Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Gunfights, Interrogations, and More

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…


Sara Paretsky said...

libby, what a great post--I'm so sorry I wasn't at the conference!


Lee Lofland said...

Hi Libby. I'm pleased with the feedback we've all received about the Forensic University. It seems as if all the months of planning really paid off. Joanna and Michelle did a fantastic job.

I know I'm proud to have been a small part of such a wonderful event. I speak for a lot of conferences each year and this was definitely one of the best, ever.

Who'd of thought so many eyes would light up at the mention of murder...

Rob said...

I would have killed to attend this. Time just wasn't right. Maybe next year if they do it again.

Tasha Alexander said...

Libby, that sounds fantastic. So.....what are the fifteen ways to tell if someone's lying????

Libby Hellmann said...

Thanks for the comments, Lee... I really enjoyed all your talks.

Tasha, I could tell you how to spot liars, but then I'd have to kill you. :)
Actually, the following are from one of Lee's workshops... (Don't have room for all 15, but here's a start):

-- Limited arm and hand movement
-- Keeping hands and arms close to the body
-- Stiff movements
-- Hands touch face, throat and mouth... nor heart or chest with an open hand (I like this one)
-- Scratches nose or behind ear
-- Lack of eye contact
--Turns head or body away

Therese Szymanski said...

Great post -- and it was a great conference! The only trouble was not being able to attend all sessions! (Let's see, do we need to work out astral projection to do this, or is there some other way, like talking them into selling tapes and/or transcripts next time?)

Maryann Mercer said...

I would have gone if the bank merger hadn't trapped me at my desk! Next time for sure! Sounds like a wonderful time was had and lots of great stuff learned. Color me envious!

Josephine Damian said...

Sleuthfest Conference in Florida has a forensics track of lectures every year at that con. There's always a big name mystery author to give the keynote on the first day, but the second day has a keynote from a forensics expert - past keynote/lecturers have been Henry Lee and Michael Baden.

There's a ton of forensics related lectures throughout this con. given by professionals various forensics fields.

Exiled East Coaster said...

That's my Mom (and her gun)! Guess I'll have to make sure to send you Mothers' Day cards on time...or else.

Wilfred the Author said...

Libby, you looked great with that Uzi. It's a shame yu didn't get to fire it like I did.

I was shocked at how well some of the ladies did with their guns.