Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime, by Val McDermid

I do a lot of my reading in my work lunchbreaks.

This book is perhaps not the best lunchtime material: discovering the forensic importance of blowflies and their larvae (maggots) while chewing on last night’s left over Aloo Gobi and rice wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste.

However there are compensations for the inevitable moments of squeamishness. McDermid’s study of various branches of forensic investigation is fascinating.

She takes the reader from early, historical ideas and practices through to present day scientific investigative techniques, with examples given from actual cases.

“The governing principles of forensic science, as laid down by Edmond Locard at the beginning of the last century, is that ‘every contact leaves a trace’. But unless we know how to analyse, categorise and understand those traces, they’re not much use when it comes to catching criminals. As scientists have made new discoveries, so the art of detection has advanced.”

Various different disciplines come into play, through which different “traces” can be examined to determine a course of events associated with a crime, an accident, a natural death or even a war atrocity. Each chapter of Forensics highlights a different field of investigation, starting with the crime or accident scene itself.

Noted evidence can include the presence (and activity) of insects, fingerprints, blood spatter and DNA testable material. Beyond the incident scene, evidence can be examined through various means including autopsies on victims, toxicology tests (to determine the presence and effects of drugs or poisons) and DNA comparisons. Non-biological forensics are also given a couple of chapters, with digital forensics playing a part in finding evidence through computer, phone and CCTV records; while forensic psychology looks into the personalities and possible motivations of potential suspects.

While all of these disciplines have been useful in solving crimes, McDermid also refers to some instances in which forensic evidence has led to questionable results. One example given was a case in which an interpretation of fingerprint evidence led to a wrong conviction, as well as implicating police in career-ending acts of misconduct that were later shown to be unfounded.

While forensic sciences have changed the nature of crime investigation, mostly for the better,  outcomes are always dependent on the experience and expertise of those reviewing and understanding what the forensic evidence means.

McDermid’s book gives an excellent, informative overview of the role of forensic sciences. My interest in the topic came about as a side-track from my recent journey into crime fiction, a diversion related to my occasional detour into true crime cases.

At the risk of using a gratuitously inappropriate metaphor, this book has helped to put some meat on the bones; giving me a better understanding of investigative practices that have been touched upon in other books I’ve read recently.


Catching a Serial Killer interview

When Detective Steve Fulcher arrested Christopher Halliwell for a murder, the taxi driver said there was another body. In an effort to build trust and find the second victim, Fulcher failed to caution him a second time. Christopher Halliwell is now in jail for two murders, and there are potentially more bodies to find. But the man who caught him has been drummed out of the force.


Catching a Serial Killer

On 19th March 2011, Sian O’Callaghan was reported as missing. She failed to return home to her boyfriend after a night out with friends. Early indications suggested she had been abducted, and Detective Superintended Stephen Fulcher was assigned the role of Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) in the case.

Fulcher worked on the assumption that Sian was a kidnap victim and therefore locating her quickly was essential. The hope that she was still alive motivated his approach to the investigation, prioritising her safe return.

Ultimately that motivation would cost him his job.

Taking advantage of a timely display of apparent contrition, Fulcher, still hoping to find the victim alive, questioned his prime suspect outside of expected police procedure. That interaction led to the suspect, taxi driver Christopher Halliwell, taking Fulcher to the place where he’d disposed of Sian’s body.

To Fulcher’s surprise, Halliwell then asked him if he wanted “another one”, after which he took the police to the site where he’d buried Becky Godden, a previously unknown victim of an earlier murder.

Fulcher later started to suspect that there could be another six unknown victims of Halliwell”s violence, after Halliwell boasted to a fellow prison mate that police were investigating 8 murders he’d committed.

Five years later Fulcher’s successor located Halliwell’s “trophy store”, where he’d hidden articles taken from Sian and others, who were also likely victims, whose identity remains unknown. However, despite the suspicion that there were six others , the number of discoveries indicated there could be up to sixty of them.

Like the earlier book about the 1960s Cannock Chase murders, Catching A Serial Killer gives insight into the workings within an active police murder investigation, however almost 50 years later technology has clearly made a difference.

Computerised systems have simplified the collation and retrieval of possibly relevant material.

CCTV in public places as well as vehicle recognition cameras have made it possible to locate victims right up to the time of the crime committed against them, as well as locating and tracking vehicles potentially used by the perpetrator.

And DNA profiling has helped in identifying victims as well as confirming a perpetrator’s contact with a victim.

While Fulcher’s unorthodox approach brought closure to the Sian O’Callaghan case, and discovered a previously unknown killing, it also brought an end to his police career.

This situation seems to offer the flip side to the American case examined in Adnan’s Story, and highlights the difficulties that can be faced in police investigations. In the American case it seems that a blind eye was turned to questionable police procedures that seem* to have led to the conviction and incarceration of an innocent man; all done in the name of expediency, to get a conviction of someone, anyone, to have the case closed “successfully”.

While that case shows good reason why  approved procedures and limits are necessary in the way police approach their work as a protection to the innocent (even though they seemingly had little effect in the Syed case), what Fulcher did, and what happened to him as a result shows how those procedures and limits can hamper the successful investigation of critical incidents where a life may be at risk.

The need to protect the innocent from the actions of potentially dodgy cops becomes a hindrance to the necessary work of the good cop. Maintaining justice will always be a difficult process  as long as there are “good guys” motivated by less than honourable ambitions. The reality of that kind of person within the law enforcement and legal systems makes it harder to obtain the desired, just outcome that society would expect.

And when “the law” becomes more about winning or losing than about  truth and justice…


I had been unable to see how Halliwell’s case could possibly be defended. I did now: by painting me as the bad guy. From the hero of the piece, having found the body of an abducted girl and a second victim, it seemed I would become the villain…

…It had never occurred to me that the actual facts of the case would – apparently – not be taken into account. The issue of Halliwell’s guilt or innocence wasn’t in question and I’d always thought his case was undefendable. I had never anticipated that his legal team wouldn’t even try to defend it – that they’d simply try to have it thrown out of court. But that was what was happening.

[Stephen Fulcher from Catching a Serial Killer]



* In my opinion, the investigations into the case covered in many hours of recordings on the Undisclosed website show that there was no convincing evidence that Adnan Syed was guilty of the crime of which he was accused.

See previous post and follow links here:


The Cannock Chase Murders

…never before had children been made so aware of the dangers of speaking to (let alone accepting lifts from) strange men…


The case examined in Pat Molly’s The Cannock Chase Murders is one that had an effect within my own family. As a child of around the same age of the murder victims, I was one of those children warned by parents, about the dangers of getting into a stranger’s car.

Their concern was understandable. We lived less than 30 miles from the place where the victim’s bodies were discovered.

Pat Molloy was an investigating officer during the time of the Cannock Chase murders. At the beginning of the case he was a Detective Sergeant and helped conduct some of the house to house interviews and searches when the first two victims went missing. After his promotion to Detective Inspector he was moved away from the area and the case; however another unexpected promotion a couple of years later brought him back as Detective Chief Inspector, “right at the heart of the Cannock Chase Murder Investigation, ranking next to its leaders…”

Molloy’s book is more than an account of a series of murders. The cases were at a time of change and restructuring within the British police force, when responsibility for serious crime investigation was moving away from the centralisation of Scotland Yard, and Regional Crime Squads were being created. The book places the investigation within that political context.

The scale of the operation is hard to grasp today, when countless records can be immediately accessed and cross referenced with a few key strokes on a computer. Investigators of the Cannock Chase Murders had to store the results of their enquiries on paper forms and index card, cross referenced and filed away in row upon row of cabinets.

Staff numbers stretched into the hundreds of administrative and investigative personnel trying to obtain and keep track of relevant evidence – when often it wasn’t know whether something was relevant or not.

After finding the bodies of the first two victims (Margaret Reynolds aged 6 and Diana Tift aged 5) in the Cannock Chase forest,  little progress was made for a year and a half, until there was a third victim. When the body of missing 7 year old Christine Darby was also found in Cannock Chase, witnesses came forward with a description of a car and its driver seen close to where her body had been left.

Eventually a suspect was arrested to face trial, a man who had already been interviewed on previous occasions and classified as “NFA” (no further action).  Molloy writes at some length about the system that allowed this to happen, essentially bypassing the man, more than once, who was later found guilty. What if he’d committed more crimes after he’d been dismissed from investigation? As Molloy notes, little was learned from the experience and the same mistakes were made again a few years later in the Yorkshire Ripper case where unfortunately additional murders were committed by a man who had been suspected,  interviewed and dismissed on several occasions.

Apart from its account of what was “the biggest child-killer hunt in history”, The Cannock Chase Murders looks at changing police attitudes and procedures.  One of senior investigators was a man with many catch-phrases, one of which was “In a murder you can get away with murder!”; meaning the public were much more forgiving of police overstepping their authority when it came to suspected murderers, allowing a lot of leeway in the treatment of such suspects. The unfortunate outcome of this would be innocent suspects being denied their due rights. This ended in 1984 with the passing of an act that introduced “tighter restrictions on arrest and the length of detention and immediate access to solicitors”. Molloy decries the passing of the act, suggesting it was “the death knell to any attempt at serious interrogation”.

In a more perfect world where the “good guys” could categorically be trusted to BE good guys such restrictions would not be necessary. But as my recent reading has made clear, it’s possible that those with the responsibility of enforcing and upholding the law are occasionally motivated by something other than the desire to serve justice.



The Pastor and the Painter, interview with author Cindy Wockner

It’s three years since Bali 9 drug traffickers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were executed by firing squad.

Their supporters continue the campaign against Indonesia’s death penalty.

News Limited journalist Cindy Wockner covered their story from the beginning right through to their brutal end.

She promised the pair to write their story so their deaths would not be in vain.

Cindy spoke to Cathy Van Extel about what the two men were really like, how they changed and their fight against the death penalty.

Includes details of the amazing achievements of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran within Kerobakan prison, Bali prior to their brutal death ordered by the Indonesian president Joko Widodo. [pembunuh berantai]

From here:

The Pastor and the Painter, Cindy Wockner

Almost two years ago I reached 300 books on my “Books Read” list. A list I started late in 2009. I wanted to mark that milestone with a “worthy” title, and chose Schindler’s Ark , a book of recognised literary merit (Booker prize winner), addressing something of significant historically importance (the Holocaust).

I have now reached book number 400, and chose a different kind of book about people and events a lot closer to home. As a Christian and a painter, I took a personal interest in the events explored in this 400th book.

Reading The Pastor and the Painter was a little like reading a book about the Titanic. The tragic conclusion has already been well publicised.
However, the important part of this story is what happens before that conclusion: a story of crime, politics, redemption and the victory of finding faith in God.

Andrew Chan (the pastor) and Myuran Sukumaran (the painter) were killed by an Indonesian firing squad, upon the order of the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo.

Chan and Sukumaran as accused leaders of the “Bali Nine”, had been sentenced to death by a Bali court for drug trafficking a decade before the sentence was finally carried out. Pleas for clemency were denied.

As a journalist, Cindy Wockner reported on the Bali Nine case from the beginning and was able to spend a lot of time with the nine Australians imprisoned for trying to smuggle drugs out of Bali to Australia. She developed a friendship with Chan and Sukumaran and had frequent access to them to report on their plight as they fought and lost their fight to avoid execution. Her book was written to continue their fight, obviously not for themselves, but for others who remain on death row in Indonesia.

Not long before his death, Sukumaran painted a portrait of the man who would demand that the executions be carried out. On the back of the painting of the president, Sukumaran wrote “People Do Change”, stating the fact that everyone apart from the president seemed to recognise – that the two men whose lives were being taken from them were not the same men who committed the crime a decade before. They HAD changed.

The men sentenced were young, irresponsible, angry, unco-operative and undeniably guilty of the crime.
The men being executed 10 years later were repentant, responsible and highly respected by those with authority over them in jail. Unlike many in their position who buried their despair in drug use, Chan and Sukumaran turned their lives around and went to work developing and running training programs and various other activities for other prisoners within the jail.

Chan studied for Christian ministry and started a church within the prison.
Sukumaran developed his artistic skills and was mentored by Australian artist Ben Quilty; sharing what he learned through holding art classes for fellow prisoners. Paintings were sold and proceeds used for various causes, including raising money to pay for life saving surgery for a female prisoner.

While many in the past have had sentences reduced, sadly, for others Indonesian law would remain inflexible.

Laws are like spider webs: if a fly or mosquito gets near, it gets trapped, but if a wasp or bee goes near, it breaks it and leaves. The same applies to the law: if a poor man strays he gets caught, while the rich and powerful exempt themselves from the law and walk away.

(Andrew Chan – from The Pastor and the Painter)

The absurdity of executing fully rehabilitated young men, who had not only turned their own lives around but had made significant contributions to the rehabilitation of their fellow prisoners, became even more extreme when the time came for them to be transported to the place where they were to be held prior to facing a firing squad. It was a full-on military exercise with armoured vehicles, armed soldiers and fighter jets escorting them on their journey.

On 27th April, two days before he and Myuran were executed,  Andrew Chan married Febyanti Herewila, a local church minister he’d known and loved for some time, in a small ceremony within the prison.

All up, about 20 people gathered, After Muran led them in prayer, he started singing ‘Bless the Lord’, a song also known as ‘10,000 Reasons’, and one they all knew and loved.

There was still some time for jokes amid the sad pall that hung over the Besi prison visiting area. As Myuran got stuck into some more junk food, someone told him it wasn’t good for him.

He smiled. “There are worse ways to die”.

(From The Pastor and the Painter)

On 29th April 2105, at 12.25am, Andrew and Myuran and six others were brutally killed by Indonesian president Joko Widodo. The weapon used: firing squad.  They were strapped by the elbows to wooden crosses and sang until their voices were silenced by almost 100 simultaneous gunshots*. The song in the video above is the one cut short by the fatal bullets.


The eight people who were executed in Indonesia on 29 April 2015. Top row from left (including two of the Bali Nine): Australians Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, Nigerian Okwuduli Oyatanze and Nigerian Martin Anderson. Bottom row from left: Nigerians Raheem Agbaje Salami, Silvester Obiekwe Nwolise, Brazilian Rodrigo Gularte and Indonesian Zainal Abidin. Two others (not pictured) who were scheduled to be executed were given a temporary reprieve. Photograph: The Guardian ( )



* There were 12 marksman assigned to each victim, firing a combination of blanks and live ammunition.