Forensic Research and Fiction

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D, forensic psychologist, was one of the Guests of Honor at this year’s Sleuthfest. She gave the Friday luncheon talk followed by a session on “Integrating Forensic Research into Fiction.” Her luncheon talk was fascinating (About the BTK Killer, Dennis Rader) but a bit gory (But no one ran out of the room gagging. Then again, this is a conference for people who write about murder.); the session on forensic research was informative. This blog will address the latter.

Katherine Ramsland

She began by saying that much of what in the past has been presented as solid evidence is now being proven false or unreliable. She gave the example of bite marks. In a 2009 report by the National Academy of Science, it was shown that bite mark evidence cannot be backed up scientifically.

Other previously accepted evidence that’s now being questioned

  • Hair and fiber evidence
  • Entomology
  • Gunshot evidence
  • Toxicology
  • Handwriting analysis


  • How the police handle and gather the evidence can make a difference
  • Whether the judge trying the case is qualified to judge the evidence being provided in court can make a difference
  • Personal bias of judge or jury members can make a difference

Even collecting evidence at a crime scene is not 100% accurate

  • Can be influenced by bias
  • Judgments made because the police have “seen this scene this before.”
  • Not writing down everything and then discovering later they don’t remember something
  • Not preserving or handling evidence correctly
  • Not collecting something that later becomes crucial to the case
  • Being rushed

Eye witnesses can be corrupted without realizing that’s happening.

  • By being asked to go over and over what they saw, certain questions asked by the interviewer can influence the answers.
  • Sometimes a witness will “remember” what they think the police want them to remember.
  • Also witnesses must be separated immediately; otherwise they can be influenced by what others “remember.”

There is no science for “profiling” criminals.

  • They really missed when profiling the BTK Killer.

Even pigs, which used to be used to study how people decomposed, have been found deficient.

So far, DNA analysis remains the “gold standard” for reliability.

Katherine gave us a handout with information about the steps now being taken to standardize forensic testing and reporting. She suggested, if you’re interested, check out:

She stressed, if you’re using forensics in your novel, don’t lecture-SHOW.

  • Have a character mention the information.
  • Let a character give a demonstration.
  • Put the information in conversation.
  • Have a character make a mistake, which allows the writer to indicate how something should have been done or what must be done to correct the mistake.
  • Put the info in a news report.
  • Have characters discuss pros and cons.
  • Create a fortuitous meeting.

She is a fascinating speaker and presented a lot of great information.

Standard Language:

OSAC = Organization of Scientific Area Committees
NCFS = National Commission of Forensic Science
SWGs = Science Working Groups .




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6 Responses to Forensic Research and Fiction

  1. Melissa Keir says:

    What a great resource! Would have loved to have been a fly on the wall! Makes me wonder how much TV has changed what we believe about evidence.

  2. Excellent discussion! DNA has made a tremendous difference. People have been proven not guilty of crimes for which they have served long sentences. Law enforcement can now connect real criminals with violent crimes. Cold case crimes can now be solved. It’s not perfect, but forensic research has proven valuable. As writers, we do have to keep up on current information for accuracy in our mystery and crime fiction.

    • Maris Soule says:

      It is sad, Jacqueline, to hear about so many people who have been in prison for crimes they did not commit. As a writer, I must remember not to assume what I’ve seen on TV, or read in books in the past, is correct. I must do my own research.

  3. Carole Price says:

    Terrific report, Maris, and resource. I will check out the magazine, etc. you so kindly mentioned. Thanks for sharing.