Forensic scientist wearing a mask

Ask Bill

Please post your questions for this week in the comments section below. At the beginning of next week, Dr Bill Tilstone will respond to the most interesting, useful and/or popular questions. Please ‘like’ questions posted by other learners if you are also interested in having these answered.

Thank you for all your questions. Here are Bill’s responses to your ‘most liked’ questions:

Car seat covers
My goodness, what suspicious minds some of you have - to assume poor Mr Ward put covers on his car seats to make it easier to clean up after shooting Mrs W! You got it half right, but the more mundane truth is that it is my car and I fitted the seat covers to protect the upholstery.

Mobile phone and CCTV
First of all, that would have made it all too easy! There is no CCTV at the locus and mobile phone coverage is patchy, and at the time and location of the real case, there was no CCTV and it was before the “everyone has a mobile phone” era. We therefore wrote it with no phone for Mr Ward - but the sharp eyed will realise that we did allow Mr D to use a mobile to call the police and ambulance.

Appearance of the Wards and Mr W’s response to the shooting
The physical appearance of the actor’s portrayal of Mrs Ward is based exactly on the crime scene photographs - perhaps some of you had expectations based on TV programmes? Mr Ward’s behaviour reflects the notes made by the investigators, so the same comment applies. In a way, the fact that both are realistic does not matter, as the theme of this course is forensic science; whether or not what you saw is “normal” for a someone who has been shot (and for the wounded husband of that person) is a matter for experts in different fields from our topic. I mentioned in another post that one of the more common threads in cases where forensic science has gone awry has been the expert straying outside of the boundaries of her/his expertise. Add all these factors up and perhaps it would be safer for you not to form any conclusions based on the appearance of the Wards. Some of you noticed that Mrs W was not wearing a seat belt - we may have gone a bit too far along the realism road here in trying to reproduce the original events, which took place at a time and place pre-mandatory seat belts.

Questions in a similar vein were “Why didn’t Mr Ward drive to the nearest hospital” and “the way the car was parked looks funny”, and the answers are similar. The real driver parked the real car like that. Remember too that he was injured and we are out in the countryside, not an urban area where there may have been a medical facility nearby. (See also “Busy road” below).

“Busy road”
The case narrative mentions “busy road”. Several of you picked up on this and questioned why there were no passing cars that came to Mr Ward’s assistance. The road in question is the A811 main road, but the access road to Ross Priory that leads from it is quiet. It was not unreasonable for Mr W to try and at least drive as far as the A811 to seek help.

Cordons, crime scenes, and rest areas
There were some excellent questions and comments regarding the placement of the cordons. These are always going to be a judgement call. In the real case the first officers attending believed the driver and did not establish a cordon at all. Nowadays an unexplained death - especially by shooting - would most likely be treated as “murder until proven otherwise” and some form of cordon would be setup right away. The boundaries would depend on circumstances, and, referring once more to the original, it is not unreasonable to regard the car as the prime crime scene and this was treated appropriately in the first instance then and in our version. A scaled approach using inner and outer cordons is good practice. When dealing with a complex scene, in addition to the use of inner and outer cordons, it helps to establish what one question described as a “rest area” - almost like a holding area, where people moving in and out can take a break, have discussions, and change into/out of protective clothing.

How do I become a …
First of all, what kind of a … do you want to become? It’s different for a crime scene examiner, a DNA analyst, a drug chemist, a pathologist, a fingerprint examiner, a firearms examiner, and so on.

Let’s take the two easiest. In many - probably most countries crime scene examiners (CSIs in North America) are serving police officers. The entry route is therefore to join the police and identify this as your preferred career path. Your will receive on-the-job training and the opportunity to go to college obtain professional certifications. The other is forensic pathology. Here you need to have a medical degree, meet the requirements for registration as a practitioner and, in most places, complete some form of specialist further education. It’s a long haul …

Qualification as a fingerprint or firearms examiner is generally similar to what is needed for crime scene roles, and indeed it is often achieved as a specialist career track from with the general CS position. Not always though, as some places recruit science graduates to fill these roles and the function is part of laboratory services, most probably as a police officer in the US and as a civilian in other jurisdictions.

DNA and drug chemists (and other chemistry roles in forensic science service laboratories) must have an appropriate science degree, in some cases at Master or Doctorate level.

All of them share the same stumbling block, that these are public sector jobs and vacancies are relatively rare. One of my friends and colleagues in the US likes to say the main pre-requisite to enter forensic science as a career is to be in the right place at the right time.

Country to country differences
I’m not yet aware exactly how many countries are represented by those taking the course, but a quick look through the profiles of those who have made posts does not immediately indicate many significant areas that are not included. Inevitably the variety of participants has raised questions about country-to-country differences and similarities. The science is pretty consistent globally. There are not too many ways to do things such as successfully obtain a DNA profile from a bloodstain, or identify the likely synthetic pathway and origin of a drug seizure, or develop and compare fingermarks. The main differences are cultural and economic. The ones that I have personally encountered are; the Examining Magistrate justice system in parts of Europe in contrast to the adversarial system in the rest of the continent, Australasia, and North America; and places where the high costs of purchasing and maintaining cutting edge laboratory equipment are prohibitive. Organisations such as INTERPOL and Enfsi for more information are doing much to harmonise practices and support activities globally.

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This article is from the free online course:

Introduction to Forensic Science

University of Strathclyde