Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Splash Patterns- Detecting a Hoax

Every once in a while a story appears in the crime section that stuns everyone as to it's apparently random and horrible nature. How horrible that something like that could occur just for the sake of doing it! The random nature certainly puts a certain amount of fear into the public. If it's random then by it's very definition it could happen to anyone. Crimes of passion we understand. Those involved are already involved, they're not chosen at random.

Some times these random acts are real and truly horrible. One of these occurred in the town I was living in shortly after college where a man snapped for lack of a better word. After killing his cat he decided to kill the first person that passed his house, and he did. It was tragic and the work of a very sick mind.

More often then not however we find that these stories are hoaxes. The wounds, if there are any, have actually been self inflicted. Further works of sick minds, but at least not to the public. One of these occurred on Halloween of this year where a man reported that someone trick-or-treating in a gorilla costume stabbed him when he opened the door. Just thinking, innocently opening your door to hand out candy, and what do you get but stabbed for your efforts! How terrible! Well, turns out it was all a hoax. After further questioning, he confessed that he had stabbed himself.

Another story which made national news follows a similar pattern. Just a random girl out celebrating a new job and a woman throws acid in her face! How terrible! Why her? There's no connection! It could have been me. Well...maybe not so much. Although her story held up longer than our gorilla man, it did fall apart eventually. Part of what made it fall apart was good old fashion forensics.

So often these stories fall apart. Officers questioning them find holes in the story or inconsistencies. So too is this true in forensics. Although my testimony is focused on toxicology I am often asked, is this consistent? Is the story consistent with the test result? Is the behavior consistent with dose? In the case of the acid splash it was, are these burns consistent with acid being thrown into someone's face?

Well, actually it doesn't take a lot of training to see that no, they are not consistent. Let's forgive the fact that she was wearing sunglasses at night, a girl has to celebrate a new job somehow! Ok, so her eyes are protected. Well, let's look at the rest of her face. To me, it looks like an acid peel gone horribly wrong. Her hair and neck are untouched. Well, if the acid was thrown it should have splashed not only against her face but also her hair, neck and chest. What about her lips? Ok, sunglasses, we got the eyes, but her lips? Extra strength chapstick maybe? No. They make no mention of her clothes, but I would bet those too were untouched. Have worked for several years in a metals lab I can tell you what acid does to clothes. It would be noticeable. The burns look as if they were applied along her face rather than thrown at her and indeed, that is how it was. She put on a pair of gloves and swabbed her face.

One of the arguments I've scene made against this type of forensic work is that it's subjective. I know it when I see it. Well...Yeah. Why is that a "bad" thing though?  I would hope that if I were having surgery my surgeon would know it when he sees it. Just as the stories given in interviews to Officers must be consistent so too must the stories be consistent with the resulting data, injury, etc. It's actually a simple concept and one that must be relayed to attorneys, judges and juries. Science isn't always a mysterious, scary concept!

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