Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Forensics Expert Susan Vondrake Stops By

by Andrea Campbell

Today I would like to introduce Susan Vondrake, director of the Research and Development Laboratory with the Illinois State Police. A Renaissance woman in the field of forensic science, Vondrake is also a new fiction writer whose first book will debut shortly.

Q.: What is your book with Oak Tree Press about? Is it finished?

A.: Yes, the book is completed and the first of a series. I plan to publish under S. Connell Vondrake. The book is a completely fictional work not based on any actual case or agency. The book, No Evidence of a Crime, is set in Washington, D. C., and begins with two detectives investigating the murder of a young woman, a murder which appears on the surface to be straightforward, but subtle discrepancies with the evidence start to become apparent. The murder weapon is identified as a Glock handgun, but an eyewitness places the shooter too far from the victim.  

Toxicology finds a high level of alcohol and cocaine in victim’s system, but not in the fetus she is carrying, and DNA links the victim to a gang member -- but she had no apparent gang connections. The detectives ask a forensic scientist to help retest the samples. The new test results soon lead the detectives to realize forensic evidence is being altered.

In No Evidence of a Crime, the clues point to one direction, but there are inconsistencies. The detectives try to force the pieces to fit into the puzzle. When they actually figure out the truth, everything fits together. The same is true in real life. If a control is outside the expected result, or a latent print matches the top of a print on a print card but not the bottom of the print, or a shoe print matches but is the wrong size, all of these things are telling you something. Things like this will gnaw at a good forensic scientist until they figure out what the evidence is telling them, and when they do, they grow as a forensic scientist and the field of forensics grows.

Q.: How did the book come about?

A.: In my current job, I have to drive to different labs around Illinois. I can be in the car six, seven, eight hours in a day. Rather than listening to the radio, I would make up stories in my mind as entertainment for me. A few years ago, I started to put these stories down on paper. Oak Tree Press has been wonderful. In January, I turned the first of three books over to them, and they were very quick in saying they wanted to publish it. I don’t have an agent, just me.

Q.: Can you tell us something about your background, and give us a few words about your crime lab?

A.: I was a forensic toxicologist for ten years with the Illinois State Police (ISP). I then trained people in forensic toxicology for eight years, also with the ISP. In 2003, I became the Director of Training, overseeing training in all areas of forensics, including Latent Prints, DNA, Firearms, Toxicology, Questioned Documents, and Drug and Trace Chemistry. In January of 2009, I was appointed the Director of Research and Development, in addition to continuing my training duties, overseeing the Statewide Training Program.

The Illinois State Police is a very large system, second only to the FBI in size within the US. We have approximately 350 forensic scientists and about 500 total staff. Both the Statewide Training Program and the Research and Development Laboratory have statewide responsibilities within ISP’s Forensic Sciences Command.

Q.: Last year, Congress completed an investigation and report on the state of forensic science; since there is no standardization for all forensic disciplines, do you think the needs of criminal justice are being met?

A.: Let me start by saying, I do believe the needs of the criminal justice system have been met. Throughout my career, I have watched the forensic science community work hard to address most of the issues delineated in the National Academy of Sciences's report, with limited resources and funding. Whether it is through laboratory accreditation, training workshops at technical meetings or individual certification, the forensic community has striven to better themselves as forensic examiners. The IAI certification program of latent print examiners is an excellent example of the spirit of that dedication.  It is a challenging test which is one way of demonstrating the competency of a latent print examiner. 

However, I will also add, I have read the NAS report from cover to cover, recognize the issues it articulates, and believe these issues should not be taken lightly or brushed aside. Our challenges are the new technologies always being developed, which allow us to give better and better answers but cause us to be constantly learning, changing and adapting past practice. How we incorporate these new technologies into our laboratories is paramount to our success as a vital service to the citizens we serve. It is also what drives agencies to submit more and more evidence to take advantage of better techniques and greater sensitivity of results.

I see the NAS review as similar to going to the doctor’s office for a physical, just to see how your body’s holding up; maybe there have been a few aches and pains that caused some concern. If you went to a doctor, and the doctor said you need to eat better and exercise more because you may be on the road to a heart attack, most people would not reply, “No, I’m not.” They would assess what they could do better and how they might improve, maybe eat an apple instead of a candy bar or walk a little more at the mall. The same is true in forensics when reviewing the NAS report. Each individual, their agencies and the community as a whole should assess how they are doing and what they can do better.  If I were a latent prints examiner but had not taken the IAI certification test, that might be an apple I would be chewing on, now.

Q.: How would you suggest that young people interested in a forensic science career proceed?

A.: When I started in 1985, few knew what forensic science was. Now, we can easily have 700 people apply for a forensic scientist position each year so, the interest in the field is there. As long as you have a strong science background, you can become a forensic scientist. If you are interviewing for the job, show your interest in the field (this is not reciting episodes of CSI). Forensic work can be tedious and meticulous. Most scientists are capable of becoming a forensic scientist but, to become a great forensic scientist you need the ability to never give up until all the questions in a case are answered.

1 comment:

emma jacob said...

I can't find the words to express how I feel about Handwriting expert But your little paragraph really said what I can't. I am a HUGE fanatic of Handwriting analyst experts preferably from ancestors and it's always a treat when one is found that is Handwriting analysis . Those I cherish the most. They are priceless.