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Crime Science!

What's fishy about the broken pane of this door? Read about this real art theft case in Investigating a Crime Scene to find out! (photo: courtesy of the LAPD)

Investigating a Crime Scene is about the science behind observing, collecting, preserving, and interpreting evidence found at a crime scene. Featured cases range from a simple burglary to murder.

Cleveland detective Nichol Jennings told me, step-by-step, how she and Detective Mike Smith slowly and carefully worked the scene of a single-bullet shooting and helped nail the murderer by pressing a button! I also interviewed her partner, Ann Marie Ziska, who completed an intense crime science training program at the National Forensic Academy in Tennessee.

Sharon Plotkin, who investigates crime scenes in North Miami, Florida, taught me a great deal about procedures and how to think like an investigator—keeping an open mind, letting the evidence speak for itself, asking questions about the criminal's behavior, and making observations and inferences to figure out what's evidence and what's not. How did the criminal enter and exit the scene? What did he or she touch? What's missing from the scene? Where might latent (invisible) evidence be lurking? Did the criminal stage the scene to throw off investigators?

Detective Don Hrycyk of Los Angeles Police Department Art Theft Detail Unit helped me turn one of his burglary cases into a crime scene challenge. We outline the evidence found at the large estate of a movie producer, including forensic photos, and challenge readers to interpret the evidence for clues. Something's definitely fishy about that broken window (above), and it takes a Sherlock-like observation to figure it out.

As part of my research for The Body as Evidence/Autopsies, I interviewed Colorado coroner Mike Dobersen just after he performed a three-hour autopsy on a homicide victim. He stepped me through his investigation at the crime scene, examining the corpse as it was found by fire fighters, and then the operation in which he searched for forensic clues to the manner and cause of death.

I also contacted forensic anthropologist Clea Koff, who investigates mass graves, starting with two horrifying sites in Rwanda, Africa. As a member of the Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) team, she helped exhume hundreds of victims of the 1994 genocide in that country and to document skeletal evidence for an ongoing international tribunal. More than two dozen military and government leaders have been convicted of instigating the killing of more than half a million Rwandan citizens.

In this book, I also discuss the biology of death, including the medical causes and how a corpse changes from the moment of the last breath over the first 72 hours and then days, weeks, and months later. Featuring real murder cases as examples, I explain how body temperature, rigor mortis (temporary muscle stiffening), lividity (blood pooling), decomposition, the life cycle of insects, and other clues help medical examiners estimate time of death.

The last chapter features excerpts from an actual autopsy report. Can you spot the "smoking gun" clue on the body that led California detectives to the scene of the crime and, ultimately, the murderer?


Young CSI fans will be engrossed by this title in the Crime Scene Science series. The well-balanced mix of case studies, scientific explanations, and descriptions of fieldwork offers a dynamic, behind-the-scenes look at crime-scene investigations. Hopping doesn't sensationalize; she focuses on facts: "a rotting corpse releases about 400 chemicals into the air."

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