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The next time a television crime drama or a newspaper account mentions criminals wearing ski masks to hide their identity, think of these words from a police crime-laboratory director: “Ski masks? For bank robberies? A lot of DNA can be inside. They leave them behind a lot. They run out, and they rip that ski mask right off and throw it. We can get right in there and get the saliva. The area of a ski mask they have over their nose and mouth is a great source of DNA.” That pearl of forensic wisdom comes from Every Contact Leaves a Trace: Crime Scene Experts Talk About Their Work From Discovery Through Verdict. Chicago journalist Connie Fletcher conducted nearly 100 interviews with those in the criminal justice system before writing a book that covers every imaginable facet of crime-scene investigation and laboratory analysis. The unidentified sources in Fletcher’s book are hugely knowledgeable (Fletcher provides background about each person), usually passionate about their work, and sometimes cynical. Their oral histories are hard to resist. They talk not only about graphic procedures performed on dead bodies, meticulous collection of evidence at crime scenes, and sophisticated laboratory analysis but also about the thrill of the quest to catch evil men and women. Fletcher quotes a research chemist employed in a police crime lab: “I have a theory about forensic scientists. If you are in the field for more than about three years, you’ll never be satisfied doing anything else. You’ll know immediately if it’s not for you. When I joined the sheriff’s office crime lab in 1972, there was another gentleman hired at the same time. He lasted about a year. It wasn’t for him. He was scared to death at the prospect of going to court and having to testify and having to be cross-examined . . . But I just fell right into it and knew right away this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” Fletcher’s sources are mostly upbeat. Sure, some of the speakers complain about backlogs that stall the criminal justice system and lead to suspects spending far too much time in jail before disposition of the case while victims suffer through pain and uncertainty. But the few negatives are drowned out by the speakers’ pride in their work. Nobody mentions crime-scene investigators and laboratory analysts such as Fred Zain of the West Virginia state police crime lab and Joyce Gilchrist of the Oklahoma City police crime lab (to name perhaps the most notorious), whose alleged incompetence and bias in favor of the prosecution led to findings of guilt for innocent men and women. Nobody mentions police detectives and prosecutors who hide evidence that fails to fit their theory of the case. The seamy side of forensic science is tucked away. That is a shame, but it is not fatal to the readability of this book. In fact, the oral histories, especially if read in tandem with another new book, Bodies of Evidence: Forensic Science and Crime, by Scott Christianson, provide far more realistic insights into the fascinating ways criminal investigators use modern forensic techniques than any hotshot television dramas can provide. Bodies of Evidence is derived largely from Christianson’s direct experience and scholarly research in his work for New York state criminal justice agencies. Like the Fletcher book, it is informative, often fascinating, but too uncritical. Once again, looking at the damage done by out-of-control crime-scene investigators and laboratory analysts would have presented a more balanced and honest view. Christianson recaps numerous investigations, some renowned, such as the murder trial of former professional football player O.J. Simpson and the death of child model JonBenet Ramsey. The liberal use of high-quality photographs and other reader-friendly art work — Simpson showing the gloves that don’t seem to fit, blood on the outdoor path at the home where the murders occurred — makes the book grimly fascinating. Both books, not so incidentally, mention what has become known as the “CSI” effect. A police-agency crime-laboratory director tells Fletcher, “There are such high expectations now. We went from nobody knowing what forensic science was to now. Because of [the television drama] �CSI,’ everybody thinks that we can solve a murder in thirty minutes.” The real-life upshot of the “CSI” effect is that some jurors are less likely than before to convict unless the prosecution can produce unambiguous forensic evidence. Of course, Fletcher and Christianson cannot undo the “CSI” effect solely through their books. But the education they provide is a start.
Steve Weinberg is a journalist who reports and writes frequently about the criminal justice system.

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