G:Raised $4500 for their forensic club with 900 students going through the uh
crime scene cottages.
G:So they want to uh work with us to make a real production out of this.
G:With using the actors and their ability to make things move
G:so it sounds like it's going to be pretty cool if my students will agree to it of
Because it's their show.
G:I can't I am not going to accept for them.
P:huh. very neat it sounds like uh okay so we're ready and we're just going to get
started. Robert Shaler welcome to The Conversation.
G:It's nice to see you again.
P:You uh have had to say the least an an interesting career which we're thankful
to say lead you here to Penn State. Give us kind of a career highlight
G:Gee I don't know where to start. Uh it seems like it's been a long journey. Kind
of stated in Pittsburgh. I was working as uh assistant professor at uh University
School of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy. And I saw in the Pittsburgh Press
which no longer exists an advertisement for forensic sleuthing classes being
given by Pitt so I took the classes. They were night time classes. They were
taught by people in the crime laboratory and all the classes took place at the
crime laboratory and that opened up a whole new vision of things for me. I didn’t'
realize that that kind of work was available because it wasn’t' publicized much in
those days. There was Quincy on television uh so but that was about it. And
always was interested by it. Um so after that I began working at night time n the
Pittsburgh crime Laboratory and teaching in the day time at the University. Uh
eventually that led to a full-time job uh all day long at the crime laboratory. Um
from there I applied for a research grant and I was granted a research grant. And
that took me to Washington, DC where I worked with one of the Beltway Bandits
called the Aerospace Corporations. And there I uh was in charge of some
forensic related contracts. The one of which was the blood stain analysis contract
which eventually became the standard for the United States up until the time
DNA took over . Uh from there I went to New York City and the reason I got to
New York City was because of a case I had worked when I was in Pittsburgh. Uh
it was a case involving uh someone who a murder case. I was brought in by the
defense to and I got a chance to do some additional work which was part of the
research grant that I had been working on. And uh so I did some work and the
guy who was working for the prosecution Dr. Alexander Weener saw the work
that I had done and he said this is new. Uh but then and so I went and testified
as a defense expert and uh Dr. Weener eventually died. Dr. Weener was a very
famous person. He was one of the co-discoverers of the Rh factor and he had
been in New York City.
P:and the Rh factor
G:is a factor for you know if you are Rh positive or Rh negative uh and he had
been working in New York City and was one of the all time great uh forensic
biologists. And he had been there since 1930s. He started that laboratory. Uh so
anyway he had said to the chief medical examiner at the time that uh basically if I
am not ever here this is somebody you should look at. So Dr. Weener died. And
uh when I was in Washington, DC the medical examiners asked me if I'd be
interested in interviewing for the job. So I came to New York and started working
in New York City in 1978. Uh that was many many years I worked there. Uh and
then DNA came along and I some folks from the Life Codes Corporation came
down to the medical examiners office. We actually worked a case together while I
was still in New York.
P:And we should say that Life Codes is really the world's first Uh DNS forensic
laboratory DNA paternity testing laboratory.
G:Well yes it was also the first forensic laboratory in the United States. Uh even
though it was a private company. There was still nobody in the United States
doing it. In fact we went tot he FBI and sat down with the FBI to talk to them
about it and they basically blew us off. They didn’t' think it was going to work. But
they very shortly after that got intimately involved in working to see it would work
and the reason for that is because we were having successes. Uh but this case
in New York we had a uh a burglar who fell to his death. And there were blood
from the crime scene that we had matched up to this burglar. We also did DNA
testing on it and proved that he was actually the burglar from his autopsy
samples. So that was really the first United States case involving DNA uh the
RFLP type of DNA which is different from another type of DNA typing. That led
me to Life Code Corporation. I began working there in 1987 as their director of
forensic uh biology. Uh that position was a fun position because I got a chance to
tour the United States and sort of be the huckster for forensic DNA typing and I
was the first person doing that. And we were talking to police agencies and
district attorneys. WE went to district attorneys conferences and uh cases started
to come in. It was really just a marketing ploy. And uh to get cases in the door.
And the cases we originally got were all cold cases. So we were really the first
laboratory to really begin working cold cases. The prosecutors were more than
willing to try to do things to solve.
P:Because everything else had failed.
G:yeah there was nothing left. And they want they were more than willing to try
new things on old cases but they weren't willing to try new things on current
P:Interesting. Actually there's a lot of things about the early days that seems a bit
schizophrenic the very first case that uh Life Codes was involved with resulted in
a in a prosecution was of an accused rapist by the name of Tommy Lee Andrews
in Orlando, Florida.
P:Um he was uh convicted um. I am just wondering when you brought this to trial
um how did the public. How difficult was it to sell this new science to the
prosecutors, to judges, to the public.
G:Florida was always very progressive when it came to DNA typing. And so they
were willing to embrace it. The prosecutors down there. They needed something.
They didn't have anything. And they sent us the case. We did the work. We got
the match and we ended up testifying to it. That was the first time that had ever
been testified to in the United States. And I spend a great deal of my time trying
to train the Life Codes scientists how to testify in court. And we had built our
whole testing regimen about things that we had learned from other cases and
from my experiences in New York. And so we were really testing the waters for
DNA typing and we understood that if we failed, DNA typing might fail for the
whole country if not the world. Uh the British at that time were were successfully
using it in cases as well. We were really the only two groups that were doing it.
P:In fact a British scientist uh sort of invented this DNA testing technique. A guy
by the name of of uh uh Jefferies and he came up with that term DNA finger
printing which apparently scientists aren't all in agreement that it's a good term.
G:Well everybody has their own ideas of how you should how you should call it. I
prefer DNA profiling. But Alex Jefferies came up with one way of doing it. And the
way he did it was embraced by another United States company called Cell Mark
Diagnostics. It's called a multiple locust probe where you saw multiple bands on
a gel and those multiple bands were all were like into a ladder. We did single
locust probes we were looking at one single region of the DNA at a time and we
did multiples of those. So they were really different philosophies on how to
handle this. When we approached the FBI and the FBI said basically thanks but
no thanks. Uh and they embarked on their own campaign they uh became using
single locust probes but the interesting part of it is both Cell Mark and Life Codes
were trying to interest the DNA in doing it their way as sort of a marketing thing.
Well the FBI
P:they were trying to influence the FBI into?
G:yeah we we all wanted the FBI to use our method. Well that would be good for
business. Uh FBI in their own way basically say not invented here. We’re not
going to use it. So they went off and did their own thing and in my opinion they
ended up with a with a worst product. But it's a product that was endorsed by the
entire law enforcement community and so all forensic crime laboratories who
were doing DNA typing used the FBI's method.
P:Well what's interesting is that in England where this was first uh first identified
and first used um I am having a brain freeze again. I am going to have to start
that over but in in England where they first started where they first developed this
technique uh the government regulates DNA testing. That's not the case in the
United States. That’s surprising.
G:Well yeah uh that's the way they do business over there. Their forensic uh uh
infrastructure is is heavily uh involved with the government. Uh in this country we
sort of have the government regulating it but it's regulated by saying you can't
have funding unless you do it this way. So in a in a sense it's regulated but but it
really uh it’s your choice to do it the way the government does it or not.
P:and you think it's inferior though the way the government chose to pursue DNA
G:I think that the way that they decided to do it on their own was not as good as
what we were doing at Life Codes or what Cell Mark was doing.
P:Well there are some who say there's one biologist who says that what's
required of a lab diagnosing strep throat the standards that they must meet are
higher uh than the standards that a lot of forensic labs have to meet because of
this lack of of uh requirements or standardization throughout the system.
G:I don’t' know if that's true or not but because I don't know what the standards
for strep throat are. Um but forensic laboratories have always been free to do
things on their own. And although we have accreditation and certification there
are no. It's all voluntary. So a laboratory does not need to be accredited but if
they do forensic DNA typing and they want to get funding then they have to be
accredited. And the accreditation standards are are pretty rigorous. Uh so labs
have to jump through those hoops to ensure they are putting out a quality
product. That doesn’t' mean that mistakes don't get made and it doesn't mean
that that individual people don't make mistakes. You can't even guard against
human error. Uh you can try to minimize it. But the laboratories themselves are
rapidly becoming accredited. Most in fact all forensic DNA laboratories are
accredited in the United States now.
P:So we go though from Tommy Lee Jones in 1987 and not long after that uh a
case comes up and this is Joseph Castro. Joseph Castro is accused of
murdering a woman and her infant child. There is blood evidence on the face of a
watch. Um Life Codes determined that the blood on this watch face is the
victim's. Um they also determine that it's not his. Interestingly enough they go to
court. You guys go to court and the judge says the evidence that it was her blood
isn't admissible. But the evidence that it was not his blood is admissible.
G:Right. That's exactly what happened. It was a very strange decision. Judge
Shideland uh I think was in over his head. And he probably be wiling to admit that
because there was a lot of uh expert testimony for both the defense and the
prosecution. Interestingly enough the defense attorneys in that case are two uh
legal aide attorneys. Uh who are now started the Innocence Project Barry Scheck
and Peter Newfelder they are co-discoverers of the Innocence Project and
because of their efforts using DNA which they challenged in that case. They've
gotten a lot of innocent people out of jail. But the Castro case was interesting
from another Perspective and you said what it was is because the the the
decision seemed to be schizophrenic. In one hand you couldn't say that it did not
match the suspect meaning it wasn't his blood on there. So what where are you?
That seemed like the judge was on the middle of the road. What didn't know
exactly which way to go and decided to do it in this direction. Now at a
subsequent hearing when they were I believe getting ready to sentence Castro.
He admitted that it was his his blood her blood on the watch.
P:He admitted that he killed her.
He admitted that he killed her so in a way the DNA evidence was exonerated.
G:yes it was and the two attorneys Peter Newfeld have always been dismayed.
They couldn't believe that Castro had actually made that statement. He didn't
have to make that statement.
P:Interesting. You mentioned the Innocence Project and there have been 1160
death penalties in the US since 1973. Barry Scheck who started the Innocence
Project back in 1992 um says that uh through their work um 238 post-conviction
exonerations have been attributed to new DNA testing. Um talk a little about this
because he says uh that forensic science has played a role in approximately 50
percent of wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing which means
that forensic testing is is as you said uh it's done by humans and and it's not
always uh done well.
G:We have to look at at those results with sort of a skeptical eye if you will. Fifty
percent of the cases probably did involve forensic science. But what percentage
of those 50 percent were the ones directly responsible for putting somebody in
jail. There’s always going to be other evidences. Always going to be other
testimony. The other part of this and I am not saying that there wasn't bad
science in some of those cases. Absolutely true there was. But the other part of it
has to do with the advocacy system. The prosecutors present the scientist work
to the jury in a summation and if you go back and look at these cases some of
these are very clearly influenced by how the prosecutor portrayed the science to
the jury. So maybe the scientists say we talk about a hair comparison. Maybe the
scientists says that the hair was consistent on the victim's body was consistent
with that of the defendant. He's not saying that it was the defense but in
summation the prosecutor might say you heard the scientist say that the
defendant's hair was on her body. Now that's a misrepresentation of what the
scientist said. But on the other hand we do know and if we read uh the Innocent
Man by John Grisholm you know that there was testimony by scientists who
completely and totally uh fabricated their their their testimony to favor the
prosecution. So there's both sides of it.
P:And it sounds like it's a gullible uh public who hears the word science and
forensic science and thinks that it's an infallible science.
G:That's true. That's true when you put a scientist on the stand the the jury will
believe that person. And that's why it's really critical for forensic scientists to
understand that the words that they use are going to be going to sway the jury
one way or the other and so you have to be unbiased in the not only in your work
but in the way you present your work to to in a court of law.
P:There's some 60 million uh Americans who watch these CSI type of programs
on television and so we're all uh juries, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys
we're all influenced by what we see. Tell us separate the fact from the myth.
What what do we see on TV that really does happen? And and what is sort of uh
G:Well first of all it's all made up. Because it's a drama. And so the case itself is
made up so but the science they use uh is sort of a hybridization of what's real
and what’s not. They may use a technology which is out there and could be used
by people. And they deliberately try to get new technologies in so the people can
see new things. Uh but they might take that technology and have a little license
with it and make it do things that it doesn't really do. An example would be uh a
technology that we use on campus called Seen Vision 3-D which gives you a 3-
dimensional uh scanning using infrared to uh to map the scene if you will. Well
that's gives you a computer program where you can go in and manipulate it's like
a virtual room. You can actually go in and see different areas of that crime scene.
Uh but what they did on CSI was they took that instrument and they put it onto a
computer screen and made it do things that that
P:That the real machine can't do.
G:the real machine doesn’t do. Uh so they do things like that and also uh when I
teach my students crime science investigation and they are taking pictures of foot
prints they are supposed to use tripods and you'll see the CSI people walking
around in very tailored looking outfits which our students don't have and they are
just taking pictures with a camera but they are not taking them in the proper way.
And we have a very good time criticizing or critiquing CSI programs with our
P:Speaking of your students when you came to Penn State uh your uh mission
really was to create the most rigorous and comprehensive forensic uh program
for undergraduates in the country. There's lots of competition out there but I want
to know um what sets your program apart from others and what does it take to
become. What kind of scientists are you trying to graduate?
G:Well we're trying to graduate scientists who also understand and can apply
science in the field to forensic problems. Uh I came here with another individual
Dr. Mitchell Holland. And Mitch and I agreed that this program had to be
grounded in science. And the reason for that is that when we were both of us
were hiring people people who came to Penn State in our separate laboratory.
We would bring people in with undergraduate degrees in chemistry or biology or
even master's degrees in forensic science and we realized they didn't know how
to use a ballast. They didn't know how to do the basic manipulations that
scientists are supposed to know how to do. So we vowed that our students would
be scientists first and then forensic scientists second. And I think we've done
that. I think we've accomplished this. The other part of the program is that
because we both come from the applied arena uh you have to be able to do the
work as well as understand the science behind the work. So we have uh put
together a program where students get to do the exact same things that are done
in crime laboratories. And and to that end as an example the FBI recently came
to Penn State to to interview our students. Actually they brought our students
down to the FBI. And we were the first university to have that opportunity.
Because they have a number of positions available and they want to look at our
students first because of the reputation that this program has. And we've only
been around for four years.
P:Uh you know it's interesting to note that a lot of the working forensic scientists
out there and this is certainly going to change as we see more university
programs. But most of them came uh without backgrounds. They didn't study
forensic science in college. They might have been entomologists. Pathologists.
Toxicologists. Those sorts of things. So how how quickly is the field changing
now that there are these kinds of programs at the University of uh Mississippi, at
Penn State uh at Loyola in New Orleans? And and popping all over the place.
G:Well forensic science programs have typically been started in criminal justice
programs. And they'll bring in uh an ex-FBI person or an ex-detective or police
investigator to teach forensic science. And maybe they'll bring in a crime lab
person to reach the criminalist  or the forensic science course and maybe they'll
get a non major course in chemistry and so they put this curriculum together and
they graduate with a degree in in arts but forensic science. Our program is in the
College of Science. And that's exactly where it belongs. And in fact the the uh the
accreditation guidelines set down by the American Academy of Forensic
Sciences and the name is called CPAC. That group requires that students if they
are going to become accredited must have the science background. And that
started before we came to Penn State. That program was in existence before
that and the program is becoming a stronger program. I believe there are either
28 accredited accredited uh forensic science programs in the country out of
about 200 existing programs. We got our accreditation last year.
P:You talked a moment ago about the fact that you've done the work on the
ground and and you were sort of underestimating or or uh uh you did it on the
ground in a big way. You uh joined in 1990 the New York uh City's office of the
Chief Medical Examiner where you established the largest forensic biology
department in the Untied States and then came 9/11. And your office was
charged uh with leading the massive DNA effort to identify the victims of the
World Trade Center attack. How prepared was your office for that job?
G:We weren’t prepared. Uh how can you prepare for something like that? You
can't. Uh we knew that it was our responsibility. The other thing we were
concerned about was maybe someone was going to be taken away from us and
we didn’t' want that either. WE wanted to do it. I mean New York was our place
and it was our friends and neighbors the ones who died there and we wanted to
identify them. And so there was always in the back of my mind that either the FBI
was going to come in or the New York State Police were going to come in and
take this away from us. So we kind of jealously guarded that. That responsibility.
So that was a very difficult time for us. When I started in 1990 in New York to set
up t his laboratory. We had nine people. When I left New York I had like 105 who
were working for me. Uh but that effort for the World Trade Center involved not
just our office. I was I was working with six laboratories. Not just in New York City
but we had laboratories in Texas, uh the National Institutes of Standards and
Technology was doing some work with us. The Boddy Technology Group uh
where Dr. Holland came from to here was working with us as well. So we had a
number of different laboratories. Myriad Genetics in Utah so each and New York
State Police. So we had other laboratories were doing specialized things for us
but all the identifications were made in the medical examiner's office.
P:In all you analyzed more than 20,000 samples and there were 2749 victims of
the World Trade Center.
Uh attacks. How many were you able to positively identify?
G:I think the number is around 1600 now. They've identified a couple more since
I've left New York City. Uh around 1600.
P:Which is about 58 percent of them.
P:Were you satisfied that you um identified as many as humanly possible?
G:Well yes and no. uh you are never satisfied if you haven’t identified them all.
Intellectually that was impossible because a number of those poor people were
incinerated. Uh so their bones are just basically ash now and there's no tissue
with which to make an identification. So the 1600 I think is a good number. Uh
it's frustrating that you can't identify them all.
P:You said at one point and in a book that you wrote Who They Were Inside the
World Trade Center DNA story that at times you came dangerously close to
misidentifying people. Can you explain why?
G:Yeah uh we were on the cutting edge of what was available at that time. We
were using science in a way that it had never been used before. So there's
always that opportunity to misuse the science. Uh I guess I could give you some
examples. But um there were instances. Let me give you an example of
something which was common for us. Uh we would get a DNA profile from let's
say a piece of tissue. And then we would match it up to somebody. And then
we'd try to pull that piece of tissue out and we'd realize that the tissue came from
say an arm and it should've come from a foot. So it we had to go back and redo
this. We also found out that when people die together their remains kind of mush
together. And it's an awful thing to think about but it's true. So if you identify
tissue the DNA from the tissue it may be the tissue from another person. And the
only way to really make that identification is to get into the bones and get the
DNA out of the bones and so we found those kinds of discrepancies as well. And
plus there were just mistakes made.
P:You also needed anti-mortem DNA so for instance hair from uh uh hairbrush
that belonged to the victim or uh uh a mouth swab from a close living relative.
How uh eagerly did families of victims work with you? How challenging was that?
G:Uh working with the families was a true privilege. They turned out to be
wonderful people and they supported us from the beginning to the end. And I
think one of the reasons they supported us was we were very open with them.
We nothing was hidden from these families. We didn't tell them everything about
the gory details but when we had some issues some quality issues we pulled
them in and we said. Look we have an issue. We are not going to make any
identifications for the next month or two. Because we have a quality issue and we
have to solve this. We found that there was some contamination of the samples.
We had to find the source of it. And we had to go back and reanalyze some of
those samples. But the families working with t hem like I said was a privilege. Um
we uh lost my train of thought. Um
P: we’ll edit it out so don't worry about that.
G:I know I know. Um I'll give you an example of of working with one family that
uh I became very very close to is the Cartier family. Uh they lost their brother and
they almost lost a sister and a brother as well. They ran out of the buildings at the
time. And uh but that family became sort of like a spokesman spokes group for a
number of families. And we met with these folks every week. And it became
important to them for us to be able to clarify what they had been reading in the
newspaper. Uh the reporters would report 12 bodies were found. And they would
want to know.
P:'Was it my family member?
G:yeah exactly right. They wanted to know that but the medical examiner’s office
would not report finding any body. We found remains and they were probably not
intact remains. So we could not report it as a body because it wasn't intact. So
there was a semantic issue that had to be worked out. So the families started
coming to us to get the information from the medical examiner's perspective and
they began to realize that we were really the only ones that were being open with
P:In fact I found a 2003 [inaudible] that was written by a family member of one of
the victims and they said government officials could learn a lot about how to work
with the victims' families simply by following Bob Shaler and his very capable
team's example. Mr. Shaler does a great job of managing expectations. We
might not always like hearing what he has to say but his honest and forthright
approach is appreciated. He doesn't say trust us. He provides facts and
information on a timely basis then engender trust and faith in his efforts. Had you
ever heard that before?
G:No. no that's the first time. Uh this this comes from the chief medical examiner
Dr. Charles Hirsch. Uh this was his policy and we we embraced it and uh we did
everything we could to make sure that these families knew what was going on.
P:I want to read something else. This is in your book Who They Were Inside the
World Trade Center DNA story. Uh you describe what it was like working on the
case and you say we often cried at our computers and at weekly meetings with
the families. Sometimes we high fived after identifying someone or we'd steal
away to an out of the way corner to be alone or simply to go for a walk to deal
with our emotions. What toll did this take on you personally and on your staff?
Because we're talking about three and a half grueling years lots of hours and lots
of emotion involved.
G:yeah uh you work with these families and they become sort of like your family.
And so you really really want to make these identifications so they can take their
loved one home to a certain extent. Uh and it's frustrating when you can't do that
or you'll have a DNA profile which you think I know this is the right person but you
can't you can't prove it to them. Uh but when you do make that identification it's
just you know wow. It's just inside of you this you know this emotion wells up and
you just kind of have to walk away and let the tears flow. It's a satisfying.
P:Is it part of you?
G:yeah absolutely it certainly is. Uh I still give lectures on campus uh about my
experiences in PSU 16 and uh talk to the students about mass disasters but talk
about what we did for the World Trade Center. And there are times that I still get
chocked up w hen I talk about certain instances. Yeah it's hard to talk about.
P:Did you because you said DNA had never been asked required to do the kind
of things you needed to do in identifying those uh those victims. Did you stretch
the science. Do we know or do we do new things because of what you guys were
able to do?
G:yeah I think so. Uh we did tings that I thought science should be able to do.
And we established research projects. One of them was uh what we called
miniplexes. These are if we are looking at a region of the DNA that's say 6 inches
long. But because of degradation and the effects of the environment at the World
Trade Center site on the DNA. It's now only 3 inches long. We have to devise a
procedure to look at a 3 inch piece instead of a 6 inch piece. And so we did that.
And those are called miniplexes. And uh the National Institute of Standards and
Technology had done that in the past or the scientists whose work was there and
had done that in the past and I called him and said look do you think this will
work here. He said well yeah. I happen to have. And so they began this research
project. It turns out that what they sent us didn't work the way we thought it
would. Then the Boddy Technology Group who has a very very good scientist
there named Jim Schum. Jim worked on it and developed it further and finally it
did work. It was a year long research project and wasn't until I believe 2002 2004
we got our first results back and that day we made five new identifications. And it
was just like the excuse me the tears come out and uh it was high fives all
around because it we were in a whole new ball game. Because of that. Uh
microchondria DNA typing is sequencing which is been around for years and
years and years. Everybody does microchondria sequencing but it was a very
long and tedious process. I got a phone call from Craig Ventor who is the person
who set up a private company to challenge the Federal government to sequence
the human DNA. Uh genode the human genode. He said I can sequence
100,000 sequences. Micocardian sequences in a day and I am willing to do this
for the World Trade Center. Well I didn't know if he could or not. I had no idea. I
knew who he was. And I knew that he was sort of a maverick scientist which I
think there was a lot of animosity between government scientists and his work.
Uh but if he could do that then that was something that I wanted to embrace. So I
got involved with a contract with uh Solara which was his company and uh they
set up a forensic microchrondrial DNA testing laboratory. It took them a year to
do the work to get that up and running as well. But hewn we started getting
microcrondrial DNA sequences out we started getting more data which we were
able to use to identify people.
P: We should add that while you were trying to identify these 2700 plus victims of
the World Trade Center attack your normal work load the the usual homicide and
sexual assault cases were still coming in.
G:Sure uh luckily uh murder and rape stopped in Manhattan for two weeks after
the World Trade Center. I guess t here is a certain amount of humanity from
those people as well. But yeah the work load didn't stop. There were still court
demands. And the judges cut us a break about forcing us to testify for a while but
they have you know their calendars and they have the criminal justice system
has to keep rolling. Uh so we had that as well so w hat I did is I talked to my
assistant director Dr. Howard Baum and I put him in charge of the daily activity of
the laboratories and I took over the World Trade Center so that we now had a
split management in in the [inaduible] so that we could both uh do the work that
we had to do.
P:Two months after the World Trade Center uh accident um or not accident
attack American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in a residential neighborhood in
Queens, New York
P:So this gets lumped on top of all this other stuff.
G: tha’ts right um I believe 265 people died on the plane or somewhere in that
neighborhood. Uh I remember listening to to was a Saturday morning and I
remember listening with Howard and I were both standing in the office and I said
to Howard I said boy I hope that crashed in Long Island some place and not in
Queens. And we both yeah. And then the radio said that it was in Queens and
we both looked at each other and said we can do this. Because the system was
set up. We were already doing a huge mass disaster project. To put another
2000 pieces in to analyze seemed like something very trivial to us at that time.
Had we not been working in the World Trade Center would have been disastrous
for us because it would’ve completely swamped the laboratory. But we had this
system set up.
P:Now you didn’t' have the system set up uh initially although I have to say that
you had asked New York City officials to create kind of a mass fatality plan.
P:Something that other things got in the way of.
G:It wasn't just New York City it was New York State. We had talked to the New
York State Police about uh specific software for helping to identify victims using
DNA and just because we kind of felt that in New York uh there's going to be a
plane crash someday. Or something is going to happen or there's going to be an
explosion. In 1993 somebody tried to blow up the World Trade Center before
that. And they just didn’t' succeed. Well you know you think what if they do
succeed. There's going to be fatalities and so we weren’t prepared for it but
nothing ever happened. It was never politically expedient enough to make it
P:You created a mass fatality uh classroom project I guess I would call it for your
students here at Penn State. Why did you do that and what did you get from
G:Uh I don't know if I remember that.
P:Okay you created I thought you did a a mass response disaster program here
at Penn State.
Nope somebody else.
P: I don't know where I read that. Okay somebody else. Uh okay well let's pick up
on something else. You were you know what enticed you at this experience that
you've had what enticed you to come to Penn State?
G:Well I graduated from Penn State with my doctorate. So there was always the
tie there. Um in 2004 I believe somebody from the alumni association came
down to Penn State and I met with that person in my office and she said would
you be willing to come back to Penn State and give a talk sometime. And I said
sure. Uh then she came back again and wanted to know if I would come up and
talk to students at our CSI campus that we have in the summertime and so I did.
I came up and I met with Dr. Spanier. Uh we talked a little bit about forensic
science. I asked him why Penn State didn't have a forensic science program.
And he said I've been thinking about that. Uh then I was given an alumni award
uh from from the university. And during that time uh 2004 I believe the uh
university was looking into starting a forensic science program and they were
looking at the uh the uh accreditation guidelines to see what courses were
necessary and they would ask me whether or not I agreed with that. But nobody
had approached me about working here. Uh when I came back to get my award
uh I met with Dr. Spanier again and he asked me if I'd be willing to run the Penn
State forensic science program. I said yeah. And at t hat time it's kind of like the
stars aligned. Uh you know I had had a heart attack
G: In 2003 and
P:In the midst basically of of your trying to identify all of these victims.
G:Yeah that' s right. And I had promised myself that when science could no
longer identify people then I was going to retire. It turns out that at that time I was
also eligible to retire from New York City. And then the offer comes to start a new
forensic program. Uh to give me the opportunity to do the things and create
students that I was not able to hire while I was in the city. So they everything kind
of came together. The job opportunity. The need for the program. Uh the ending
of the World Trade Center work was as far as I was concerned and from the
scientific perspective and it worked out okay. In addition to that uh in February
2005 I met with Mitch Holland after I had accepted the position at Penn State. I
met him at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences annual meeting. And
P:Mitch Holland is?
G:Dr. Holland is the associate director of the program and will take over for me
when I leave. Um I said you know I have this opportunity to go to Penn State.
Would you like to come with me? And that's how we got started.
P:It's an interesting program in fact in July of this past year uh a television
program featured your students um in there were 12 students who were broken
up in teams and they had to solve a crime. Tell us a little bit about that TV
G:Well the genesis of that was a committee that I was sitting on .American Bar
Association committee. We were on biological evidence. And uh I was talking to
the at that was the committee that had met for two yeas and the last year was I
believe 2004 2003 somewhere in that neighborhood um and I mentioned that I
was. Oh it had to been after 2005. I mentioned that one of the people there that I
was going to be coming to Penn State and that I was planning to teach crime
scene investigation. And this one attorney said that sounds like a reality TV
show. And then I went to a friend of mine who is a in New York and was working
with me at the medical examiner's office who was also a consultant for uh Law
and Order from a forensic perspective. And I said you know I'd and I told him the
story about the attorney on the committee. He said that's a good idea. He said let
me go see talk to some people. So he went to some folks in William Morris
Agency and they uh they thought that was a great idea. Uh he formed a
company with another man uh called Sherock Productions. And uh then I
approached Dr. Spanier about the idea of having this uh doing this on campus
and they agreed. And so I became the basically they took my course and we
televised the course. We had six episodes and was broadcast on Discovery
P:and and what was it like?
G:It was exhausting. We started I started teaching at 8 o'clock in the morning.
And there was three hours of lectures and then we’d have like a laboratory in the
afternoon. Then we'd do a crime scene at night. And uh generally the crime
scene took a couple of days. After and each team had the identical crime scene.
And the whichever crime scene team did the best job they won that contest for
that crime scene and they got an award.
P:Ice cream I think.
G:Ice cream was one at one time they got an award or pizza. Uh the team that
lost had to clean up the blood from the scene. So we had this reward and based
this thing which turned out to be a lot of fun. Um the students then had to act out
what they thought was the way the crime happened. So that became a riot as
P:And how close were they to figuring out what happened.
G:They are pretty good. Uh you know we always make the scenes uh impossible
to know. We want them to understand that they are not going to be able to
recreate what actually happened because they weren't t here. But we want them
to use the science to guide them in the right direction. Now they get some upfront
information. They talk eyewitness testimonies or uh or interviews of people who
knew the decedents. And that sort of thing. It's like a first officer's report. And so
they do get some background information. So but they don't know what they are
up against when they get into the scene.
P:Uh you know you know one of the things we've learned from from watching all
of these CSI programs is how important uh the handling of of DNA evidence is
and and the trial of the century O. J. Simpson's I think proved how how you could
get it wrong. Has that changed much or are departments police departments
more savvy about how to collect and preserve DNA evidence.
G:yeah they are. The O J Simpson case turned out. We all thought it was going
to be a huge DNA case. And the prosecutors prosecutors in that case uh really
focused on the DNA. They focused on it to the extent that they presented DNA
evidence to the jury in such a way they could never understand what DNA
evidence was all about. And then of course we all saw the glove
P:If it don't fit you must acquit.
G:If it don't fit you must acquit. But that case became a crime scene case. And
what happens at a crime scene. Because there were some some indications or
suggestions made that the crime scene was planted or parts of it were planted.
So that became important. And then the the other the other fallout from that case
was the uh protecting DNA evidence and how you work with DNA in the
laboratory and you don't work with uh with the suspect's DNA at the same time
that you are working with the evidence from the crime scene. And you don't carry
the suspect's DNA in your back pocket while you are working at a crime scene.
So there was a lot of things about crime scenes that that crop up and this is one
of the reasons why I wanted to teach crime scene investigation instead of DNA
analysis here because I believe that there needs to be a scientific presence at
the crime scene. And at the vast majority of cases in the this country there is not.
P:You know at one time and not so long ago a murder victim those first on the
scene if they'd see you know leaves and insects and all kinds of things on them
they would brush that away. Only to know today that t hat scientists can
determine with with uh reliability two hours uh the time from which the victim died
just from looking at insects.
G:that's true. Uh forensic entomology is a huge part plays a huge role in some
some investigations. And in fact Penn State has one of the internationally known
forensic entomologists Dr. Casey Kim and he has an annual workshop in forensic
entomology that he gives. It’s a workshop that I took uh from him before I started
P:You have uh two cottages that you use for your students. These are crime
scene cottages tell us what they are like and and what kinds of scenes you
create there for students.
G:Well they are great. Uh they look like they belong they just look like crime
scene houses. They are Victorian houses uh three floors of Victorian houses that
that were built in the 1880s. And they've been on campus I guess in this area
since that time. They've been moved from one part of the campus to the other
but they sit side by side. They these imposing yellow houses uh that sit in the
middle of this very modern Eberly College of Science and I have as many as four
crime scenes going in there at a time and one crime scene involves uh a
strangulation and duck taping of a young woman who ends up who is who is uh
oh the woman is duct taped by by a guy that she meets on the internet. And this
is their first date and you know things happen and she doesn't want to. He does.
He gets angry but it turns out that her jilted boyfriend is the one who actually kills
her. Uh so the students have to figure this out.
P:You are a script wrier here too.
G:I know uh so the students have to figure that out and they figure it out by
looking at the fingerprints on the duct tape that are across her mouth. Because
they are different than the duct tape across her writs and legs. Another scene
has to do with a uh looks like a double suicide. I mean a homicide suicide. Uh
where there's a woman hanging from one of the rooms and she has a slit wrists
and uh she's the ladder's knocked over. Uh when you go into the bathroom
there's a guy lying in the bathroom and there’s a gun on the floor and it looks like
he shot himself like this. Well it turns out it's a double homicide but it looks like a
homicide suicide. Students have to figure that out based on the evidence that
they find. There's another domestic dispute where uh a guy is his son his uh his
son murder's the stepmother. But the father and the son get a lawyer as police
call they are lawyered up and so they are not talking. And the students have to
figure out that it wasn't a domestic dispute it was relay a homicide. It wasn't an
accident. They say it was an accident. She fell down the stairs. Well it turns out
they did a lot more than fall down the stairs. Then we have an outdoor scene
where I have the students get up at 4 o'clock in the morning. We go out into the
woods and it turns out it's a place where a serial killer dumps bodies so I have a
number of skulls and we we put these skulls and stuff out there and they have to
find the weapons that are there and it all starts with a scenario of a missing
doctor and there's a love relationship. The wife has with a neighbor. You know
it's one of these typical things that happens all the time.
P:Because of all the uh CIS programs that we see on television I think we all
have kind of a askewed view of what the science can and cannot do. How tainted
or influenced are your students by what they watch on television? So are they
coming in here with unrealistic expectations?
G:Uh some of the students come in with unrealistic expectations. I think. Uh what
I found interesting is that they don't all watch CSI. They are coming in because
they really like the idea of forensic science and maybe they had a forensic
science class in high school. And maybe they are not CSI watchers. But they are
coming in for another reason. Then there are the ones who come in uh because
they watch CSI and they want to be that person. Well that person doesn't exist.
People don't go to crime scenes in suits and and high heeled shoes. Uh or or
coat and tie. Well some detectives do but generally the crime scene investigators
don't. Uh they don't make arrests. Real crime scene investigators. They do testify
in courts uh but they don't make the arrests. They don't do the investigations.
They investigate the crime scene.
P:And in fact what we often see on television are super scientists one person
who really does what five specialists might have done.
G: Tha’ts right and that's exactly what CSI is. They have one person who does
everything. And that doesn't happen. Either you are the scientist, the investigator,
the make the arrest then you testify in court. That person doesn't exist.
P:Police departments around the country I am wondering what kind of job
opportunities are out there for your graduates. Um does the police department
have these different specialists um what would be a realistic number of of
forensic scientists in the police department big or small?
G:Uh most police departments especially small ones don't have forensic
scientists. These are people who go to police academies and they are trained
police officers. They will also do the crime scene investigations. For the most part
our students are going to go to work in laboratories. They are going to like I say
earlier the FBI is approaching our students now. Uh we have several students
who were working in the New York City Police Department crime laboratory
doing drug analysis and that sort of thing. We have one person working in the
Denver crime laboratory. So our students are primarily going out to work in
laboratories or we have some who have gone to graduate school. We have one
in medical school and we have two who want to be forensic nurses. So they are
gong to nursing school now.
P:Eighty percent I read 80 percent of of murders are solved only 20 percent of
burglaries. Um can you can you talk a little bit about what that might mean to you
and forensic science.
G:yeah the uh I don't know if the 80 percent of murders are solved is a is a
correct one. I think it's more like 60 percent. Generally murders are committed by
people who know each other. They are usually not strangers. It’s the ones where
the murder is committed by a stranger. Those are the ones they don't solve as
much. Burglaries are committed by people who commit lots and lots of
burglaries. Burglars also rape. They also murder. And so if you can catch the
burglar you are going to solve a lot of other crimes. So there's this big push in
forensic DNA analysis to to analyze DNA from property crimes. Uh car thefts.
You get the DNA from where somebody touched the the underside of the
steering wheel or on the steering wheel or some other area in the car. Uh or you
get DNA maybe the touched somebody puts their forehead against the window to
look in the window of a house. Well there's a lot of DNA on your forehead. And
so you can swab that with a Q-tip and you can get that DNA and then you can
analyze it. Now then you begin to show that many burglaries are committed by
the same person. And you can do that by matching DNA. By matching
fingerprints. By matching foot prints so you have all these different kinds of
forensic evidence that can be used to show that one person is doing rather many
P:Well speaking of of car thieves there's growing concern that CSI type shows
are making smarter criminals um a car thief for example might unload uh uh a
cigarette butt disposal bin into a car after they've stolen it so that there's all kinds
of random DNA in this car. Are you concerned that these programs are making
uh the job harder for detectives and those on on law enforcement side?
G:I think there’s something to be said about that. Uh we know that burglars wear
latex gloves so that they don't leave finger prints or DNA. But interestingly
enough they'll leave the gloves at the scene. So the DNA and the finger print is
still inside the glove. Uh some of them take it I am sure. But you find latex gloves
at crime scenes. Burglars people who commit crimes for the most part are not
very smart when it comes to science. And I think during the emotion of doing
what you are doing uh unless you are really really meticulous you are going to
leave something. I am a firm believer that of something that is called the Locart
exchange principle. Scientists in the early 1900s named Edmond Locart is
credited with saying every touch leaves a trace. Which means that any time you
go some place there's going to be a piece of you there. Could be a shed hair. If
you sneeze it's going to be your sneeze stuff. Uh if you touch something it's
going to be your finger print and there's going to be DNA in your finger print. Uh
it's there and burglars also tend to maybe take a drink out of a soda can. And
they don't remember that their saliva is there. Or maybe they'll take a bite of a
candy bar somebody left there and your saliva is there as well. And so it's really
up to the ingenuity of the investigator to understand that DNA is there. You just
have to find it.
P:Speaking of science the National Academy of Science believes that uh what's
really needed in this country are standards accreditation and um uh and really
even a new government entity the National Institute of Forensic Science. Is that
what kind of reforms do you think we need and do you think Congress would be
willing to fund something like uh a National Institute of Forensic Science?
G:I was on that committee that authored that report. And what the committee
said was something that I am passionate about. There should be a national
institute of forensic science. The forensic science community doesn't want it. The
American Academy of Forensic or the American Society of Crime Laboratory
directors is agrees basically with what the committee report says. Except they
don't think that there needs to be a National Institute of Forensic Science. I don't
know where these forensic scientists have been all the rest of their life when they
have not been funded properly by the existing Federal agencies that have bits
and pieces of forensic science that they do fund. The forensic science community
has not been funded properly by the Federal government ever. Especially the
area that that report talks about and that's what we call experienced base
forensic science. And this is hair comparisons. Uh footwear comparisons. Finger
prints. Bullet comparisons. Bite mark comparisons. These are these are areas of
forensic science that that the person's expertise and experience comes from
years on the job. Let me give you an example. Let's say that your mother dies.
You come home some day and your mother is lying in a pool of blood and there's
a foot print in blood there. And the person who does the analysis does it in a
crime laboratory and that person comes in to uh into court and testifies that that
foot print came from a particular person. And then he's asked. What percentage
of all the footwear in this in this country could have made that? And he'll say t his
man came from this shoe and no other shoe. And the question is how do you
know that? Have you looked at every foot print in the world? Have you examined
all the Nike sneakers in the world that have that same tread of that particular
size? And how do you know how often those little nicks and scratches that end
up embedded on the sole of that shoe aren't there aren't on all shoes. The
answer is I don't know but what this person is saying is in my expiree I've never
seen anything like that. Well what is your experience? How many have you
looked at? What the national academy is saying this may very well be true. But
there's not the scientific base to say that. So we need to find a way to put a
probability figure on that. One out of a million. One out of a billion shoes would've
have made that mark.
P:And in fact the American Bar Association wants all of this kind of information
that you are talking about published so that so that uh prosecutors and defense
attorneys and others can go back and look at what the standard is. um and the
G:it should be it should be published. And and the other problem is that over the
years all of this anecdotal work that has been done by forensic people has come
out of forensic laboratories and some European universities but for the most part
it has not been funded by anybody who has a direct interest in in doing research
of these sorts of things. Penn State never would have done forensic science
research because there was no funding mechanism for it. The National Science
Foundation if you write a research grant to the National Science Foundation if it
has the word forensic in it you are not going to get it. The National Institutes of
Health doesn't care about forensic science. They didn't care about forensic
medicine. They never fund those sort of things so Penn State never would have
had a forensic research program. The National Institute of Justice uh never had a
budget to really fund these sort of things so they are very very few of these ever
got funded. When DNA became popular then DNA got a a block of money from
Congress to fund DNA because it's so important. It identifies people well these
other things identify people as well. But the funding is not there and so these
people who worked in crime laboratories couldn't get published in reputable
scientific journals. So they started trade journals and this gave the way that they
could talk back and forth. The Journal of Forensic Identification or the uh ATF uh
publication on fire arms. But regular universities don't have these journals. Uh
they don't even consider them journals. They are trade journals. But that's how
these people had to talk to in order to exchange information.
P:Well how likely is is Congress to spend the money to create the kind of agency
that you and so many others seem to think that we need.
G:I don't have any idea what what the bent of Congress is. I think they should
fund it. Uh the FBI has its own mission. Department of Homeland Security has
their own mission. National Institutes of Standards and Technology has their own
mission. The NIJ has failed to to perform in this in this realm. They are mainly
concerned with law enforcement. Well forensic science is just not law
enforcement. It’s involved in all areas of of society when it comes to examining
things and making comparisons. Uh so it should it should be funded.
P:I want to go back for just a moment to the innocence project uh which certainly
has changed the debate in this country about the death penalty given what you
know and y our own experience do you support capital punishment?
G:no well yes and no. Uh I support capital punishment it depends on the crime.
Um I don't believe people should go around shooting police officers. I don't
believe you should be killing little kids. But I think that there has to be a way of
absolutely proving that that person did it and I don't think we have the proper
tools right now to show that.
P:Even with DNA evidence?
G:DNA evidence is very powerful but it has to be probative DNA evidence. Just
because DNA is there doesn’t mean it has any relationship to the crime.
P:Where do you see all of this going? Where we can do things with DNA
evidence that we couldn't do two years ago or ten years ago. Where do you see
the science evolving? Ten twenty years from now?
G:Well I think we will be able to get DNA off of surfaces we've never been able to
do it before. Um I'll give you an example of some futuristic work that's going on.
On campus Dr. Mark Schriever in the anthropology department is doing some
DNA work where he can begin to look at facial features of of someone Stephan
Schuster has sequenced the wooly mammoth. Uh these are all potentially
forensic related techniques. Well uh Mark Schiever certainly is because he's
looking at physical characteristics of people based upon DNA. But the work done
by uh Dr. Schuster tells us that we can now look at very very fragmented DNA
and begin to tell a story about it. Well that's important because now you have
DNA from a dead body uh which has been buried for a long time and it's not in
very good shape. It's very similar to the worst case scenario we saw in the World
Trade Center work so now we can begin to sequence that DNA.And tell more
about that person. Uh I think that and then the ability to get DNA off of other
kinds of surfaces and to be able to look at smaller and smaller amounts of DNA.
Maybe we can even begin to take fragmented DNA and put it back together
again. And that way we will be able to say more things about that DNA. I think
other areas of science are also really important as well. There's a new television
show called lie to me which talks about looking at facial the way people express
themselves or physical expression of themselves. Uh you can tell things about
people. Amalgamating that kind of new philosophical or psychological aspects of
an individual with uh with current meat and potatoes forensic science might be an
interesting marriage. Uh one of the things that we're working in in my laboratory
is to be able to look at markers that define pain and suffering. So if if you have
markers that you can can say if this particular thing is expressed it will only be
expressed when somebody is aware of what is happening to them. And so
someone dies in an automobile accident. Uh was the person cognizant. Did they
suffer? Well if that if that expression is there then that person certainly had to be
aware of what was going on and they probably maybe knew they were dying or
they knew they were in pain.
P:And you'd want to know that to know whether it was a drunk driver or why
would you want to know that.
G:in court medical examiners are asked these questions. They don't have
answers for them. There's no there's no scientific hook that they can say yeah
that person suffered. But they'll say okay they had five gunshot wounds to the
chest. Uh he probably died instantly well do we know that for sure? We don't.
P:I want to end with this. What is the most fascinating exciting part of what you
do. What keeps you getting up every morning to do this?
G:Sometimes it's hard to get up in the morning. Um right now my my passion is
students. I I enjoy working with these kids and I am enjoying even more watching
them go out in to the world. Uh from a forensic science perspective from an
academic perspective my research interests are things that I am interested in
and so uh that’s what that's what keeps me going.
P:Bob Shaler thanks so much for talking with us.
G:it's my pleasure. It's nice to see you again.
P:Thanks so much.
P:yeah. Although they want to ask you okay yeah we're just going to ask you one
question for the web and we've asked everyone who’s been in that seat the same
question. If you had.
P:For our web site.
P:So if you had President Obama's ear for two minutes what would you tell him?
G: I'd tell him that forensic science needs help. I actually know President Obama
is aware of that uh but forensic science needs help. It needs dedicated uh
responsible people to take a very hard look at the way that criminal justice
system is structured with respect to forensic science and how science interacts
with the law. And some very smart people have to sit down and try to to figure
out a way to make it work the way it should work.
P:Very good thanks.
[end of interview]