Thursday, November 3, 2011

Crime Writers and Research: Learning About Touch DNA by Patricia Stoltey

Real-life events can trigger story ideas for mystery/suspense/thriller authors, and the resources we need to develop those story ideas are literally at our fingertips.

When I first heard about Touch DNA, a powerful tool now being used frequently to solve cold cases or exonerate convicted but innocent prisoners, I imagined a woman wrongly accused and convicted of killing her child and later freed from prison by this newest version of DNA testing. I didn’t have to go far to find cases in my own state where Touch DNA had exonerated suspected or convicted persons or at least expanded the field of suspects. I began by looking up the short definition of Touch DNA.
  •  “Touch DNA is a forensic method for analyzing DNA left at the scene of a crime. It is called "touch DNA" because it only requires swabbing an area (e.g., clothing) for human remains and only requires seven or eight cells from the outermost layer of human skin.”

One such well-known case was the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey, a child found dead in her own family’s home. Different members of the family were suspected of playing a part in the child’s death, but in 2008 the Bode Technology Group in Lorton, Virginia, used Touch DNA to show a number of other potential suspects existed.

Scientific American, August, 2008: “What is Touch DNA?”

A second case is that of Timothy Masters, only a teen when Peggy Hettrick’s body was found not far from where Masters lived with his father. Arrested and sent to prison more than a decade after the murder, Masters served ten years before two Dutch forensics experts, Selma and Richard Eikelenboom of Independent Forensic Services, identified another suspect through touch DNA and aided in freeing Masters.

So this germ of a story idea I have is not unreasonable. The follow-up research to develop that idea into a plot might include interviews with crime victims, bystander or expert witnesses, law officers, or family members of the victim or the accused. Internet research for more online newspapers articles, blog posts from crime experts, and scholarly papers on the crime or detection technique might be helpful as well.

Now that I know a little more about Touch DNA (and we all know a little knowledge is a dangerous thing), I have the basic information I need to question the real experts. Maybe I’ll start with right here with Joe.

Thanks for inviting me to guest post at The Cold Case Squad, Joe. You gave me the opportunity to do a little homework before I start my next book.

 Bio: Patricia Stoltey is the author of two mysteries published by Five Star and Harlequin Worldwide Mystery: The Prairie Grass Murders (now available for Kindle and Nook) and The Desert Hedge Murders. Her standalone suspense novel manuscript, Dead Wrong, is currently searching for an agent. A retired accounting manager, Patricia now lives in Colorado with her husband and one-year-old Katie Kitten. She blogs at where she regularly features guest authors.


  1. Taking the science of writing to a new level. One of the benefits of investing time in writing..researching, learning, expanding our own circle of knowledge, which only expands our writing.

  2. One of the things that makes real crime writers' work so compelling, Dean, is the research that goes into their stories. I'm a big fan of thriller authors such as South Africa's Dyon Meyer because their knowledge of setting and technology is so well researched.

  3. Pat - Thanks so much for sharing this! I must read more about Touch DNA, because it's fascinating. And to me, the more writers know about these kinds of advances, the more realistic writing is.

  4. Thanks for dropping by, Margot. It is a fascinating topic for writers, especially when looking at real life cold cases that might never have been solved any other way.

    The difficult part is that the pool of suspects in any case grows larger when even the tiniest sample of DNA is considered a lead. While in some cases, innocent people are freed from prison, other cases may allow guilty people to go free.

  5. Fascinating stuff here Pat. Nice job on the research. Real life is full of great ideas for fiction (and nonfiction).

  6. Wow, I am intrigued...I had no idea what touch DNA was until read this. To be completely honest, I didn't know it existed. I am in awe at the sheer number of convictions that have been overturned since DNA technology became admissible. Thanks for a very informative post. Pat, and for giver her the opportunity to post here, Joe.

  7. Thanks, Kerrie. Just these two Colorado cases alone show how much attention investigators need to pay to DNA when searching for suspects or clearing those who are innocent. It's a big responsibility.

    Hi Teresa -- I originally happened on the term while I was researching something else. I guess it pays to spend that little extra time reading related articles.

  8. The Crime Writers and Research is the best department for crime finishing. It is always working very hard and danger work than done cases.