Freaking people out with tales of gore

By Anna Sandiford 01/09/2011

In the third of the series, the next questions to be answered from the blogpost a-forensic-scientist-tells-it-like-it-is-free-book-to-give-away, these ones from EvilTwit:

Do you find yourself getting excited about facets of the case that would normally freak other people out (and editing these sentiments out of conversations)?

Short answer: yes.

Long answer: In the spirit of the ‘editing’ aspect of the question, I can’t really go into too much detail about the sorts of things that are exciting. Perhaps some non-gory and non-specific examples would be fitting pieces of torn paper together and finding that they fit pretty perfectly.  Or maybe finding something that someone else has missed – a case last year involved examination of a vehicle and I found a hair in the windowframe that can only have been deposited at the time of the crash and it had been missed by the previous examiners – that’s a big deal!

When it comes to conversations, I do have to consider who is present or even where I am having conversations.  The cinema queue or the supermarket checkout are difficult places to field case queries (because quite a few queries come during the weekend because criminal lawyers work weekends a lot) so it’s hard to discuss the specific details of a murder case in those circumstances.  My children are getting used to comments about various crime-related issues and my partner is proficient at understanding the intricacies of trace material like DNA and pollen and accidental contamination problems.  Other people are more phased about our dinner conversations – my moaning about blood spatter inaccuracies in films doesn’t go down well with visitors – although if they ask about the difference between blood patterns on a particular TV programme and what you’d see in real life then they have to expect a proper answer!  Some of them don’t ask any more...

Meeting up with colleagues who are used to this sort of work is very helpful because you can talk to them freely about what to other people would be delicate subjects and you can also think about cases in different lights with different perspectives.  A recent presentation I saw involved CCTV footage of a serious incident but I didn’t see the emotional side of it straight away; I was drawn to the timings of events, what injuries were present, any possible traces of blood that might be used to track the offender, how the weapon was handled when it was recovered.  It was only afterwards that I was asked, out of interest, if I thought the footage would be admissible in court and it was hard to answer.  The Police and lawyers were apparently split in their decisions because the footage was of the aftermath of a serious assault – a very emotive thing to put before a jury and possibly more prejudicial than probative.

Do you find it especially hard, leaving your work at work, mentally-wise, or is it easy to let go, because you’d have to or you’d go nuts?

I do sometimes find it hard to leave it behind – 3am wake-ups because of a revelation about an interpretation that is giving me trouble is not uncommon.  However, I have learnt to switch off and desensitise.  Plus  I usually work 12-hour days in the week and some time at the weekends, so by the end of the day I’ve usually had enough anyway.  There’s the infrequent case that creeps up on you and attacks you emotionally but there are ways of dealing with that and it’s not that common an event.

Hope that answers the questions OK!