Frequently Asked Questions
Dr. Brian D. Andresen answers questions regarding Forensics
After appearing in a 60 Minutes II program about the “Angel of Death” Dr. Andresen was swamped with requests for information about Forensics. He has put together the following set of “Frequently Asked Questions” (with answers) to help people understand forensic investigation, chemical sampling and forensic analysis.
- When you find a piece of hair or blood etc., what do you do when you take it to the laboratory?
The first thing to do is to log in all the information about the sample (the who, what, when, and where) then assign a unique laboratory code so this sample will not get mixed up with other samples. The assignment of the unique number to the sample is the most important for future discussions, documentation, and reporting about the analysis results of the sample. Finally, you need to place the sample in a container that will not allow it to become contaminated with other laboratory materials and reagents. One must then properly and clearly label the glass or plastic bottle with the unique laboratory code. Next, a number of different types of analysis can be applied to the hair sample depending upon what one needs to know. For example, when attempting to determine a heavy metal poisoning one burns up some of the hair in an atomic emission instrument or mass spectrometer and looks for the unique light frequencies or characteristic molecular weight signature of metals (e.g., mercury, lead, thallium, uranium, etc.). You can also break up the hair into small pieces and extract with solvents to isolate drugs, pesticides, and poisons. The liquid extract is then analyzed with a GC-MS instrument. If you are trying determine what type of hair it is one can examine the sample under the microscope to characterize it as animal, human and differentiate between natural or industrial fibers. You can see clearly under a microscope if the hair is pubic or head hair. Also, one can then digest the hair completely and liberate DNA which can then be amplified (synthetically multiplied to obtain enough material to work with). The bulk DNA is then cut (with enzymes) into small fragments strands that can be used to match (a DNA fingerprint) up with a suspect. Therefore, there are a lot of tests one can do with a few strands of hair!! The initial question for you will be: "... what question are you trying to answer with this hair sample?"
- What are the odds of finding each type of fingerprint in the population (e.g., whorl, arch, mixed and loop)?
The odds are often low to obtain and record all characteristics in one print lifted off the surface of an object. There recently has been much legal criticism in the interpretation of fingerprints. It has been observed that the "fingerprint expert" often uses more than one print and uses characteristic from different prints to present their "best judgment" that the prints match. Some computer search routines are available that help narrow down to 10-12 suspects (out of 10's of thousands), but the final call is made by the print experts who uses their judgment and experience to make a match. The problem is that most prints are blurred or smudged, making the interpretation difficult for the computer (and most examiners). Therefore, fingerprints are only one part of a bigger District Attorney's presentation to associate a person with a crime scene. It is rare today, with well educated defense attorneys, that prints alone will convict.
- What do you need to do to find if a person is the criminal or not?
There is one most important concept that you need to have very clearly in your mind concerning forensic investigations. The forensic scientist never "..finds if a person is the criminal or not." The forensic scientist simply performs many experiments to gather as much information as possible for the court. The forensic scientist does not make a judgment call on the data. In court the defense lawyers and district attorney organize the forensic data, review it in great detail, and the judge with the assistance of a peer group (jurors) look at all the forensic data (interpretation of the evidence) and then decide if a person is a criminal or not. The forensic scientist simply presents his/her work in a very clear manner for the court - without bias. As long as one does not have any pre-conceived notion concerning the guilt or innocence of the suspect, then the forensic scientist can walk away from the court with the feeling that they communicated their information in the best manner. It is up to the court system to find out if a person is a criminal or not.
- What was the path that you took to get to the job/skill that you have?
See way below!
- If you could take this path over again, what would you do different and why?
Probably not - sometimes things just work out one way or the other. It has been exciting some times!
- What would you characterize as the most important skill in the job/field that you are in? Why?
To clearly define the problem! If you do not know what is the problem or what needs to be done you can get easily distracted. Therefore it is best to set up a framework (outline on paper or in your head) to see what are the steps that need to be done to solve the problem (before you start). In two words: "be prepared!". I never go to court what out a lot of preparation. You never know what type of questions a lawyer will ask. I guess I like to figure out (solve) unknowns, determine how things works, and put it all together to answer the big questions. For me I like the forensic work because one often is the first to know the real facts and the correct facts long before one hears about in it the news media.
- How is the job/field different than you had thought it would be?
Sometimes very political, peer jealousy that gets in the way of solving problems, and always the need to obtain funding to do anything. The funding problems are always there no matter what the size, difficulty, or importance of the problem or situation. Everything requires funding to move forward! It is often difficult to get the funding necessary to do a good job.
- Can you provide recommendations as to some part-time work or internship experiences that might get before I get out of school and hit the job market?
Working in a hospital clinical chemistry laboratory, a small company's laboratory that has chemical analysis capabilities (for example in northern California - a winery!!), or at a university where there may be a summer internship program. Look for industrial or city government opportunities that may have chemistry or biology concerns (e.g., city water analysis, sewage treatment, meat or poultry inspectors, agricultural concerns, paint blending industry, etc.). There are chemical and biological needs all around that few know about or see. (See below for other background information items.)
- What is the BEST piece of advice you have received?
"There will always be people more brilliant than you. However, if you work harder and do more than others, you will be more successful, because the smartest individuals often are not in shape for the long distance race!" - Dr. Joseph Bianchinne. He was one of the first physicians to treat Parkinson patients with LDOPA and was my Pharmaceutical Chemistry department head at Ohio State University.
- What initial subjects do I need to learn to become a Forensic Scientist?
Chemistry, Biology, Physics, and Math. Psychology is optional.
- What skills are needed and what is involved in Forensic Science?
See the information below to help you organize your thoughts!
- What is a typical day like for a forensic chemist?
- How would you define a forensic chemist?
- What college did you attend?
Florida State University for undergraduate (BS in Chemistry and Oceanography) then on to MIT for a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry, M.S. in Analytical Chemistry and another M.S. in Oceanography (all from MIT in Boston)
- How many years did you attend college?
Four years for undergraduate and 5 years for graduate school (to obtain 3 advanced degrees).
- What are your court presentations like?
Often very intense and of course very formal and proper.
- How many court cases are you involved in per year?
- How do you prepare for court presentations?
I read a lot, and in my mind work out different scenarios of questions that I may be asked. I then practice answering hypothetical question in a clear way that may be given to me by different lawyers.
- Do you see cases that are mentally troubling?
Not troubling, but sometimes challenging.
- How do you prepare yourself for those types of cases?
Review all my research notes and reports that I have prepared as well as study similar cases in the library.
- Do you like your job? Why or why not?
Yes, because I help many people. I also like inventing new forensic tools.
Information on the LLNL Forensic Science Center
People often ask for me to send some information on The Forensic Science/CSI Center at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory which I established. Also information is requested about my experience and background before getting into the field of forensics.
Below, are some web-sites that you may like to look over concerning our Forensic Science Center activities in California.
This may help prepare you for future studies. You will see from the web-pages that the future in governmental forensics appears to be homeland defense, counter terrorism preparedness, and field deployable forensic tools.
- How do you see technology affecting your job?
I see faster sample analysis, better quality control of the data, and more sensitive analysis for very small amounts of material. However, we are more and more tied to and held hostage by technology and have less ability to repair analytical instrumentation when it breaks down. The cost of this technology is expensive.
- Do you think that Forensic Science/CSI is helping the economy and society?
Forensic science research and applications to crime solving is not helping the economy. However, sometimes there is benefit to society. One beneficial example is that many convicted people are found to be not guilty after DNA analysis of very old evidence that 20 years ago could not have been analyzed because the technology was not available (e.g., PCR/DNA amplification). On the flip-side of the coin, there is always little money available for forensic science research and development that helps the economy. Salaries are low, the work environment of the real forensic chemists, biologists, and crime scene investigators is poor, and the court system is difficult. There is more of a drain on economic resources and there are usually very little funds for most forensic laboratories to do cutting edge work that helps society as a whole. Often, it is observed that crime does pay - but poorly! Criminals can now look at risk and benefit of criminal activities and see that they often can get away with a crime. Additionally, if caught and found guilty of very serious crimes, they can be sentenced to very low prison time because lawyers can manipulate the legal system in favor of the criminal.
- How do you think technology will help you in the future of Forensic Science?
The sensitivity and specificity of sample analysis will continue to grow. Analytical instrumentation will become more specialized and be taken to the crime scene. The use of automated analysis systems will become more in use, but this will also force many laboratories to hire fewer people to do the work. The courts (prosecution) will like automated analysis because there is no bias in the interpretation of the data. Defense lawyers will not be fond of analysis-automation because there will be no witness to cross examine.
- How many different types of focused Forensic science areas are there? What can I study? Please list them and what they do.
There are many areas of forensic science investigations. They can be grouped into chemistry, biology, physics, and psychology. Each general area has many subjects and sub-subjects of specialization that are studied in great detail, allowing individuals to become an expert in their chosen field. Some forensic scientists are experts in one or multiple areas. Examples from each group are:
- Organic analysis (drugs, alcohol in blood, arson-accelerants, poisons, pesticides, pollution, fuels, soap, ink analysis, gun-shot residue, explosives, etc.)
- Inorganic analysis (gun-shot residues for trace metals, bullet lead isotopes, metal analysis, inorganic poisons, mercury pollution, etc.)
- Physical chemistry (heat transfer, explosive blasts radius, velocity of bullets, weights and measurements of contraband, pharmacokinetics and drug overdose, crush injuries, hydrodynamics of drowning, etc.)
- Canine training to locate hidden drugs, explosives, and people
- Using chemistry to highlight latent fingerprints (e.g., super-glue, fluorescent dyes, etc.)
- Chemical weapons (CW) analysis
- Blood (Luminol-type test for trace blood splatter, microscope work to ascertain blood-type, abnormalities in protein profiles, staining HIV samples to identify suspects, blood types to identify race, etc.)
- Tissue analysis for disease state diagnosis and/or cause of death (suicide, murder, genocide, prisoners of war, etc.)
- DNA isolation and analysis for identification purposes (sperm, male/female blood, race, etc.)
- Tissue and body-part analysis of imported and protected animals (e.g., ivory, bear-gallbladder, rhinoceros horns, etc.)
- Vegetation knowledge to identify trace evidence from the scene of a crime (weed and seed identification)
- Insect and larva analysis to ascertain the time of death (based on insect populations in decomposing human tissues)
- Biological weapons (BW) analysis of infectious bacteria and virus DNA and pathogens
- Anthropology and bone characterization (male, female, cause of death, blunt trauma, wound reconstruction and direction of projectiles through bones, teeth analysis and individual identification through bit marks, teeth analysis for DNA and personal identifications, bone profiles and chemical analysis for diet and poisonings, sorting out the number people in mass graves, taking small bone fragments and identifying a homicide through microscopic marks on bone,
- Ballistics and tool mark identification (bullet and firearm identification, bullet and arrow trajectory and velocity, etc.)
- Failure analysis - why an accident occurred and the reconstruction of the events leading up to the fatal problem (e.g., metal fatigue in a wheel, bridge, airplane wing, tire skid marks, etc.)
- Electronic and electrical devices - how they work or did not work (e.g., accidental electrocution), micro-electronic surveillance of all types, audio and video clarification and reconstruction (getting the noise/blurring out and make the picture or audio better), etc.
- Computers - retrieve data that has been erased, looking for and breaking secret codes, using computer for surveillance (e.g. new software to interrogate a suspects home computer through the web), etc.
- Radiation analysis for weapons or dirty bombs
- All aspects associated with the making and deployment of bombs and bomb materials
- Hair, particle, fiber identification and characterization using electron microscopy and other physics tools
- Handwriting analysis of forgeries and other documents
- Mode of offense - repeat offender (e.g., serial killer) ways and means to carry out criminal activities - looking into the mind of the mentally ill
- Clairvoyants (remote viewers) - a controversial technique known by select individuals that possibly can see the crime scene or evidence, not know to the criminal investigators, but associated with a criminal activity or event.
- Studies of alcoholism and drug addiction including the mentally unbalanced that commit criminal activities
- Child abuse - did the small child simple fall and have an accident or was it thrown across the room (e.g., "shaken baby syndrome", etc.), Munchousen and Munchousen-by-proxy, etc.
- Forensic accounting techniques - reviewing money laundering practices and fraudulent money transfers traced to criminal activities
- Data analysis of all types - banking, telephone numbers, population statistics, airplane and bus ticket reservations, receipt identification and data correlation of evidence from large investigations, etc.
- Secret code breaking and interpretation of secret writing
- Interviewing witnesses for unusual comments, body language to identify forensic clues to a crime that also includes psychological profiling of suspects
- Have you heard of the TV series CSI? If you have, and have watched it, do you think that what they do is what you really do in reality?
I have seen the program - it is not at all what a true forensic laboratory is involved with! Time lines are too short, the people are too animated, crime scene investigators rarely talk to suspects, and the pay is about 100 times less than what the actors receive. The crime scene investigators take orders from the investigator in charge. They never tell anyone what to do! Also the crimes performed in real life are often much more horrific and graphic than anything they could put on television. One of the only good things about CSI is that it does make you think and try to figure out who is the bad guy. In real life it is really up to the DAs Office to make a case and have suspects prosecuted.
- How long have you been working in your field? –
- What are some of the things that you have to investigate?
Vandalism, murder, theft, disease diagnosis, environment pollution identification, marine chemistry, international crime which includes war crimes, chemical weapons use, and other investigations that are of importance to the Nation.
- How many crimes do you work on in one day? One week? One month? –
Years ago, we would work on 5-10 cases a day and have them done in a week. Later I would work on a case a month and spend 1-2 months to get the final report of the analysis completed. Now my current forensic research can take many months to complete and the reports can require an additional 2-4 months to complete. Therefore, today I work on approximately one case every 4-6 months. However, these are often very, very involved and require a lot of dedicated time because they are so complex.
- How do "you" solve most of your cases?
Forensic investigations are typically supported by using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) techniques which provide very exact chemical information to help answer law enforcement or international questions. I do not solve criminal investigations. I provide the best analysis methods available and interpret the results clearly for the court system to "solve" the case. A lot of discovery is made by many, many hours in the laboratory preparing and analyzing samples using a variety of different methods.
- What type of equipment(s) do you use?
Tissue blenders, filters, solid phase extraction cartridges, GC-MS (for organic chemical analysis), electron and optical microscopes, nuclear magnetic resonance instruments, X-ray fluorescence machines (for inorganic analysis), Geiger counters, centrifuges, and many more smaller instruments (e.g., pH meter, etc.)
- How has Forensic Science affected the present? The past?
Forensic investigators 100 years ago looked at color, smell, and the physical shapes of evidence. Often the "Sherlock Holmes approach" was used - a simple magnifying glass and/or spot-color test was all that was available. There were no highly sophisticated and sensitive analytical instruments to completely characterize possible forensic evidence. Prior to 1980s, a jury could often be easily convinced that a person was guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt" with only a single forensic sample that was characterized by a forensic specialist and described to a jury. On the word of the "police specialist" or "scientific expert", the jury would then take the evidence at face value and considered it sufficient for a conviction.
- Prior to the O. J. Trial Forensic Investigations were Not Often Challenged
Standard operating procedures used by law enforcement were considered established and correct
Little oversight of evidence, its handling, or analysis protocols were criticized
Few new, cutting-edge technologies were available (few laboratories had the money to improve their capabilities)
There was only marginal attorney education in forensics - Lawyers never questioned the data (they often just took it at face value because the "forensic specialist" said that the data were correct)
The FBI was never questioned because - "They were the FBI! - All knowledgeable and proper in all things!"
- Forensic Laboratories in the Past
They were engaged in high volume sampling and analysis, performed by marginally educated individuals.
Blood alcohol analysis was a big part of most forensic analysis laboratories.
Bulk drug analysis took a lot of manpower and time.
Traffic accidents took a lot of time to photograph and describe.
Specialized forensics was seen in only a few areas that included:
Ballistics - bullet characterization (Is the bullet a .22, .45, .38 caliber? Does the bullet rifling match the gun?)
Serology - what is the blood type? Any diagnostic cells? No DNA analysis was performed
Toxicology that included bulk drug analysis and some body fluid and tissue characterization for drugs
No accreditation or oversight - most all laboratories had different ways to perform the same analysis
Limited collaboration - few laboratories talked to one another; there was little time & no reason to collaborate. The court system never required a forensic sample to be analyzed by two different laboratories to see if they got the same analysis results.
Following the O.J. Simpson Trial - This trial brought out many problems with forensic laboratories:
All forensic laboratories now need to be accredited - all their procedures are reviewed by an outside board of examiners and the forensic laboratory will be given only written accreditation for those area in which they prove to be competent and able to demonstrate proper protocols. A defense lawyer will now (almost immediately) ask a "scientific expert" if "....the data presented to this court is from an accredited laboratory?" If the expert says "no", the lawyer informs the jury that the data analysis may not be valid or asks the judge not to have the "data" presented to the court. It is a very power defense tactic!
All lawyers in the court system will typically obtain experts in the subject areas in question. These experts are often highly knowledgeable and able to find holes or mistakes in certain laboratory data analysis or conclusions. Therefore, the expert witness must now be highly knowledge about the technology, be accredited, and have the credentials to defend the data being presented (do you recall the O.J. Simons case and the serious problems with presentations of DNA results?). Having a scientific expert present forensic data is a change from the years past. For example, 15 years ago, if a technician were asked "...how much drug was in the blood of the victim?" the answer may have been either: "a little, a lot, or a hell-of-a-lot!". Today that answer would not have been acceptable without any quantitative information to back up the statement. Current-day forensic analysis presentations must indicate that: (1) "scientifically accepted" forensic procedures were performed under accreditation guidelines, (2) that the exact concentrations of drugs are presented to the court, and (3) are substantiated controls are in place using blanks, analyzed to show no cross contamination was occurring in the laboratory, and spiked samples, to show that repeated analysis will always generate a consistent answer. Thus in this one example, a single sample requiring forensic characterization will require a considerable amount of time, effort and funds, to perform a competent analysis. This is a big change from the past and is the trend for all types of forensic analysis presentations to the court.
Selected laboratories are performing DNA testing at different levels of sophistication. DNA is now accredited and standardized.
Some laboratories perform only one type of forensic analysis for which they are only accredited do perform
The most sophisticated analytical instrumentation is widely used in many forensic laboratories.
Since the O.J. Simpson trial, the entire legal system is more educated in the field of forensics. All lawyers are now more knowledgeable at asking the right types of questions regarding forensic analysis and many legal precedents are in place to curtail "off the wall" statements by forensic experts concerning their interpretation of forensic data.
Forensic investigations are on the minds of the average public because of the TV programs (e.g., CSI, etc.). Many TV viewers are very excited about forensic investigations and the "who done it" type programs.
Past criminal cases have now been overturned because the forensic evidence is looked at in a different way. Old forensic investigations have been looked at with modern technology. Previously, convicted individuals have now been found "not guilty" because of new methods that were used to process and characterize old forensic evidence. The classic example is DNA analysis, which has often now excluded many as not being responsible for a crime (e.g., rape or murder evidence where the DNA did not match the prisoner!). As another example, I recently helped in the analysis of a "cold" case file. A falsely convicted nurse, who continually voiced innocence, was sentences to prison in a lethal drug overdose case. Previously, the alleged victim had been exhumed and aged tissue samples were collected and analyzed for drugs. Data was generated and "scientific evidence" presented by the FBI that "indeed" a drug metabolite was present. For the court system this had been enough to convict and sentence the nurse to life in prison. The problem with this case is that no control samples were analyzed! Through the defense lawyer, I asked the court system to exhume similar bodies from the same cemetery to be used as "control samples". The analysis of these control, similarly aged tissue samples revealed that in this environment the decomposing tissue in fact generated an extraneous "false drug metabolite." When it was shown that the forensic analysis generated "false positive" results from the decomposing tissue the nurse was released from prison back to family and friends.
Finally, funding to support a forensic laboratory is still difficult because of the problems with government allocations.
- How has technology impacted Forensic Science?
More sensitive, more specific and more expensive instrumentation is available. Additionally, new technology has to be accepted into the court system before it can be used in a case. Thus, it has to be accepted by the scientific community in general. No highly sophisticated technology can be used in court unless it has been shown to be reliable, exact, and free from false positives, and false negatives (Kelly-Fry finding).
- Why did you decide to go into the field of Forensic Science?
In 1972 (when I was in graduate school) I was on TV demonstrating how a new technology, GC-MS, was used to characterize moon samples. A doctor working in one of the large Boston hospitals saw the TV news special and called me asking if "..this new GC-MS technology would help with a drug overdose victim?" I said I would try to help. I took one drop of his patient's blood and easily discovered that his female patient had ingested huge amounts of Darvon! He was then able to treat her properly and she recovered. From then on I was asked to help with thousands of drug overdose victims across the country. From that work I gained a lot of experience! I then began to work on discovering the cause of many childhood illnesses, as well as all sorts of unknowns poisonings caused by the ingestion of toxic plants and those caused by animal bits and stings. This work provided the in depth training needed to become involved with all types of forensic investigations. Also, I liked to work with people who needed my help. It seems that I went into forensic science because of my basic education in how GC-MS instruments operate to conclusively identify unknown chemical mixtures. Knowing how to use GC-MS allowed me to perform forensics easily and branch out into all the other field of chemical analysis. However, it all started with moon sample investigations!!!