The Mid-Atlantic chapter of Mystery Writers of America (MWA) meets once per month in or near Washington, D.C. for dinner and a speaker. The speakers range from well-known authors to experts in various fields related to the subjects mystery and suspense novelists explore.
In November, the speaker was Dr. Max M. Houck, Director of the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences. Dr. Houck’s initial training was in physical anthropology. He spent time as a medical examiner in Forth Worth, Texas, and seven years at the FBI. He also was a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution. His cases have included the Branch Davidian investigation, the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, and U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa. He is a founding co-editor of the journal, Forensic Science Policy and Management, and co-authored the textbook, Fundamentals of Forensic Science. Truly, if one is writing mysteries that require knowledge of forensics, this is a man to hear from.
Amongst the interesting points Dr. Houck made:
1. Forensics is the science of relationships; that is, it demonstrates the relationships between people, places and things: who knows who and when? What is it? –a hair? a human hair? Where did it come from? Is there more than one possible source? Is it a bullet? Or could it just be metal from a ricochet? If a bullet, is it a usable fragment from which one can make a comparison? (Dr. Houck noted that, for comparison, a water tank is used. The gun’s trigger is pulled in water; it goes into the water and drops to the bottom of the tank. The bullet is then removed and examined for markings transferred to it from the gun’s barrel, which is harder than the bullet.)
2. The more you plan, the more evidence you leave behind; the more trails. Last minute crime, on the other hand, is harder to unravel.
3. The core of forensic science is the hunt. That is, it is not the deer one looks for, it is the traces left by the deer–the tracks.
4. One collects everything; the difficulty is determining what is relevant to a death.
5. Context trumps evidence.
6. A coroner can be a funeral director; a medical examiner generally will have a medical degree.
Dr. Houck noted that the National Academy of Sciences has expressed the view that forensic labs should be independent of law enforcement agencies. He also made two final points: (1) no matter how dirty his own house is, it is spotless compared to crime scenes; and, (2) anyone is capable of anything.
You may find more information about the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, events or membership, at www.mwa-ma.org.