Monday, March 18, 2013

My Life in Court by Lisa Black

Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. As a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s a certified latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral Police Department.

Her books have been translated into six languages. Evidence of Murder reached the NYT mass market bestseller’s list.

My Life in Court by Lisa Black

Most court testimony is essentially dull. Expert witness testimony follows a set routine: Name, title, employer, education, training, duties. Occasionally the defense will stipulate to your credentials and you can skip all that, either because they want to give the impression of not wasting the jury’s time, or they don’t want the jury to dwell on how qualified you are. Next, you start identifying things. Items of evidence, your report, the victim’s clothing down to his socks. You are there to state that this is the actual item you received, in much the same condition as when you received it. When I first got into this line of work the prosecutors would enter not only the victim’s clothing or evidence but the photographs of same, so I’d spend fifteen minutes saying things like “State’s Exhibit 42 is a photograph of the front of John Doe’s blue jeans.” It would put the most fervent courtroom junkie to sleep.

Then you get into your findings, things like “the suspect cannot be eliminated as the donor of the blood on the victim’s blouse,” “the muzzle to target distance was approximately two feet”, and “the chip of paint on the victim’s pants is chemically indistinguishable from the paint on the suspect’s front bumper.”

Things get more interesting when it’s the defense’s turn. They are likely to ask, “What factors can affect gunshot residue?” and “How many paints have you analyzed with the FTIR?” Sometimes they’re happy with your results, as in a case where both suspects were eliminated from a semen sample. Sometimes they’re not. Occasionally the defense won’t ask you anything at all. If you’re testifying that the victim was shot from four feet away, it isn’t relevant to them if they’re saying the defendant was out of town at the time. Usually, though, they’ll ask something, just to earn their salary if nothing else. The defendant will be sitting at the table with them, and this will usually be the first time you’ve ever set eyes on them. Since the lawyers are asking you questions, you pay more attention to them. Often I’ve left the courtroom without the slightest recall of what the defendant even looked like.

I have never experienced the standard TV version of lawyers getting up to your face and screaming, or accusing you of a) covering up for corrupt cops, b) incompetency or c) trying to frame their obviously innocent client. More likely they will be polite and only slightly sarcastic, but not outwardly confrontational. They want the jury to see them as professionals, not con men. But make no mistake, prosecutors can get just as snotty if you’re not saying what they want to hear.

Then the prosecution gets to re-direct, and the defense can re-cross, and this can go back and forth until they’re done or the judge gets annoyed. In addition, some courts are now allowing the jury members to submit questions, which are reviewed by the judge and read to you and which you answer the best you can. But eventually comes that wonderful moment when the judge says, “You may step down.” It’s just like the feeling you get when you’re donating blood and they finally take the needle out of your arm. You waste no time in grabbing your purse, stepping delicately past the jury with one last smile, and hustling down the aisle.


Blunt Impact will be available April 1, featuring forensic scientist Theresa MacLean and a series of murders surrounding a skyscraper under construction in downtown Cleveland. The first to die is young, sexy concrete worker Samantha, thrown from the 23rd floor. The only witness is her 11 year old daughter Anna, nicknamed Ghost. Ghost will stop at nothing to find her mother’s killer, and Theresa will stop at nothing to keep Ghost safe.

Also, Kindle owners can find a bargain in my new book The Prague Project, written under the name Beth Cheylan. A death in West Virginia sends FBI agent Ellie Gardner and NYPD Counterterrorism lieutenant Michael Stewart on a chase across Europe as they track stolen nukes and lost Nazi gold, hoping to avert the death of millions of people.


Thanks so much for being my guest today, Lisa. My experience with the courtroom was confined to a few appearances as a witness in two federal cases, one civil and one criminal, but I certainly learned a lot about the process. And I did get a bit of that "slightly sarcastic" lawyer attitude from time to time.

For more information about Lisa and her novels, visit her website. She can also be found on Facebook.


Julie Luek said...

Great stuff to give your books a heavy dose of reality. It's never like TV is it? ;)

I know another Colorado published writer whose background is being a mortician. His work is good fodder for his books as well.

Nice to meet you, Lisa. (Gives wave to Pat as well)

Patricia Stoltey said...

Waving back at Julie...I know a wonderful lady who's a forensic botanist and has worked with the police on a number of interesting cases. Another great background for a whole series of mysteries.

Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting Lisa.

Lisa - Thanks for sharing your perspective. I think one of the challenges for a writer who includes courtroom scenes and sub-plots is how to be accurate about what really happens while still keeping the reader interested. Thanks for the lesson in what goes on in the courtroom, and I wish you much success.

LD Masterson said...

Very interesting interview. Testifying in court is something I hope never to experience. Much rather read Lisa's books.

Lisa Black said...

Thanks for reading!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Patricia and Lisa .. oh I love these sorts of books - and I'd love to read Lisa's ... Blunt Impact - sounds fascinating ..

& I'm going to get my Kindle set up this week .. so I think I might come back!

Cheers to you both .. Hilary

lizy-expat-writer said...

A background as a bank clerk then a stay-at-home mum doesn't give me quite such a head start in the fiction stakes!