I’ve been working on edits on one of my manuscripts and needed to do some fact-checking around DNA testing and result times. I found some interesting stuff!
Rapid DNA testing
Rapid DNA testing is most commonly used to determine the relationship between donors, and is also used to determine if a suspect has been involved in another crime in a timely manner. A swab is taken—it only works on body fluid swabs, usually from the mouth—and the results used to search current databases. The test takes about 2 hours to complete. The test doesn’t need a lab as it uses a portable machine.
Standard DNA testing
This can be done on any sample. The test itself takes 24 to 72 hours, but actual processing times depend on the workload of the lab doing the testing – anywhere from a week or two to several months.
What can it prove?
DNA testing is only 100% certain when it comes to excluding people. It can prove someone wasn’t at a crime scene better than it can prove they were. DNA can degenerate, making accurate results difficult to produce.
Imagine your DNA being found at a crime scene when you’ve never been there, or know the people involved? Scientists are still learning about the transfer of DNA and we shed cells wherever we go. Nor does DNA have a time stamp. A person who was at the crime scene 2 weeks before the crime was committed may find their DNA caught up in the case.
And to finish, some interesting facts about DNA
Plant DNA can be used to solve criminal cases
Every human’s DNA is 99% the same
Humans and cabbages share 40-50% of their DNA (Source)
Have you ever heard of body farms?
A body farm is a place where students and scientists can study the decomposition rate of bodies, both pig and human, in various locations and conditions. Research is done on various aspects of decomposition, including the effect of bugs, different soils, plants, and more. Most body farms are in the USA, but last year one opened in NSW as much of the US data isn’t relevant to Australia’s climate and conditions. And would you believe it, they were overwhelmed with the number of people wanting to donate their bodies – over 500!
I read early this week that a university in Michigan is opening a new body farm to expand the research to cold weather climates. The FROST program, as it’s known, is currently preparing the plot by researching the insect life in the ground using the bodies of pigs. Human bodies will be introduced during spring (northern hemisphere). The human remains will be covered to prevent most large scavenger animals from destroying the body too quickly, and once the body has decomposed, the bones are then used for further research before becoming part of a permanent collection.
A bit gruesome—perhaps—but fascinating!
If you want to read more (no graphic images in these):
NSW body farm donations
60 Minutes article and video on NSW body farm
As with other books, the plot for Bombshell was triggered by an item I saw on the internet. The article talked about the growing number of swatters and swatting incidents, and how the FBI believe it is a growing menace in the USA.
Swatters are people who form groups, usually cyber groups, to make pranks calls regarding bomb threats, hostage situations, terrorist threats, and active shooters. The object is to get the maximum number of emergency response personnel called out. Their particular aim is the get the SWAT team to respond, hence the name Swatters. Once they’ve done it, they get online and brag about the response they got, trying to outdo each other.
It sounds harmless. After all, the incidents aren’t real. The main problem is that it stops emergency responders from attending other events that may be occurring. The fake emergencies take up time and has the potential to put innocent people at risk of harm. In one particular incident, a man went outside one night armed with a knife as he thought he’d heard someone creeping around. He was confronted by a SWAT team, their assault rifles all aimed at him. The SWAT team were responding to a call from a person (a swatter) who claimed they’d just murdered someone. The potential for disaster is obvious! Luckily the incident was resolved without anyone getting hurt.
No one is really sure why all swatters do what they do. What if not all swatters are in it for the fun? What if instead of being a swatter group trying to outdo another, they are terrorists planning an attack? There is no better way for them to study the response procedures of emergency personnel than to call out the SWAT team to a false event. This is what concerns law enforcement the most, and why they are putting so much effort into catching these people.
While swatters only get a small mention in Bombshell, it was the article and the linked information about the FBI Critical Response Group and the SWAT team that furthered the story idea. A classic case of one idea leading to another, and another, and the full story for a book emerges.
Bombshell will launch on December 8th, 2017.
(More images at the end)
Washington DC. I’ve wanted to come here for so long, and here I am. Another dream come true.
I’m typing this sitting in the café in our hotel, located in Crystal City – specifically chosen as this is the area my characters for the White Rose series live. It’s nice to know I’ve placed them in a location that suits them, ie, a place where people like them would live. I can picture them here, and it’s a satisfying feeling – not to mention giving me ample opportunity to do research into the area for future stories.
As I’ve said in Facebook posts over the past few days, DC feels comfortable to me. I know it’s because I’ve spent so much time researching the area and writing about it, and its yet another affirmation for me. We’ve played the tourist, but with an eye on my writing – we’ve walked streets my characters have walked, eaten at restaurants that have/will figure in my writing, and I’ve tried to absorb as much of it as I can.
Writing ‘items’ ticked off:
J Edgar Hoover building, aka FBI Headquarters
This was the number one item on my ‘must do’ list. I had to see where Warren worked, and hubby and I had lunch in a little bakery café across the road from the main entrance (by accident, honestly!). I had a real opportunity to watch people go in and out of the building and the amount of security they used. I didn’t make detailed notes or anything like that - I’m not silly - but it gave me a real world view of the everyday life around the FBI HQ. Oh, and it gave me the chance to have my photo taken with a copy of Roses outside!
Old Ebbitt Grill
I send Beth and Warren to this restaurant for dinner early on in the next White Rose book and I really wanted to have a meal there. Another thing that didn’t disappoint! The place was gorgeous, just the kind of restaurant I could picture my characters eating at. We walked from the area of the FBI headquarters to the restaurant – perhaps a walk that Warren does to meet Beth for dinner.
The National Mall
On our first day in DC we walked part of the Mall. It’s a place that is used day and night by the people in the area and again I had no trouble imagining Beth and Warren strolling along under the trees. The Mall was in a part of their story that got cut from the first version of Roses, but it will make an appearance in the future.
In particular, the FBI exhibition. It was interesting to look at the displays they had there and read about the work of the FBI. I may have bought a few FBI items from the Newseum store while we were there…
There are three places on my list to go. The first is the National Arboretum, and in particular, Fern Valley. Readers of Roses may remember this is where Beth and Warren had their wedding. Hubby and I are also going to revisit the WWII Memorial on the Mall, which also plays a role in the next White Rose book. We have done a ‘Monuments by Night’ tour (fantastic, even if it was drizzling most of the way), so we briefly saw it lit up at night, but I want a better look. The other thing I plan to do is spend part of a day exploring the Crystal City area. I want to see the shops, the parks, the streets, and take loads of photos.
Non-writing stuff that might become writing stuff one day..
We did a tour of the Pentagon this morning. Wow! No, I’m not planning to write a story based in or around the Pentagon, but our tour guide gave us lots of information about the history of the Pentagon and a feel for the US military. We also saw where the plane hit on 9/11 – not that there is any sign of it. When it was rebuilt there was a deliberate decision not to leave any scar or mark on the building. I love the defiance of that! This afternoon was Arlington Cemetery. The morning’s tour guide had told us about the Sentinel Guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and it was a real privilege to see them in action. Away from the crowds (so many people!), the cemetery was a solemn and beautiful place. The sound of gun salutes echoing several times while we were there reminded us it is a working cemetery. There were 29 funerals held at Arlington today – a sobering thought. The cemetery gave me lots of inspiration and that and the Pentagon tour really brought back the feeling of my time in the Defence Force. An amazing day, all up.
Yesterday, as we sat opposite the FBI having lunch, we witnessed a cavalcade going through the city. First was a police officer on a bike, sirens and lights going, stopping all the traffic. Next came three coaches, with a police car weaving in and around them. The whole street came to a standstill as the cavalcade zoomed past – they weren’t going slowly! Fascinating, and more information stored away for possible future use!
I’ve loved every second of this amazing city so far. Okay, not every second. It was a little scary going into the Pentagon this morning, but once past the various security measures, and given a little time in the waiting area to relax, I started loving it! I can’t begin to express how I feel, seeing the places I’ve written about and channelling my characters to envision them here. It’s been a truly remarkable experience, and it’s not over yet!
Yep, more tears. I always knew it would be an emotional trip.
Since watching the very first episode of CSI, I have found forensics fascinating. So what’s the news in the forensics world? Check out these stories…
From Science Daily:
Oral bacteria helping to estimate time since death
A recent study has looked at the changes in oral bacteria in decomposing bodies. It has shown that in each test subject, the changes progressed at a similar rate. The researchers hope to be able to use the knowledge as a way of estimating time since death.
Read more here:
Getting DNA from explosives
A team of researchers are developing ways to optimise the recovery of DNA from detonated pipe bombs. The process of obtaining DNA is difficult due to the heat caused by the blast, or low amounts of DNA. The new methods have been successful in identifying the ancestry of suspects in most laboratory tests.
Read more here:
Forensic analysis of fingermarks
Researchers are using lasers to remove fingermarks from materials so they can be analysed using spectrometry techniques. By doing this they can capture and analyse proteins, genetic material, explosives, etc.
Read more here:
From Forensic Magazine:
Predicting crime using Twitter
An Assistant Professor in Virginia has developed a statistical method for predicting crime by analysing Tweets. During a recent test, he predicted 19 out of 25 crime types.
Read more here:
A new spray gel to be used in Co-op ATMs
Anyone who tries to break into a Co-operative (UK) ATM will now be sprayed with a long lasting gel. The invisible gel will stay on the skin and clothes for up to a year. Note – the summary of the article didn’t say so, but I assume the police have a method of detecting the gel.
Read more here:
I never cease to be amazed at how easy it is to find the strangest information. We have an incredible wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, so long as we have internet access! Finding the information I need would take so much longer—and probably raise a lot of eyebrows—if I couldn’t do a simple online search.
Imagine the scene:
Me: How much damage does a single stick of dynamite cause?
Them: Damage to what? Why do you ask?
Me: I’m a writer and I need to know if a stick of dynamite will render someone unrecognisable. And how much would you need to blow up half a car?
Them: A writer, huh? (They give me a sideways look). I’ll need to make a quick phone call.
A little later.
Me: Honestly officer, I’m a writer. Ask Officer Brown, I showed him a copy of my book last week when I asked the pharmacist about poisons…
Without the internet I’d probably be on first name terms with half of the Tasmanian police force by now!
Other things I’ve searched:
Is it better to use a wooden or aluminium baseball bat to hit someone in self defence?
How much blood do you need to lose for it to be fatal?
What is a good substitute for blood?
How easy is it for eyeballs to come out?
What does a drowned body look like? (not nice, I assure you…)
Can you buy blood bags on the internet?
How do you give someone diarrhoea?
Poisonous mushrooms and where to find them.
And that’s just a few off the top of my head!
I used to joke about someone from a law enforcement agency noticing my search history and landing on my doorstep with questions. That was until I found out there is a program that can be run on you when your search history gets flagged. It goes through social media, websites, etc, and looks at groups you belong to and people you associate with to determine if you are a risk. I know the FBI use it, so I assume others follow a similar process.
“It’s okay, she’s just one of those writers…”
I was asked a question a month or so ago about my choice of organisations—namely the FBI and the US Navy—that I have set my books around. It’s not something I’ve ever asked myself, because to me the answer is obvious.
Like many others of my generation, my parents lived through WWII and we had many relatives in the (mainly British) defence forces. My dad did National Service after the war, so the military has always hovered in my past. When my brother turned 17, he joined the Australian Army as an apprentice. He loved it, and his enthusiasm infected me and after experiencing a week of work experience at the Army Apprentice Barracks, I eventually went on to join the Australian Army Reserve at the start of my final year of high school.
I loved it! I loved it so much that at the end of that year I applied to join the Royal Australian Air Force as an Education Assistant (similar to being a library technician). What a great life! I worked in a variety of areas including a training unit, base support wing, and a pilot training squadron. I volunteered for ceremonial parades and was picked to be colour orderly for two different units, and also the Queens Colours when they were brought out to Australia. I got a kick out of having to work at my desk wearing ear-muffs because the FA-18s were outside doing hot refuels (refuelling with engines going). Hubby joined the same time I did—that’s how we met. Yes, a rookie’s romance! He went on to be a police-dog handler, and our lives centred on the RAAF.
The fun I had in the Army Reserves and the RAAF has stuck with me, and when I joined it with a love of police dramas and detective books, it seemed natural to base my writing around military and law enforcement. I have a general understanding of how organisations such as these operate, and with the vast amounts of information available on the internet, or by simply emailing with a question, the rest falls into place.
Okay, so I may not get everything right, but most of it is. I’ll admit to a degree of creative licence, too.
One of the most often quoted pieces of writing advice is ‘write what you know’. With the internet holding such a large amount of information on every topic you could think of, I’m not sure that advice holds much weight. I certainly haven’t paid attention to it. Do I write what I know? I prefer to think I write what I’m passionate about, what grabs my attention and fascinates me. Why else would I do it?
The Australian Government recently announced it was introducing laws that would, or could, force internet companies to assist police with getting communications and information data, and more specifically, assistance with encrypted data. While it sounds like a big deal, it is only an extension of current laws that allow access to telco information and data. And like the telco laws, the appropriate court orders or warrants would be required prior to information being handed over.
The Australian Federal Police estimate that 65% of their serious and organised crime investigations involve some level of encryption. The amount of encrypted communication has grown in the past several years from 3% to over 55% of all traffic. When you’re talking terrorism, drug, and paedophile organisations, it is vital for investigating officers to be able to access this information. There is no change to legal principle, it’s a matter of the rule of law applying online as it does offline.
Some of the companies that will be affected have voiced concerns regarding building weaknesses into encryption technology. To do so would affect the security of the internet. Many companies already have protocols in place to assist investigations where they can. Facebook alone provided data to police and intelligence officers on 657 occasions in 2016.
My opinion? Apart from finding this interesting in an ‘I could use this in a story’ way, I think it’s long overdue. To be honest, I was surprised this isn’t already in place. The police are not asking the companies to break the law, they’re asking them for help. Most internet providers give assistance anyway, but this would compel them to comply if they are reluctant to do so—providing a warrant was in place. If we can stop a teenager being radicalised, a terror attack, or a paedophile, then that’s a good thing.
Don’t you think?
The start of any new project means doing research. For this story that means diving into the world of private investigators once again.
One of the many things a private investigator can do is assist a legal defence lawyer with case preparation. While reading up on this (Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigation—what else would I use?) I came across the discovery box.
Before I continue, please remember this is US directed research.
Discovery is the process by which the prosecution, and to a degree the defence, exchange information about a case. Discovery is usually dealt with at the arraignment and the discovery box, or package, comprises the evidence to be used by the prosecution during the case.
A typical discovery box can include:
Evidence that may assist the defendant’s case must also be turned over by the prosecution—they cannot hide or withhold it. This kind of evidence is called exculpatory evidence.
There is evidence that the defence must give to the prosecutor. The prosecutor is to be notified of any alibi the defendant will use, and details of any people corroborating the alibi.
Private investigators can go through the evidence, revisit crime scenes, look for and interview witnesses the police may not have, and view the physical forensic evidence. A good PI with a background in criminal investigation can be a valuable asset in a criminal defence case. The prosecution must prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt, and PI’s are often asked to discover whether someone else could have committed the crime. If doubt can be thrown on the guilt of the accused, then they have a good chance of being acquitted. The items in the discovery box can give the PI clues and leads to follow that may prove crucial to proving innocent, or confirming guilt.
I think it sounds fascinating—sifting through evidence, looking for things that may have been overlooked. I’m going to have fun working out what is in the discovery box my PI character will be given!
Imagine walking down the main street of a small town and being bowled over by a robber fleeing after holding up the bank. Down at the motel armed law enforcement officers are negotiating with a terrorist, and evidence is being collected from a crime scene across the street. The place? Hogan’s Alley. It’s the most crime-ridden town in the USA and also has the highest arrest rate. The town is not on any official map, but people visit it most days and even volunteer to go there.
Where is it and what’s so special about it?
Hogan’s Alley is the mock town used to train FBI agents, military, and law enforcement personnel, and it sits in 10 acres of land at the FBI Academy at Quantico. The volunteers who go there? They’re actors who play the parts of citizens and criminals in the town.
Hogan’s Alley opened in 1987 and has just turned 30 years old. The name came from a cartoon strip; Hogan’s Alley being a rough neighbourhood in the cartoon. The town is made up of real buildings, which are also used as classrooms and offices. It has a post office, bank, drugstore, motel, laundromat, barber shop, homes, a restaurant, a theatre, and more.
In Hogan’s Alley, agents and law enforcement personnel are taught how to investigate crimes, deal with terrorist threats, use tactical techniques, make arrests, conduct searches, process evidence, and get into simulated gun fights. The aim is to put them into stressful and realistic scenarios to prepare them for what they might face during their careers. Hogan’s Alley also opens up to high school students during holidays for camps, allowing them to learn about different aspects of criminal investigation.
So each week the bank is robbed, drug dealers are arrested, and terrorists hide around corners, waiting to strike as agents are put through their paces.
I don’t know about you, but I’d put my hand up to go there!
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