses, 75 first-degree assaults, 50 armed robberies, 25 recovered stolen autos, 15 child abuse cases, 10 suicides, 5 rapes, 4 search warrants, 3 patient abuses, 2 arsons, 1 fatal fire, and a partridge in a pear tree for every two homicide scenes they process as the lead investigator. Their workload will prevent them from following up on cases, and news that an arrest was made will often come as a surprise when a court summons magically appears on their desk. Even then, they will probably have to root through the case file to refresh their memory since all the calls they handled in the past months will start to run together.

The new female CSI will soon discover that the heels, skirts, and long face-flopping hair flaunted by the investigators on television don't work well when you're climbing inside trash dumpsters in the search for evidence or going up in the fire department's cherry picker. It won't be long before Fruit of the Loom long johns replace the Victoria's Secret water bra and matching panties and the skull cap equipped with a wind liner make the curling iron one of the most unnecessary appliances in their home. The new male investigator will see that a necktie dangling precariously over a gooey dead body is an accident waiting to happen, and starched white shirts and smooth-soled dress loafers are recipes for disaster. The uniforms hanging in their closets are testaments that fashion has been sacrificed for practicality.

The new CSIs will find themselves working outdoor scenes on the hottest of hot and the coldest of cold days and struggling as they try to photograph and sketch evidence before a torrential downpour washes everything into a nearby storm drain. They'll accept the risk of catching lice, scabies, poison ivy, and other gross things from victims, suspects, and crime scenes but learn not to complain because bugs and bumps are nothing compared to the threat posed by daily contact with biohazardous materials. It's only a matter of time before an array of gadgets from the Galls police supply catalogue finds their way onto their Christmas list.

It won't be long before new investigators realize that there really is very little overlap between their job and the position as it is portrayed on television. Within weeks, they will have seen firsthand the awful things that grown-ups do to kids, and kids do to grown-ups, and people do to animals, and animals do to people, and people do to themselves. They'll start each shift wondering what unimaginable tasks await them and if they'll get off on time. Will they go up in the helicopter again to take aerial photos? Perhaps they'll have to collect another fetus from an abortion clinic for paternity testing in a case of alleged rape? Maybe they'll photograph another two-year-old who is about to receive skin grafts because he was scalded as punishment for drawing on the wall with a crayon. Will they have to follow another tow truck bringing a car with a dead body inside back to headquarters? Hopefully, the woman who scalped herself and cut her face off is still locked away because one self-mutilation every ten years is more than enough. Where does it end? ... or doesn't it?

Despite the differences between the real world and television, working in a crime lab takes the cake as being one of the coolest places to spend forty hours or more each week. It pains me to think that some poor souls out there sit behind a desk all day. Without bodies, evidence, search warrants, and the morgue to discuss, what do desk-job people like that talk about at the dinner table? The results of their Norton Antivirus scan?

While in graduate school at the George Washington University, I took a law class where the instructor, a federal prosecutor, defined evidence as "stuff we use to prove things." It wasn't until I started working as a CSI that I realized that evidence truly is all kinds of stuff that provides detectives with investigative leads, links a victim to a suspect, links a suspect to a crime scene, or corroborates/ disproves the statement of victim, suspect, or witness. Evidence isn't always in the form of a gun, a knife, or a DNA sample-it can be as bizarre as a Styrofoam egg carton, a Big Mac container, a Hooter's T-shirt, a package of tennis balls, a map of Wyoming, or a leather dildo, all of which contributed in one way or another to the resolution of cases that I was assigned.

Locard's theory of exchange is the guiding principle in forensic science and provides the fuel that keeps investigators hungry in their never ending search for stuff. At its very core is the notion that whenever a person comes into contact with an object or another person, something is taken and something is left behind. In other words, when a bad guy enters a house with the intent of committing a burglary, he leaves something behind (he might cut himself and leave blood or walk in mud and leave a shoe impression) and he takes something with him (there might be soil from the victim's flower bed imbedded in the sole of his shoe or paint from the victim's freshly painted windowsill on his jacket). Determining what stuff a suspect might have left behind, and what he could have taken away from a crime scene sometimes requires thinking outside the box. The ability to think about the stuff in a creative manner is what separates a CSI and a detective from a good CSI and a good detective. It was precisely this resourceful thinking by Canadian investigators and the willingness of scientists to apply their skills in a nontraditional manner that resulted in the conviction of Douglas Beamish in the murder of his estranged common-law wife, Shirley Duguay. While searching for the body of the missing thirty-two-year-old mother of five on Prince Edward Island in 1994, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police discovered a plastic bag containing a bloodstained coat with adhering strands of white-colored hair. Laboratory tests indicated that the hairs did not come from the suspect, as initially thought, but from a cat. It was no coincidence that the bloodstains on the coat were of the same type as Shirley and that Douglas's parents owned a white fuzzy feline appropriately named Snowball. With no other evidence to follow up on, the strands of hair were sent to the National Cancer Institute's Laboratory of Genomic Diversity (LGD) in Frederick, Maryland, which was in the process of mapping the feline genome. The LGD established a genetic match between Snowball and the questioned hairs recovered from the jacket. Beamish was subsequently convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. This case set a legal precedent, as it was the first time that animal DNA analysis was allowed in a Canadian court.

Since Snowball's debut, prosecutors in the United States have been following Canada's lead and presenting animal DNA in cases involving poaching, animal cruelty, and Endangered Species Act violations. In Gainesville, Florida, state game officials regularly rely on animal DNA to pursue illegal poachers. It isn't uncommon for game officers to send confiscated venison for DNA testing if it is suspected that it came from does that were killed out of season. Cattle DNA was used in a California theft case, llama DNA in a Florida animal cruelty case, and big horn sheep DNA in a Montana poaching case. The first-known case involving the presentation of canine DNA evidence in U.S. courts occurred in Seattle, Washington, and revolved around the 1996 shooting deaths of a pit bull mix named Chief along with his humans, Jay Johnson and Raquel Rivera. Prosecutors maintained that the defendants, George Tuilefano and Kenneth Leuluaialii, forced entry into the crime scene after being denied a request to purchase marijuana and killed Chief and his owners. DNA was used to show that blood on the defendants' jackets matched that from the dead dog, with only one chance in 350 million that the blood belonged to a dog other than Chief.


Excerpted from Never Suck a Dead Man's Hand by Dana Kollmann Copyright © 2007 by Dana D. Kollmann. Excerpted by permission.
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