by Libby Hellmann
Did you know that most gunfights in law enforcement last 3 seconds or less? That police officers hit their targets only 20 per cent of the time? That blood never oozes from a dead body? That there are over 15 ways to tell if a person is lying?
I learned all the above -- and more -- at a stellar conference last weekend in St. Louis. The conference was called “Forensic U” and it was sponsored by Sisters in Crime. It was an incredible opportunity for crime writers – at any stage of their career -- to immerse themselves in subjects that, to the uninitiated, can seem arcane, even gruesome. But to us, it’s research, and it’s all fascinating. At least to me.
The fact that it was sponsored by Sisters in Crime, an organization founded twenty years ago by the Outfit’s own Sara Paretsky, and that both Barb D’Amato and I served as president of, made it special. As far as I know, SINC is the only writers’ organization to offer this kind of information specifically to the crime fiction community. Sure, there are conferences on writing, publishing, and promoting. There's also that NRA/firearms conference in Las Vegas. But I’m not aware of any writers' programs specifically focused on tradecraft. Kudos to Joanna Slan and Michelle Becker for co-chairing the event.
The curriculum was impressive and just this side of overwhelming. There were workshops on DNA, forensic anthropology, pathology, police procedure, toxicology, interviews and interrogations, blood spatter, warrants and searches… and more. (In fact, here’s a link to the agenda.) A judge spoke to us about CSI and how it’s affected jurors, a pathologist took us through a death investigation that turned out to be a homicide, and the head of the St. Louis crime lab told us how they’re structured.
Jan Burke talked to us about the history of forensics and the Crime Lab Project; Doug Lyle talked about evidence, poisons, and blood spatter; former cop Lee Lofland talked about undercover tactics and police procedure; and Rick McMahan talked about the use of force, firearms, street fighting, self-defense (photo by Bonnie Cardone), and the ATF. Happily, some, but not enough, of the classes were offered more than once, so if you missed one, you could catch it again.
All of the workshops were conducted in layman’s language, but I never felt I was being patronized. In fact, I was surprised by how many attendees weren’t writers. Apparently, there is a hunger out there, from readers as well as writers, for accuracy and information about forensics -- beyond what's available in the media and on TV.
Which prompted a question: what do you want to know about forensics? Do you want to know how DNA is analyzed? What happens to a bullet from the time it’s loaded in a gun until it hits a target? How an autopsy reveals clues to a person’s death? Which poisons are virtually undetectable?
And here’s another question: what would it take for you to come to a conference like this? I’m pretty sure SINC will repeat the conference sometime in the next two years. Is there anything you feel is a must?
Btw, the conference included a trip to the gun range. I shot a .22 and a Glock 9 millimeter. But only two rounds. I need more. I did apply for my FOID card last week. Assuming I pass the background check, it should arrive in a month or so.
To be continued…