|The practical and
down to earth side of homicide investigations
An exclusive Evidence Technology Magazine interview with
Vernon J. Geberth
Retired Lieutenant Commander
of the New York City Police Department
President of P.H.I.
Investigative Consultants, Inc.
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|EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Let's get
started. And we hope you are not going to repeat what you said in those other
GEBERTH: Of course not. Everyone interviews in a different way. It's the same as when you're doing interviews during a homicide investigation: Each interview is different. In fact, if someone gives you the story exactly the same way twice, you should be suspicious because nobody can do that unless they've memorized it and are giving it back verbatim.
EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Let's start with the basics: What do you feel about homicide investigation as a procedure or discipline?
GEBERTH: I think I'm one of the few people maybe the only one who has dedicated his entire life to the subject of homicide investigation. If you had asked me when I was just getting started with the New York Police Department whether I wanted to retire and become a homicide instructor traveling almost nonstop across the country, I would have laughed at you. But that's what I do now. EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Why?
GEBERTH: When I retired from the police department, I thought, "You do not want to give up 23 years of experience in an area you really enjoy." Plus I was writing books and articles and staying busy. I just decided to i stick with it.
|EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: And that is when you
decided to write a book on homicide investigation... ?
GEBERTH: Actually, I had written the first edition when I was still with the Police Department. The book was called Practical Homicide Investigation. There hadn't been a book written on homicide investigation in 20 years. That was the beginning of my second career. There were some things in the second edition of that book that I thought might draw criticism some descriptive dynamics and behavioral traits that I believe homicide investigators need to be aware of. After all, cops who investigate murders are the garbage collectors and they need to have good information so they can properly pursue their cases.
EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: What kind of "good information"?
GEBERTH: Wound structure is one example. In sexual homicides, there are almost always certain dynamics involved ... such as the positioning of the body and staging and other things. If you see enough of them, you will recognize them. And that's the whole idea of my training program: to show students as many types of cases and dynamics as possible.
EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: So you try to cover a wide range of topics?
GEBERTH: On most topics, I provide an overview and then refer the reader to the experts. For example, I'll give an overview of bloodstain pattern analysis and then I'll recommend that the reader or the student get more information by reading a book that was written by an expert on bloodstain pattern analysis. You don't need to be a microbiologist to know the importance of DNA. But you do need to know who the DNA experts are so you can reach out and get their knowledge. That's the premise of all of my books on the subject of practical homicide investigation.
We've heard you mention "The CSI Effect" on a number of occasions...
GEBERTH: The bottom line is that all of the CSI television programs give the impression that we always find the evidence. We don't. Theoretically, when two people come into contact as they do during a homicide there is supposed to be an exchange of materials. But there are any number of reasons why you may not find that evidence. There can be environmental reasons caused by weather or time. Or contamination caused by first responders. Or maybe there was someone clever enough to stage the crime scene and either take the real evidence out or bring false evidence in. The job of the homicide cop is to analyze that scene and collect all of the physical evidence. But in my opinion, the most important segment of the procedure is the interview and the interrogation.
EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: What do you mean by "the interview"?
GEBERTH: The interview is key. You can have all the physical evidence there is, but if you don't have a population to compare it to or put it into perspec tive, then it is useless. I'll give you an example. Let's say a homicide occurs in a neighborhood. The investigators come in and question people in the neighborhood. They ask, "Did you see anything strange?" Well, that is the wrong question to ask. The question should be, "Did you see anything?" Because what one person thinks is strange might be just a normal, every day occurrence in that neighborhood.
EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Right...
GEBERTH: You have to be a people person when you're doing the interview. There are going to be a lot of tidbits of information. You have to be willing to sit down, ask questions, listen, talk, and come back later with even more questions. Of course, that kind of stuff doesn't make for good television. It requires hours and hours maybe even days of canvassing the neighborhood. Some of the biggest cases I worked in New York City were solved by good, thorough investigative canvasses. You talk with everyone. You don't just knock on a door and talk with one person.
EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: And that's going to take a lot of work...
GEBERTH: Right. You've got to have good, hard working people on your staff. When I was in the supervisory ranks, it didn't take me long to figure out that if I wanted to look good, I'd have to surround myself with good, hard working people. My job was to protect them so they could do a good job. And that way, all of us would look good. Remember: It is the mission that is important. And that takes teamwork.
EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Can you expand on that teamwork concept? Do you think investigators want to operate more or less independently?
GEBERTH: When I became a detective sergeant, one of the things that really ticked me off was when the phone would ring and a detective would pick up the receiver and say, "Well, he comes in at four o'clock." Click. And I'd ask, "What was that all about?" And he'd say, "Oh, it's just someone asking about Murphy's case." And I'd say, "Wait a minute. It is not Murphy's case. It is the City of New York's case ... and we are all detectives for that city!" That was the beginning of my teamwork concept. I made the point that we were not individual squads, we were part of a team. Sure, there are personalities and egos, but you've got to get past that. Some of them would say, "Why did you tell the other squads how we broke the case?" And I'd say, "That's the whole idea! We're supposed to learn from each other." They were a little reluctant at first, but then they started to see how good they were getting. We had the top clearance record in that district, mainly because we were sharing information. And that's the way it is supposed to be: teamwork.
EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: You are a big advocate of training, too, aren't you?
GEBERTH: Absolutely. And I still go to school. I take courses and participate in workshops every year. There is always something you can learn. Anyone who attends a training class represents the future of homicide investigation, because each one of those students is going to go back to his or her own jurisdiction and see something in real life that was covered in that course. When you walk into a crime scene, you're looking for commonality: something you've seen before, something you can relate to, something that makes sense. Training exposes them to what is out there in the real world.
EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: And the real world is always changing.
GEBERTH: Yes. And some of the new stuff in forensics is really great! I just wish that I could have used some of the technologies that are available today back when I was working crime scenes. It gets better every day. For example: DNA technology is helping to solve cold cases that are years old. And on top of that, we are finding new uses for DNA technology. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for example, there was a serial murder case and everybody was looking for an unidentified white male as the suspect. The FBI profile said white male, period. But then, along comes a company called DNA Print®" Genomics, Inc. Their new technology allows them to process DNA in a way that yields a biographical ancestry of one of four main population groups. The result in this case indicated that the serial murderer's ancestral links were Sub Saharan African. In other words, they should have been looking for a black male instead of a white male. It's things like this that we need to be aware of so we can move forward.
EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: In your opinion, what's the biggest change or technological development?
GEBERTH: DNA has to be the biggest change. As a matter of fact, I worked the first DNA case in New York State in 1987. 1 won't go into all the details, but a pregnant woman, her fetus, and her 3 year old daughter were brutally stabbed and killed. The husband was a bad guy: wife beater, drug addict, low life. He said he didn't do it. And the neighborhood canvas told us that his story made sense and that there was another person seen leaving the area. At the crime scene, there were droplets of blood and we sent them to a private lab to be analyzed for DNA. When it came back, it proved that the other person was the guilty one, not the husband. It was a remarkable breakthrough 20 years ago.
EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Things have definitely changed...
GEBERTH: We used to walk into crime scenes in street clothes, which today would be prohibited because you can transfer foreign materials from outside. But back then, we weren't aware of the full potential value of microscopic evidence. The technology just had not progressed that far. Today, those who work crime scenes are supposed to wear protective clothing, with gloves, masks, and footwear that will prevent cross contamination. The same precautions that are taken to prevent the potential dangers of pathogens and biohazards also protect the integrity of evidence. We have come so far with technology that we can now find evidence that was unattainable before.
EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Are there any other new technologies that have caught your attention?
GEBERTH: Oh, yes. I like some of the new crime scene tools. There is the panoramic camera from Panoscan, Inc that captures a 360 degree image of the room. And one of the recent issues of Evidence Technology Magazine talked about three dimensional crime scene diagramming. This sort of thing is great when you need to show a crime scene to someone else.
EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: What else?
GEBERTH: We now have the ability to look at multiple gunshot residue testings. And a company called Thermal Gradient just came out with a kit that will result in almost instant identification of DNA. Glass evidence is another thing: You can take a shard of glass from a crime scene and trace it back to the manufacturer. And did I mention getting DNA from fingerprints? The list of new products almost reads like science fiction. There are things that exist today that we could not have even imagined just a few years ago. NIBIN, for example: the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network. I can't tell you how many crime scenes we worked 20 or 30 years ago where we had the bullets or the casings but had nothing to compare them with. Now, we have a national database for that kind of evidence. It is truly exciting to learn about all these things!
EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: And there is more coming in the future...
GEBERTH: Absolutely. Did you know about neuropeptides? They are com pounds produced by brain cells and they have a number of functions. Some neuropeptides are released in reaction to pain. There is on going research that neuropeptides can quantify pain in the human body. In other words, we might be able to measure the level of pain that a person experienced prior to his death. When I heard about this, I said, "Wow! This is great technology that could help us solve a lot of cases. " For example: You could probably tell the difference between a SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) fatality and a SBS (shaken baby syndrome) fatality because with SIDS there wouldn't be a high level of neuropeptides caused by intense pain. That research is still moving forward. It's not here yet, but all homicide investigators should know about it.
EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Why is it . important to know about it.?
GEBERTH: well, if you know about it, you can tell your medical examiner about it and advise him or her to save a blood sample or brain tissue in case it does become a tool we can use in homicide investigations. We can't do it today, but maybe we can tomorrow or next month or next year. That's what forensics is all about, isn't it?
EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Do you have any final thoughts about this topic?
GEBERTH: We have a profound responsibility: investigating an event where someone's life was taken. We should remember that we represent the surviving family members of the deceased, as well as the citizens of our jurisdiction In most cases, the family members are decent people and we have to explain to them how a loved one was killed. In addition, we must walk them through a world called the criminal justice system and that is not friendly territory for members of a victim's family. Instead, the criminal justice system tends to be all about the defendant and what his rights are. It is very hard to help a victim's family through that system.
EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: It must be a heavy and demanding responsibility for a homicide investigator.
GEBERTH: I take it seriously. I am on a mission. I believe in what I am doing and I will do this for as long as I can. I will continue to write textbooks and articles. And hopefully, someone will learn from it and justice will prevail.
EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: Thank you for speaking with us today.
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