I just returned home from speaking at the 8th Annual Forensic Science and Law conference at Duquesne University and I had a fantastic time. It was billed as a "national symposium on the intersection of forensic science and culture" and it was unlike any conference I’ve attended before.
That’s because most of ones I’ve been to have had to do with some aspect of mystery writing or the TV business and were attended by TV writers, novelists, entertainment industry executives, aspiring writers, and mystery fans. In other words, people like me.
But this conference was primarily attended by forensic scientists, prosecutors, medical examiners, criminalists, FBI agents, and students in various fields of forensics, investigation, and criminal law. I was honored and intimidated to be in such distinguished company. I was worried that what I had to say was not only irrelevant, but that they must have invited me by mistake.
I learned so much at this conference, and it started at the airport. I shared a limo into Pittsburgh with prosecutor-turned-author Robert Tannenbaum and for an hour we had a lively discussion about national politics and some high-profile criminal cases.
I dropped off my suitcase and the hotel and rushed to a reception at the University for the conference faculty, where I stood out in the crowd…because I was the only goof in an untucked shirt and jeans. I was embarrassed about being so sloppily dressed but being from "Hollywood," I got away with my it.
I was glad to spot a familiar face in the bunch — my friend author Jan Burke was sitting in the back of the room, chatting with Dr. Katherine Ramsland, assistant professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University and Judge Donald E. Shelton, who teaches criminal justice at Eastern Michigan University. I joined their discussion and, once I got some food and Diet Coke in me, I relaxed a bit and decided to start introducing myself to strangers.
I’m glad I did. I had some fascinating conversations with James Starrs, professor of law and forensic sciences at George Washington University; forensic artist Karen Taylor, and FBI agent James Clemente, who profiles serial killers and who does some consulting for Andrew Wilder, a writer/producer on CRIMINAL MINDS (who, to my amusement and relief, showed up later wearing jeans and an untucked shirt, too).
Before the reception was over, I spoke with Mark Safarik, a former colleague of Clemente’s in the Behaviorial Analysis unit who is now a consultant to law enforcement, and I had a chance to meet the host of the conference, Dr. Cyril Wecht.
I left the reception even more concerned about what I was doing there. These people actually knew things…I just make stuff up. I worried about whether I’d be laughed off the podium…especially when I saw how large the conference hall was and the hundreds of people in attendance, including a delegation of forensic scientists from China.
I attended Robert Tannebaum’s keynote address, then went back to the hotel, where I had drinks with Dr. Doug Lyle and before going to bed early (I’d had to get up at 4 a.m L.A. time that morning to make my flight to Pittsburgh).
The next morning, I went down to hotel restaurant for breakfast and shared a table with Mark Safarik, who enthralled me with stories from his law enforcement career. But he also made me feel a lot better about my presentation that morning. Seeing how interested and amused he was in what I had to say about writing, and incorporating forensics into story, made me feel much more confident and less awkward about being there.
As it turned out, my presentation went very well. I shouldn’t have worried and, with that task behind me, I was able to just sit back and enjoy the rest of the conference. I was fortunate to be able to spend a lot more time with the folks that I’ve already mentioned (particularly Clemente, Safarik, Ramsland and Taylor), but I also to have lengthy conversations with forensic toxicologist Dr. Micheal Reiders, criminal law professor and former Deputy D.A. Tamara F. Lawson, as well as many other experts and dozens of forensic science students. Safarik, the former FBI behaviorial analyst, told me it was one of the best conferences he’d ever attended.
At the closing night dinner for the faculty, Doug Lyle and I got a chance to talk for a few minutes with Dr. Baosheng Zhang, Dean of Beijing’s China University Institute of Evidence Law and Forensic Science. For Dr. Zhang, the conference seemed to be an eye-opening experience, particularly when it came to the discussion of the impact of popular culture (the "CSI" effect) on the criminal justice system and the media’s interaction with investigators and prosecutors. Unfortunately, just as we began to talk about how things are different in China, he got called away into another discussion by a member of his delegation. Doug and I wondered if it was happenstance that we were interrupted, or if it was a polite way of avoiding discussing a touchy subject.
All in all, I was kept very busy and didn’t get any writing (or blogging) done at all. But I’m not complaining. I made a lot of friends, heard some fascinating presentations & discussions, and was asked by one of the attendees to speak at another forensic conference later this year. So I am sure that in the long run this experience will be good for my writing…if not for the book I am currently rushing to finish.