Virtual Fishing

On passion for nature, compatibility and life-changing love

Lake

Until recently I knew very little about fishing. Less than that actually, although I’d probably made a few assumptions. I’m not claiming to currently harbour extensive fishing knowledge, rather, some monumental life changes have offered a unique insight from the perspective of virtual fishing, possibly an accidental phenomenon, but a phenomenon nonetheless. Before you close this page thinking this is a post all about fishing, bear with me for a moment. It’s about far more.

I never imagined I could have an interest in fishing. Countless subjects comprise the sum of all human knowledge and the average person will encounter a fraction of these. Our individual fields of ‘expertise’ are relatively small, even those of the most well-read polymath. My recent exposure to this new and fascinating discipline has caused me to question exactly how it is that we discover the subjects that spark our interest. How do we find those things we’re passionate about? Is it accidental? Is fate involved? Does fate exist at all?

In this digital age we’re exposed to a constant stream of information and opinions. It seems to me that we spend more time filtering to find something that grabs our attention than we do gaining new knowledge, despite preference-targeting search engine algorithms. There are, of course, none-internet-dependent ways to research subjects. Undoubtedly there will be chance encounters providing exposure to new experiences, but it strikes me just how much influence is wielded by the significant people in our lives, those we love and respect. We take an interest in the things that they’re passionate about. This is how I find myself engaging in a weekly ritual of virtual fishing.

I must first explain that I have met a remarkable man. Not just any man, but ‘the one’. The one I have dreamed of and thought I’d never meet. The one who, on first inspection, seems far too good to be true, but is proving to be entirely true, to the extent that we are connected and entirely compatible on every conceivable level like two halves of the same soul. This happened, like things tend to, when least expected, at a time when I wasn’t looking for a man of any particular description. The fact that I have stumbled upon one who is remarkable is, in itself, amazing, and that’s a definite understatement. I could very easily elaborate on all the characteristics of this wonderful man to further my point. Suffice to say, he is!

This man has eclectic interests, with particular passions for nature, photography and fishing. Of late, we have fallen into a very pleasant weekend routine. As things currently stand, we are maintaining a long distance relationship, and as such, we tend to engage in lengthy early morning telephone conversations. On Saturdays, these tend to take place while my lovely man is fishing, and as a result, we have discovered that there is such a thing as virtual fishing.

Saturday dawns and I wake early, previously unprecedented for me, especially at the weekend, and on making a telephone call to my love, am instantly transported from the urban sprawl on the Southern edge of the city of Manchester, to the serenely peaceful environment of the private lake where he has been fishing since the sun rose. I can hear the persistent bird song and the gentle splashing and trickling of the water. I am there with him…

The Lake

I listen to the passion in his voice as he describes the day. He tells me which birds we can hear singing, those he has seen, the temperature, the wind direction and the quality of the light, which play a vital role in determining his fishing strategy for the day. He has selected his fishing position at the lake taking these factors into account in a scientific way that appeals to me. He has interrogated the weather forecast in the days prior to the weekend and has previously visited the lake, a trip on which I will likely have accompanied him in a similar virtual manner, in order to pre-bait and observe the behaviour of the fish, all of which I have learnt, are vital to the following day’s strategy and are carried out just as meticulously.

He describes the bait he’s using, of which there is a surprisingly diverse selection, and the finer details of how this has been presented to the fish, planned well in advance to take account of fish behaviour and mood. I have learnt that fish have an amazing sense of smell and the variety of bait on offer takes full advantage of this. I’d never have imagined luncheon meat with a liberal coating of curry powder might be used for such a purpose. A range of liquid attractants can be employed to enhance bait in the manner of mythical potions, by supplementing the aroma of pineapple or strawberry for example, all of which I find extraordinary. I have by now, seen a variety of fishing minutiae in images sent of bait, hooks and rod tips. I joke that he has wooed me with photographs of fishing tackle, but the fact is, I am thrilled and fascinated to be sharing the finer details of such a very personal part of his life for which he has such great passion.

It seems that fishing, whilst apparently calm and serene, is in fact a battle of wits between this ninja of an angler and the evasive fish conspiring to outwit him. When they are taunting him with their visible presence but refusing to bite, we discuss which alternative tactic might next be employed from the armoury of equipment to hand in his meticulously packed kit.

Suddenly, a relaxed moment discussing any manner of our favourite topics will be interrupted by an exclamation. I am captivated by the excitement in his voice as he breathlessly describes every manoeuvre of the gullible fish hooked on the end of his line and battling to escape. There is ultimate respect for the fish at this point and every measure to protect and avoid damage to this beautiful creature is described in detail. I find that I am holding my breath listening to the struggle, which is punctuated by grunts of effort and a variety of expletives, promptly followed by apologies in our earlier fishing encounters, but which I have now endlessly assured my wonderful man that these merely add to the reality of the experience and render him more human and infinitely more adorable in his self-deprecation. As the struggle continues, I learn that it is the smaller fish that battle the hardest. This war of attrition concludes in the landing of an inevitably magnificent creature, regardless of size or species, and I can breath again. I hear the splashing as the fish is coaxed into the net, and I can hear the smile on his face as he speaks gentle words to the fish to calm it and skilfully removes the hook with the minimum of damage.

Mirror Carp

I am in awe of his immense respect for nature, his knowledge and his passion for fishing. He opines on the beauty of the fish he catches and the complexity of their behaviour as he gently returns them to the lake after their brief encounter. This is a man who has changed my world view. I can hear the birdsong, to which I was previously largely oblivious, and I constantly wonder at the amazing diversity of our planet. We plan to spend the rest of our days together, and there are countless practicalities and life issues, such as work and current location, to resolve before that will happen, but it will happen. When it does, we have a world of experiences to share, but until then, at least we have virtual fishing.

Lake at Dusk

Images courtesy of Andy Mackenzie, 2014

Mentoring Gold

Touching the clouds

As an alumnus of Manchester University I’m regularly sent information: requests inviting me to various drinks receptions, offers of departmental visits, or requests for donations. I do what I can to help out but this is the first time a proposed project has prompted me to actually become involved. I recently signed up for the Manchester University student mentoring programme, Mentoring Gold. The name itself suggests an experience of the highest standard and I hope I’m able to meet the expectations of my mentee. Having said that, I’ve a feeling I’m about to embark on an equally gold standard experience.

The scheme is aimed at students nearing the end of their studies. It intends to pair them up with alumni working in relevant areas of industry to help with the transition to the world of work and offer real life career advice. After having been sent a list of potential mentees, I gave my preference and was contacted for the first time by my actual mentee late last week. I’m really excited about meeting them. (I do not intend to disclose any details about my mentee, including their gender, hence ‘them’.)

Now that a real life person’s involved, the scheme has taken on a new emphasis. It’s more than an interesting project I agreed to take part in. I find myself reviewing my progress to date. How did I reach this point in my career? What were the motivating factors? Who are the people that influenced me? One of those people is mentioned in my first post on this blog. She is a person who encouraged me to aim higher, helped me to realise just what I’m capable of and continues to inspire me. Thanks for that, Angie.

There was no mentoring programme when I was a student. Had there been, I’m not sure I’d have been forward-thinking enough to recognise its potential benefit. That my mentee has applied to the scheme, and not only that, but has given a well thought out response when questioned on their motivation for applying, is the basis for my choice. I am even more pleased that in our recent email conversations, my mentee has proved to be an accomplished writer. Not only that, their correct use of apostrophes pleases me far more than it should, and this hints at something about me that they’ll probably learn in time.

So what can I hope to offer? Well, the first thing I shall emphasise is that I don’t have all the answers. I might be ahead of the game in terms of experience, but it doesn’t mean I did everything right. If my mentee can learn from my mistakes, then that’s worthwhile, a bit like pointing out where the speed cameras are, but at the same time, there’s real value in learning from your own mistakes. What I am hoping is that I’ll be able to help my mentee find their own answers and learn something about themself. Sometimes it’s hard to give yourself the credit you deserve but moral support and encouragement go a long way when it comes to gaining confidence in your own abilities.

I’m meeting my mentee for the first time tonight. In their words, based on our brief email exchanges to date, “I think we’re going to get on famously”. If my mentee is reading this, then I should add that I think so too!


Our Faulty Cognitive Instruments


Eyewitness identification is the leading cause of false conviction. Why? Because memory is not as reliable as we think.


Last weekend, I attended a Forensic Science Society conference entitled: “Are you open to Suggestion? The Role of Subjectivity & Influence in Forensic Evaluation/Interpretation.” I have learned a great many interesting things.

In his opening address, The Hon. Sir Nigel Sweeney, High Court judge, warned of “the risk of the fleeting glimpse.” The most honest and reliable witness may be mistaken. They may convince themselves. As Hannah Fawcett, Teeside University Psychology lecturer, pointed out in her presentation, the truth may not be fact. An eyewitness may be telling the truth. They may completely believe what they think they saw. They are not lying but their memory is inaccurate.

As well as the risk of the fleeting glimpse, other factors can affect our accuracy in recalling events. Hannah Fawcett talked about these estimator variables. Viewing conditions can affect what we remember. If we can’t see properly, if it’s dark or our glimpse is fleeting or obstructed, then our ability to identify a person is affected. Intoxication has an effect too. It seems obvious to suggest that the more intoxicated we are, the less accurate our memory becomes. Research confirms this. Being confronted by violence or the fear of violence can affect our powers of recall. The ability of our brains to generalize is also a factor in our ability to recall events. Our brains have an implicit tendency to make associations. This is how we cope with the world. University of Sheffield Professor of philosophy, Jennifer Saul, spoke about this in her presentation. Our brains categorize objects. Such schemas, or collections of associations are automatic and stem from our existing knowledge of those objects. As our knowledge grows, the more elaborate our collections of associations become. The problem with schemas in terms of recall, is that they may lead us to add associated information to our memories in terms of details that didn’t actually happen. We see what we expect to see, based on our existing knowledge of such situations, and we do it unknowingly.

Co-witness discussion can also lead individual witnesses to add details to their accounts, based on what other witnesses said they saw. Again, if those additional pieces of information that we hear from other witnesses fit with our schema, we may think we saw them too because they meet our expectations. This highlights the need for police to interview witnesses quickly, before they have chance to discuss the event with other witnesses and unknowingly alter their memory of it.

Hannah Fawcett went on to speak about the misinformation paradigm. How, in experiments, subjects were shown photoshopped childhood photographs of themselves in situations in which they had actually never been. At first, the subjects rejected the situation, claiming to have no memory of it, but by the second or third session viewing the photos, some subjects believed that they remembered these false events. The fact that false memories can be implanted in this way is disturbing. What affect might suggestion have on eyewitness accounts of a crime over time?

A biased instruction or question may invoke confirmation bias, leading to an unknowingly false witness account. Professor Saul invited us to consider the question, “Is Jane friendly?” When asked the question, a subject will consider all the instances when they have experienced Jane being friendly, and assuming there are some instances, will conclude that, yes, Jane is indeed friendly. However, if asked, “Is Jane unfriendly?”, the subject will recall a completely different set of circumstances and may reach a conclusion that contradicts their original answer. So, the phrasing of the question affects the answer. Modern policing methods use cognitive interviewing techniques which increase the frequency of correct witness information and decrease the inclusion of fabrications. Mental context reinstatement puts the witness back at the scene and asks them to think about, not only what they saw, but how they felt, what they thought, how did it smell or sound. This helps to overcome some presumptions. Witnesses are asked to report every detail, no matter how trivial. They are also asked to change their perspective by viewing the scene from a different position, or to describe events in a different temporal order. These techniques allow witnesses to challenge some of the blanks their brain might have unknowingly filled in for them, based on schemas.

Facial recognition is a particular problem for eyewitnesses. Our ability to describe an offender is limited by our lack of vocabulary to describe facial features. The problem is compounded by our brain’s preference to process the whole face, rather than the individual facial features. The issue of recognition versus recall is also a factor leading to false identification. It’s quite common to think, “I know that face, but where from..?” There have been cases of false conviction based on eyewitness identification of a suspect who is recognised by the witness from somewhere, but, as it turns out, not from the crime scene, despite what the witness recalls. The way police line ups are conducted can be a factor in false identification. Ideally, line ups should be double blind: neither the witness nor the officer conducting the line up is aware of the identity of the suspect, or if they are even in the line up. Therefore, the officer is unable to give any unconscious cues to the witness. The case of Ronald Cotton gives us an example of what can happen.

Hannah Fawcett pointed out that erroneous experts are even more dangerous than erroneous witnesses. Whilst judges and lawyers might now be more aware of the problems of implicit bias, jury members are unaware. Because of factors such as the so called ‘CSI effect’, an expert perceived to be confident in their testimony, is more likely to be believed by a jury, even if their evidence is flawed.

Expert witnesses are people too! Our cognitive instruments must also be faulty, which is frightening because we use them every day to reach apparently objective conclusions. How does implicit bias affect a forensic science interpretation?

The objective nature of fingerprint evidence has been questioned recently in the light of the McKie case. Such is the perceived conclusive nature of a fingerprint match, former detective, Shirley McKie, was tried for perjury in 1997 when she denied leaving a fingerprint at a murder scene. However, the fingerprint match reported by Strathclyde Police was later found to be erroneous. Her appeal and exoneration in 2006 led to a public enquiry chaired by Sir Anthony Campbell. His report, issued last December, gives 86 recommendations, three of which relate to cognitive bias:

  • The Scottish Police Service Authority should review their procedures to reduce cognitive bias.
  • Fingerprint examiners should be trained to be conscious of cognitive bias.
  • The SPSA should consider what case information is required for fingerprint examiners to perform their work and the information they are party to should be recorded.

In her presentation, Joanne Tierney of the SPSA explained the measures that have been implemented in response to the enquiry. She acknowledged expert opinion in defining a fingerprint match as a subjective discipline. Prior to the enquiry, experts had become complacent and the boundaries between fact and opinion had become blurred. Historically, a fingerprint match was verified by an independent examiner who was given full knowledge of the first examiner’s opinion of the match. The enquiry suggested that it’s entirely possible that a fingerprint expert verifying a match might be subject to confirmation bias, especially if the first examiner were a more senior colleague. Presentations by Dr David Charlton, Senior Fingerprint Officer of Surrey and Sussex Police and Luke McGarr, secretary of The Fingerprint Society, suggested that examiners might also be unknowingly influenced by other factors, such as the seriousness of the offence or the urgency with which a result was required. It was clear from Joanne Tierney’s presentation, that the SPSA fingerprint experts have undergone a culture change. Now, verification of a match is carried out without access to case information or knowledge of other expert opinion, and in the case of complex comparisons, where the first and second examiners can’t agree, an independent panel caries out a further blind comparison. It remains to be seen whether procedures have changed in the UK fingerprint bureaux, but I suspect that if not, change is imminent.

If the problem of cognitive bias is to be considered, then it should be considered across all areas of forensic science. This conference has certainly made me more aware of the problems. In his introductory address, Sir Nigel Sweeney explained that the level of information required by an expert will depend on the expert’s discipline. I am reassured by this acknowledgement. In my expert area, detailed case information is required in order to make complex interpretations of body fluid distribution and DNA profiling results. These interpretations do not just seek to address who the DNA is from, but also how the body fluid was deposited, and whether that relates to a specific activity. Information surrounding timescales and the condition of the crime scene are important factors to be taken into account when addressing these issues. In order to avoid implicit bias, we have numerous checks and balances built into our procedures. However, the fact remains that as forensic experts, we are still exposed to other pieces of case information, often relating to the victim and suspect, that do not condition our interpretations. The problem with that is, that once you know something, you can’t ‘unknow’ it.

Sir Nigel was very clear in his suggestions for avoiding cognitive bias. He explained that the expert:

  1. Should seek to regulate the information they are exposed to, and to avoid emotive information.
  2. Must set out the substance of all the facts which are material to their opinion.
  3. Must be aware of the risks and continually challenge themselves and their colleagues.
  4. Must record full reasons for their judgement contemporaneously.

Points 2 – 4 are routinely carried out and form part of our regular checking procedures, but point one is problematic, as I have already outlined. As forensic experts, we often need to trawl through pages of suspect and victim interview transcript, for example, to find the relevant conditioning information. It’s very difficult to avoid that extra information, especially the emotive information surrounding a serious sexual assault or murder case. That information almost certainly stirs the emotions.

So what? We’re experts, so we can act objectively regardless of the extra information, right? Wrong! Professor Saul was very clear in her analysis of cognitive bias and emphasised that expertise is no protection. People routinely overestimate their own objectivity. In fact, assuming that you have superior objectivity makes your implicit bias worse.

What then, is the solution? Firstly, these biases are unconscious. We should not be blamed for them. However, this knowledge challenges our ability to function as experts. Professor Saul reassures that action is possible if we are aware of the problems of cognitive bias, although she warns that trying not to be biased is usually counter productive, only resulting in more bias. Our first action should be to avoid the information that might cause the bias in the first place. We don’t need to give up on ideas of knowledge and expertise, but we do need to accept that we are human beings who have faulty cognitive instruments.

For more information on Professor Saul’s collaborative project on bias, investigate www.biasproject.org


Who is William Thomas Zeigler?

I’ve been encountering issues of quality in forensic science lately. I’ve been reading about quality, writing about it, teaching it and working with it! Any forensic practitioner will tell you how absolutely essential a good quality system is in providing effective forensic science. Having spent a month teaching quality systems to a group of international forensic science graduates (more on that later, hopefully) and having recently written a guest post for the excellent Science rEvolutions, on the US NAS report, I have never been more aware of quality. As a consequence, the potentially vast number of miscarriages of justice that have taken place because of poor forensic practice are on my mind. How many of these could have been avoided by the provision of quality forensic science?

This brings me to the subject of William Thomas Zeigler. Through the writings of my friend, Nicolas Henry Vidocq, and other online resources, I admit to being at once both fascinated and horrified in an “I can’t believe this could actually happen” way, by Mr Zeigler’s case.

William Thomas Zeigler, known as Tommy, has been on death row in Florida since 1976, found guilty of the murder of four people, including his beloved wife, Eunice Edwards-Zeigler.

Mr Zeigler and his wife ran a furniture store in Winter Garden, Florida. On Christmas eve, 1975 William Zeigler was found in the store with a gunshot wound. His wife, parents-in-law and a customer, Charlie Mays, were all found inside the store, murdered.

Tommy has always denied the murders. He says he was there at the scene, that he was the intended victim, that he fired a gunshot and fought with Charlie Mays, but did not kill him or any of the others. Tommy was shot during the incident and passed out, only able to summon help some time later, after his attackers had fled the scene. What happened next is inconceivable.

The case is peppered with inconsistencies, cover ups, suppressed evidence, jury intimidation, police lies and corruption and at leased one biased judge.

The crime scene shows that Eunice, her parents and Charlie Mays were each killed in different ways: Eunice was shot in the back of the head and her body carefully positioned. She is unlikely to have fallen in the position that she was found and there are footprints backing away from her body. These do not match anyone involved in the case.

Mays was shot and severely beaten to the head, probably with a crank that was found near his body. There was heavy blood staining on the soles of his shoes, suggesting he walked around the scene before he was killed, but very little in terms of blood spatter on his lower body, which might suggest that his killer sat astride him whilst beating him to the head. Attempts to clean up the blood around Mays’ body were evident, but this was not the case around any of the other bodies.

The position of Eunice’s body, the unidentified footwear marks and the clean up around Charlie Mays’ body were never raised at the original trial.

Virginia Edwards, Eunice’s mother, was shot twice, and Perry Edwards, Eunice’s father, was shot multiple times and beaten to the head.

After what can only be described as a bodged investigation, police came to the genius conclusion that Tommy Zeigler must be the perpetrator.

28 shots from 8 guns were fired in the store that night. This alone suggests that there were multiple assailants. Indeed, witnesses report hearing the gunfire in two fire cracker-like bursts. Tommy Zeigler admits to firing a shot that night as he defended himself against unknown assailants, yet the court would have us believe that he fired all those shots and killed all four victims. How is that possible?

There are other discrepancies, including evidence of police lies about the existence of a witness, the resurfacing of missing eyewitness interviews that were never disclosed to the defence at the time, evidence that jurors at the original trial were coerced into finding Tommy guilty and a case to suggest that Judge Paul, presiding over the original trial had reason to wage a vendetta against Tommy. For full details of the case, check out the Zeigler posts on DCC, starting here, or for a full overview (those posts combined) check out Nicholas Henry Vidocq’s ebook on Smashwords where it is free to download. I personally recommend having a look at the DCC posts, because the crime scene photos and case-related documents can be viewed. The lies and discrepancies are clearly evident. However, the ebook gives an excellent overview. For an even deeper examination of the case and well-reasoned arguments suggesting why this injustice happened, then the late Phillip Finch’s thorough study in his book, ‘Fatal Flaw’, is also available online for free download, and is essential reading for anyone who wants to know more about this case.

So, I hear you asking, why isn’t anyone doing anything about this? Why aren’t people outraged? Well, they are and, …they are!

There is a team of individuals working quietly in the background, campaigning and re-examining the evidence in this case. A blood pattern analysis expert has been employed to re-examine the clothing items and has made some recommendations for DNA testing. (Remember, DNA testing wasn’t available in 1976, only blood grouping which, unfortunately did not give much information since the victims share the same blood group.) However, for reasons that remain to be justified, Judge Whitehead has denied Mr Zeigler the right to have this DNA testing carried out in his case. Why? I speculate that the state of Florida are loath to admit to the corruption that has been covered up for all these years. Since the DNA denial, further new evidence has been uncovered in the form of missing witness, Robert Foster, proving that a police officer, Detective Frye, lied under oath in the original trial. A further motion requesting appeal has been made to the court and we await their decision.

In reading about this case, I can’t help asking how Tommy Zeigler has coped with incarceration for 33 years. He has lived more of his life in prison than before this injustice took away his freedom. Exactly how does a man cope with that? I can’t even begin to comprehend. By all accounts Tommy is a quiet man. In his words, “I bear no ill will toward anyone; I just want the truth to come out.” Read Tommy’s heartbreaking account of how he met his beloved Eunice, what happened that night and how he has dealt with the situation since then, here. I can’t help thinking I’d be consumed by anger if this happened to me. All Mr Zeigler wants is to be given a fair trial in which all the evidence in the case is properly examined. Surely this is his, and everyone’s, basic human right.

So, in answer to my question, “Who is William Thomas Zeigler?”, there can only be one answer in my opinion: An innocent man.


The Status of the Freelancer

A while ago on that Twitter, @ForensicNexus asked whether there could be such a thing as a freelance forensic scientist and if so, what that would look like. A few months before, I had set off on my own freelance consulting journey and at the time of asking, business had just taken off for me. I’d been so busy that I’d neglected this blog, instead throwing myself into lots of new & exciting projects. I can’t share them yet, but all in good time. However, at the time, I had written an article for Interfaces, the Forensic Science Society‘s quarterly newsletter, reflecting on my freelance journey so far. Maybe this goes some way to answering the question posed. The article isn’t available online, as far as I’m aware, so I reproduce it here. I have a huge list of potential blog posts but limited time to write them. I’m still perfecting my time management, but until then, have a read of this:


The Status of the Freelancer

Sue Carney – Freelance Forensic Consultant at Ethos Forensics

On 31 March 2011, The Forensic Science Service Chorley laboratory closed its doors for the final time. Having held a senior DNA and body fluids reporting officer role there and with ten years-worth of experience under my belt, I made the decision to embark on a journey down the freelance consulting route.

Starting out was slow and given the current state of the UK forensic market, not unexpectedly frustrating. Amongst my early investigations, I discovered a confusing array of online expert witness registers. For the uninitiated, it’s unclear which of these are the most respected and which most frequently referred to by the legal profession. Most ask a somewhat substantial registration fee and, in my view quite rightly, request references from counsel by whom an expert has been retained. Such references may not be readily available to the established expert working within a large forensic provider. There is no formal feedback system in place by which the legal profession rate the performance of an expert, although it’s fair to say that many barristers do volunteer comment. Despite numerous court attendances, in my experience it was rare for an FSS employee to develop the kind of customer relationship with counsel and CPS that might be expected by those experts who are personally appointed. It became clear to me that my choices in this area amounted to either joining a register as an unchecked expert, or marketing my reputation by other means and saving my registration fee for the opportune moment. I chose the latter.

The status of freelance forensic experts in the UK, is currently ambiguous. I’ve heard an array of opinions held by a selection of experts from the large forensic providers, (indeed I have my own opinions) and it’s clear that perceptions of freelance forensic experts are accepting at best, and at worst, suspicious, or dare I say, derogatory. With the imminent demise of the FSS and the consequential upheaval in the UK market, there’s a likelihood that others will embark on a similar freelance journey. The questions of regulation, competency and accreditation of freelancers have already been raised, and are in my view, overdue.

At the Forensic Science Advisory Council (FSAC) meeting in March 2010, Brian Rankin of the Forensic Science Society informed the Council that the Society plan to prepare a register of practitioners’ competencies, based on continuous professional development. This can only be good news for those in my position, given that the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners (CRFP) was discontinued in March 2009. The Society’s scheme plans to focus on the individual expert and to target those practitioners outside the umbrella of the main organisations. A professional membership of the Society, leading to Chartered status was also discussed at the meeting. However, the Society recently found themselves bound by red tape and made the following announcement on their website:

…an issue has been raised around our use of the word ‘Chartered’. There appears to be a lack of clarity about the legal entitlement to allow the post nominal to be awarded except by holders of a Royal Charter. The competencies already set by the Society do fall within the necessary criteria for the use of the formal designation and we are currently in dialogue with legal advisors and are attempting to clarify the matter through the Privy Council. Therefore in the interim we feel that it is in the best interest of the Society and its members to change the term ‘Chartered’ status to ‘Accredited’ status.

Regardless of the label, achieving this status has become one of my goals for the coming year, and whilst I’ve been informed that the competency assessments have not yet been written for my field of expertise, I am assured of my place in the queue to receive them when they are available.

From a more positive perspective, there are many resources available for those considering new enterprise: I found useful sources of advice available from Business Link, I have a friendly and knowledgable small business advisor, supplied by Blue Orchid, and I have found social media, especially LinkedIn and Twitter, to be both valuable sources of information and an eclectic pool of legal and forensic professionals ready to engage with me. There are numerous online forensic resources available, such as the Forensic Forum and Forensic Nexus, which warrant further investigation. Even more vital is my network of forensic colleagues which spans various organisations and a few police forces. They are an invaluable source of support, encouragement and news from the forensic community. Through these resources, I have remained informed of current developments in my field and other areas of forensic science, in the UK and worldwide, perhaps to a greater extent than in previous years.

This period in which I’ve been able to take advantage of a little breathing space away from case lists, ‘turn around times’ and procedure, has also allowed me to explore alternative avenues of discussion and I have found that other niche communities exist who might value a forensic expert opinion. Crime writers, bloggers, amateur investigators, legal experts and scientists from other fields have welcomed my input, and I have met some fascinating people. As an example, I draw your attention to the ‘Defrosting Cold Cases‘ (DCC) website, owned by the illustrious Vidster, a US-based lawyer and self-appointed cold case crusader, who wishes to remain anonymous. DCC has developed into a very real community in recent months, as the ever affable Vidster engages a wide range of respected criminal justice professionals to contribute to his site. These include Richard Case, fingerprint expert at NPIA and webmaster of the Fingerprint Society; Joseph Giacalone, NYPD Sergeant, Commanding Officer of the Bronx Cold Case Unit, professor and respected writer; Hal Brown, Deputy Director of the Delaware Office of the Chief Medical Examiner; and various legal bloggers and writers from the UK, the US and Canada. Vidster encourages interaction by hosting a variety of guest blogs on his site, to which I’ve been invited to contribute on more than one occasion, and collaborates via scheduled live web-chats. I will be Vidster’s guest for the next Cold Case Live Chat from 5 – 6pm on 14 October*, when we will be discussing DNA. Interested participants should follow #CCLivechat on Twitter.

In this brand new freelance world, I’ve been forced to re-evaluate my transferrable skills. After a five month delay, I am only now finding opportunities to practice forensic science, but in the interim, as well as researching and writing, I’ve found work as a forensic trainer, a science communicator and a quality systems and accreditation consultant. The successful freelancer, whatever their field, must also embrace the roles of marketing expert, sales executive, account manager and entrepreneur. They must seek out opportunities in every given situation and maintain enthusiasm for their business, without the backing of a large organisation. In the absence of that infrastructure, they have no choice but to take sole responsibility for their successes and failures. They must accept a potential lack of financial security and consider financial provision for their future. These roles are not to everyone’s taste. However, there are benefits to working outside the mainstream, to experiencing the freedom of choosing one’s own projects, and a sense of satisfaction to building and maintaining a reputation. Not even six months in, I’m still starting out on this journey. I’ll almost certainly need to address some of these issues, but for the moment, I’m enjoying my work and with my forensic support network, I have back-up!

*Note that the next #cclivechat takes place on Twitter next Friday, 03 Feb, in which I will be Vidster’s guest, and we will be discussing all things blood! Tune in at 17:00 GMT / 12 noon EST.


I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here!

From 13 – 24 June, I am taking part in ‘I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out of Here!‘ I’m a little bit excited about this now. Richard Case, my esteemed forensic colleague & twitter buddy (@TrickyCase) got me into it. It’s a great opportunity to spread the word about science to young people and maybe inspire the scientists of the future.

There are 23 zones, each with 5 scientists who can be questioned by the school kids taking part. There will be two weeks of webchats plus numerous questions posted by the kids that we can answer in our own time. There are 7 webchats booked into the forensic zone so far, so it seems we’re all going to be very busy!

During the second week, just like on the similarly titled TV programme, the kids get to vote for who they want to keep in, and the scientist with the least votes in each zone gets evicted. I’m hoping not to be the first one voted out. At the end of the two weeks, the winning scientist in each zone wins £500 to spend on a science communication project.

This really got me thinking. I’d love to set up a forensic science awareness programme for schools and colleges. something really hands-on, with opportunities to do real forensic science. Thinking back to my own training, believe it or not, some parts of it were fun, and it’s those that I’d love to be able to recreate. I bet kids would love to spend an afternoon in a tent throwing blood around to investigate some of the blood patterns produced by impact, for example. Or, we could set up a crime scene, get them kitted out in scenesuits, and with a little guidance, have them investigate it and recover evidence. I’d also like to show them the whole process from start to finish, with a mock trial at the end where the kids could present their evidence. Maybe if I win, I might just be able to put my idea into practice…

In the meantime, have a look at my profile on the I’m A Scientist site, and let me know what you think.


DNA: What Else Can We Do With It?

I’ve written a guest post at Defrosting Cold Cases, detailing some of the more unusual DNA techniques including Mitochondrial DNA, Y-STR, familial searching, ethnic inferencing and phenotypic markers. Check out this post to learn what they are and the implications for using these techniques.


Closure of The Forensic Science Service: The Human Cost

Closure of the UK Forensic Science Service has been widely publicized in recent months: its effect on the criminal justice system, questions of the independence and impartiality of private sector experts, public confidence in forensic science, or its perception of the resultant forensic market as being low budget or worse, biased. Whilst these issues require consideration, my main concern relates to the huge loss of experience from the UK forensic market, and I’m taking this opportunity to give my personal view, direct from the front line.

I worked for the Forensic Science Service (FSS) for almost ten years. This time last month, I was a senior forensic scientist in the sexual offences team at the Chorley FSS laboratory in Lancashire. We dealt with the rape and sexual assault of adults and children. In our casework we saw a concentration of the very worst in human behaviour on a daily basis.

We were rarely surprised by the things we read. It’s not that we’d heard it all before, but we had heard more than most. Other professions share our experience of this accumulated knowledge of bad deeds. We accept that we were not worse off – that’s not my point, and we are thankful that our role in these investigations rarely involved interaction with the people affected. That must be truly heartbreaking.

Many hours of detailed and frank discussion were had in the sex team office, often on the most revolting of subjects, all relevant to cases. Making light of such extreme scenarios was a usual coping mechanism. Eavesdroppers would probably have been disgusted, or believed that a very warped sense of humour was developing. Luckily, the team was tucked away in an upstairs office that some bright spark christened ‘The Ovary’, due to the distinct lack of males (although that was not always the case.) Regular visitors were aware of the nature of our discussions and generally, most forensic scientists are less easily repulsed by such baseness. Between us, the team examined countless intimate swabs, various clothing items, especially underwear from both sexes, and an eclectic selection of objects that had been used in sexual offences in one way or another. We must have searched tens of thousands of microscope slides for the sometimes elusive spermatozoa (sperm cells.) We were ‘the Jizz Inspectors’!

I was fortunate in my FSS career, to work with a group of amazing individuals, and in this inaugural blog entry, I pay tribute to them. Without further ado, let me introduce you to the Chorley sex team:

In the last few months, the team comprised five experienced reporting officers (ROs), of which I am one, two source level ROs (reporting factual findings with limited interpretation) who are also experienced examiners, one full time examiner, two team secretaries and our manager, Angie.

Cheryl, the most experienced RO in our team, was my mentor when I first joined the FSS. She is meek and self-effacing, often not recognising her own expertise. That said, she is my most respected colleague, and one I can turn to for advice on any number of forensic issues. She has a wonderful Cumbrian accent, gentle manner and a mischievous sense of humour. She is the sort of person who says exactly what she means, which is, I think, why I like her so much. Cheryl once left me a telephone message which read: “Dad phoned. Murder. Thelwall Viaduct.” Whilst I was busy searching for the case file relating to a murder on the Thelwall Viaduct, it transpired that my dad had called and expressed his dismay at the heavy traffic on the Thelwall Viaduct, which he had described as ‘Murder’! He’s a Mancunian… I should have realized the meaning of the note!

The other ROs are Suzy, Jo and Rachel. Suzy is a dedicated and hardworking scientist. In addition to her scientific duties, she liaised with customers as service manager for specialist sexual offences services taken up by particular police forces, and also found time to support colleagues as a union rep. (Check out Suzy’s involvement in Prospect’s ‘I am not a number’ campaign.) Suzy was almost always the scientist working extra hours at the weekend, despite having the furthest commute of us all. That is, when she wasn’t treading the boards in one of her amateur dramatic productions. Before the very first of her plays that I ever saw, a murder-mystery ‘whodunit’, I asked about her character in the play. ‘I’m only playing a small supporting role’, she told me. It would have ruined the play if she’d told me in advance she was playing the murderer!

Jo returned from maternity leave in January after having had Harry. Imagine returning to your beloved job to find there are only 3 months left and work levels are rapidly diminishing. Luckily, Jo is one of the most laid back people and seems to take everything in her stride, coping effortlessly. Jo’s return completed the team and made those last 3 months bearable. I must also tell you that Jo is a wonderfully caring person. I’ve lost count of the number of hugs she’s given me, making everything OK when I’ve been at my wits end. As you can imagine, she’s a brilliant mum.

Rachel is awesome! She is the one of the strongest people I know. Undoubtedly she won’t think this of herself, but it happens to be true. Rachel has a complex personal situation that isn’t for me to write about here. Suffice to say, she manages to be a consummate professional and cope with countless other demands on her time. Rachel transferred to the FSS Birmingham lab late last year, relocating her entire family from the North West in order to continue working for the FSS, only for the government to announce in December that they now plan to close down the entire service. Despite this, she has taken on extra duties as a quality lead until full FSS shutdown next year. Rachel remains, to us at least, a member of our team, despite geography.

Our two source level ROs are Janene and Becky. I have relied on Janene’s help and support too many times to mention. She has a vast knowledge and technical expertise that is second to none. She’s a first rate scientist and I sincerely hope she’ll find a place elsewhere to continue in forensic science. It will be a sad loss to the profession if she does not. Janene married Jason, another extremely experienced FSS scientist and an award winning photographer, last Christmas in an ice palace in Lapland. A spectacular event! The recent FSS closure announcement, leaving them with an uncertain future, could so easily have ruined their plans. Because of their strong characters, they did not allow that to happen. Sitting opposite, Janene endured my daily outbursts of pedantry. She is now likely more wary of ill-placed apostrophes than most, and yet she kindly told me on our last day, that she’ll miss that. Thanks Janene!

Becky is bubbly and fun. She makes delicious cakes, in particular, a wonderful chocolate creation called a ‘Gordon Burns.’ I still don’t know why, so don’t ask. Becky is also the most enthusiastic of Volkswagen enthusiasts, and ‘mum’ to a little Scottish terrier called Monty. After much soul searching, Becky also decided to transfer in order to stay with the FSS. Her first day at the Birmingham lab was 13th December 2010. Her second day saw the heartbreaking government announcement to close the entire FSS. Tremendously awful timing! I can’t begin to imagine how she felt on that day. We at Chorley had known our number was up for some time, but now the government was taking everyone else’s jobs too. Our thoughts were with Becky on that day.

Michelle and I shared many lively discussions including shared moments of surprise, with simultaneous mouths agape. Michelle remembered these in particular in our last few days at the lab. I shall miss those moments too. Michelle is an extremely reliable forensic examiner, having worked on countless cases supporting our team. She also carried out evidence recovery for other ROs in the volume crime team, working on glass casework, and regularly assisted me and others with the implementation of audits and quality processes. I shall miss her cheery disposition and eclectic musical tastes.

Cath & Jane were our team secretaries. Both absolutely vital to the running of the team, they were a constant source of support, problem solving, procurement expertise, general IT knowledge, envelopes, sticky labels, cups of coffee (although we all took our turns at ‘brew making’), new case files, rubber bands, lever arch files, hire vehicles, hugs, advice, shoulders to cry on, information, crisis management, printer cartridges, baked goods and endless other essentials, not in any particular order and to name but a few.

Cath is easily the most practical member of the team. Working quietly in the background (and sometimes not so quietly) to help the team tick over, often so efficiently that we might not notice. Cath got the job done without a fuss and always had time to have a laugh and joke with us all.

Jane, although not old enough to be my biological mum, was my self-appointed ‘work mummy‘, which gave me great pleasure. She sat me down and listened to my woes many a time, gave me a humourous telling off on the odd occasion, and was great fun to talk to the rest of the time. She makes a mean cheese scone, takes a perfect set of minutes at meetings and is as reliable, professional, supportive and good-hearted a team secretary as one could ever hope to work with. If I could afford her, I’d employ her in my new company in a heartbeat. Unfortunately I can’t and she could do much better than work for a small-time outfit such as the likes of me!

Angie, was our manager for the final two years, taking over when our existing manager went on maternity leave. She came to us after having taken the electronic forensic science (EFS) team and totally turning it around in terms of productivity and efficiency. We had imagined that she’d stay with us for an interim period, but when it came to the crunch, Ange requested to remain our manager and we loved her for that. I think we adopted her. A friend once described her as an iron fist in a velvet glove. She said that was a perfect description! She’s pink and fluffy, a girly girl, a ‘Princess Prada’, but she’s strong, with immovable principles, and takes everything in her stride. Ange was the glue that kept our team together. She supported every member on our various journeys, from the point at which we discovered we were going to lose our jobs (almost 2 years back) to the very end. Ange & I ceremoniously switched off the lights in our office for the last time on 31st March. Then we went to her house and sat tweeting from our iPhones, like a couple of geeks, before meeting the rest of the team for a night out. Ange has taken 6 months out in Crete, to meditate and enjoy life. I miss my friend terribly, but she’ll be back, and we keep in touch. You can follow Ange on Twitter. She’s @hillhousefox.

And as for me? Well, I am outspoken, belligerent at times, invariably bad tempered and an insufferable pedant. I applaud the team for even putting up with me, although I hope they’d tell you I have a few redeeming qualities too. I am the nerdy kid from ‘The Breakfast Club’, writing this on behalf of the collective. This collection of individuals is my work family. I love them and I miss them on a daily basis.

Since leaving the FSS, I may be one of a minority who hope to stay in forensic science. The other major forensic organisations in the UK are recruiting very few experienced scientists right now, although others from Chorley found work with them a while back. Whilst the future is uncertain, my view is that the other providers are holding back on recruitment. I can’t blame them. It’s unclear at this stage, how much work they’ll be allocated once the remaining FSS labs have gone. There are the added considerations that, with police forces also suffering cuts, fewer cases will be submitted for forensic examination, and that it might be cheaper for the private sector to hire their own graduates, rather than paying for experienced scientists. If that is the case, I think the private sector may have underestimated the time and money it will take to train graduates to full competency.

My solution to staying in forensic science? Freelance! I recently set up Ethos Forensics, a small consultancy business. I already have some training work lined up and I’m hoping, through my contacts, to gain defence consultancy and auditing work. I’ve also been busy writing a number of articles aimed at the non-scientist, for the very reputable website Defrosting Cold Cases, run by the illustrious Vidster. (I urge you to check out his work if you have any interest at all in forensic science and criminal justice.) I could very easily (relatively speaking) have found employment in another area. I have many transferrable skills, but my role as a forensic scientist may well define me, and I haven’t worked this hard for the last ten years to give up on that just yet.


Forensic Science Timeline


Ramblings of an indecisive mind

Excellent blog on closure of FSS by @minervavictoria

Ramblings of an indecisive mind.

Many valid points made