3 Sessions for Forensics Fanatics

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Readers, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to you and other true crime enthusiasts. As we’ve chewed over our theories and hot-button cases, I’ve observed an interesting phenomenon: many of you (myself included) tend to favor certain aspects of the true crime genre. There are self-proclaimed forensic nerds, fascinated with evidence analysis. Others are drawn to behavioral profiling or the justice system itself. 

With that in mind, I’ve gathered some information that may help you decide which sessions to attend at CrimeCon 2018 based on your area of interest. We’ll start with the Forensics Fanatics, but if you’re a Behavioral Buff, Cold Case Collector, or Justice System Junkie, stay tuned to learn which CrimeCon 2018 sessions you simply cannot miss.

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Often, true crime fans think of DNA as the fulcrum on the scale of justice; it can put bad guys behind bars and it can exonerate the wrongfully-convicted. However, for as much faith as we put in DNA evidence, we still don’t fully understand it. It’s known to prosecutors as “the CSI effect,” drawing upon crime procedural tropes that depict DNA analysis as infallible, immediate, and conclusive. But if you think you know all there is to know about DNA, consider this: could you explain a basic process, such as how investigators gather DNA evidence?

At her CrimeCon 2018 Live DNA Collection Demonstration, Dr. Laura Pettler will join forces with Sheryl “Mac” McCollum to showcase a revolutionary new DNA collection tool called the M-Vac. Dr. Pettler likens it to a carpet shampooer: “Investigators use the M-Vac tool to saturate a piece of evidence with a solution, then any DNA evidence is sucked into a filter,” she says. “The great thing about the M-Vac is that it can go anywhere -- from the crime scene to the crime lab.”

Dr. Pettler and McCollum will recreate a real-life crime scene (an area in which they both have extensive experience), and use the M-Vac to extract DNA from evidence present at the scene. “We’ll collect and process evidence right in front of the audience,” Pettler says. “It’s an open and unsolved case, so while we can’t discuss specifics, you’ll get to see us collect actual evidence that could be used to solve the crime.”

If that weren’t cool enough, I’ve also learned that there are only 100 M-Vac units in the United States, and Laura Pettler and Associates is the only private sector organization to use one. Prepare for full-scale forensic freak meltdown.

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Every crime scene tells a story. Every knocked-over lamp or broken window holds clues to the identity and modus operandi of a perpetrator. While DNA is often key to identifying a suspect, DNA evidence alone doesn’t tell us exactly what happened at a crime scene. That’s where Detective (ret.) Karen Smith comes in. 

As a detective with the Jacksonville, Florida Sheriff’s office, Smith investigated 20,000 cases, including hundreds of deaths and homicides. After her retirement, Smith created Bare Bones Consulting, an independent company offering crime scene and cold case analysis, bloodstain pattern analysis, and crime scene reconstruction services.

At this session, Smith will take you step-by-step through a meticulously-reconstructed crime scene and show you how blood spatter analysis, bullet trajectory reconstruction, and a medical examiner’s conclusions all came together to tell the horrible truth behind one of Jacksonville, Florida’s most heinous homicides.

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As much as I love forensics, I’m a behavioral buff at heart. I’m fascinated by the behavioral human element and abnormal psychology at work in the minds of criminal offenders. I’m also a writer, so I love words. That’s why I’m excited for this session, which combines all of these: words, human behavior, and forensic analysis.

Like many of you, I spend a lot of my free time reading manifestos from infamous perpetrators (don’t deny it). I suspect it’s oddly comforting to read the words of a madman and realize that we’re relatively normal in comparison. But when you dig deeper into the writings of killers like the Unabomber, Elliot Rodger, or Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, you’ll find that the words they choose and the context in which they use them reveal even more about their twisted minds than we know.

Bomb threats, ransom notes, diaries, even social media posts can provide forensic linguistic evidence that’s crucial to solving a crime. In this session, forensic linguist and professor Dr. Natalie Schilling will reveal how language researchers use their expertise to help investigators build profiles and solve crimes. 

Dr. Schilling, well-known for her contributions to the investigation of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, will open your eyes to concepts that can help you better understand the language of killers: author/speaker profiling, voice identification, and authorship attribution, to name a few. Best of all, you’ll get to test your new-found skills in a hands-on linguistic analysis activity. After this session, you’ll never look at words the same way again (see what I did there?).