A typical Tuesday in November for Theresa MacLean, forensic scientist: I trudge from the subway station to the medical examiner’s office. The trace evidence department is still dark; Leo has not yet arrived so I take care of the most important thing, which is to get the coffee started. Then I head back downstairs for the ‘viewing’, at which all the cases currently waiting to be autopsied are wheeled out and the deskman reads their history. This is so the pathologists can observe, suggest and decide who is going to do which autopsy. Exactly how they work that out, I’ve never quite determined. One doctor has been around so long that he sometimes pokes a body, testing for lividity or some such, without putting on a latex glove first. Not a big deal. If you’re hyper about germs you don’t get into this line of work. So far I’ve been exposed to HIV, Hepatitis A, B, and C, spinal meningitis and tuberculosis.
For those dead of unnatural causes, I come in. Any dead of gunshot, I will swab their hands for gunshot residue. If they’ve been beaten, bludgeoned, strangled or stabbed, I will scrape their fingernails for foreign skin and fibers. If hung, I will mark and remove the ligature. If hit by a car, I will look for paint and glass fragments. If it’s a homicide I will collect hair samples, including pubic hairs if there’s signs of sexual assault. I’ll remove the clothing if it hasn’t already been cut off by EMS, and will pop in and out of the autopsy room to see if there are holes in their clothing that correspond with bullet holes or stab wounds in the body. It doesn’t smell good in there. Then the clothes are examined for gunshot residue, hairs and fibers, and semen. I cut out a piece of the bloody cloth and save it in a manila envelope in case some attorney asks why we didn’t check to make sure the blood on the victim’s shirt belonged to the victim (well, gee, because he had five stab wounds so we kind of assumed the dark red stains on his shirt might well be related).
I break for lunch and, if I’m lucky, sit down for the first time in about five hours. After lunch, provided all the victims and clothing are taken care of, I will work in the lab. It had chairs but it also has my boss. I will take test tubes of blood from the day’s autopsies and drop the blood on pieces of sterile cloth to be frozen and retained for future DNA testing. I will analyze the gunshot residue swabs for barium and antimony, two components used in primer caps, and identify the fibers and compare them to samples from the victim’s and suspect’s clothing. I might have to go to a scene; the victim might still be there or the crime may be several days old and the officers just want me to examine the blood spatter pattern on the wall. Part of all of the day (and I don’t get to choose which part) might be spent sitting at the courthouse waiting to testify. I may have something to say that will put the suspect in jail for life or I may just be there to say yes, this is the victim’s clothing. Either way I have to sit there as long as they tell me to, out in the hallway with a crowd of people, none of whom I dare strike up a conversation with because they may also be there to testify in that case. So I read a book and avoid eye contact for one or two or eight hours.
Then I grab a cup for the road and head back to the subway station, already planning out what I’d like to get accomplished the next day. Provided there isn’t another homicide.
You can read more about Theresa in DEFENSIVE WOUNDS, the fourth book in the “Theresa MacLean” suspense series. The first book in the series is TAKEOVER.
Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. As a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s a certified latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral Police Department. Her books have been published in Germany, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Spain and Japan. Evidence of Murder reached the NYT mass market bestseller’s list. Visit Lisa at www.lisa-black.com.
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