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At an advanced forensic medicine and science conference here last week, even the real-life Kay Scarpetta learned a few new tricks of the trade. 

Photographic Evidence

Let's see what we've got here.

Hmm.

Proving the Poisoning Crime.

Sounds neat.

Applications of Mitochondrial DNA.

Timely, certainly.

The Pathology of Terrorism.

Could be interesting, yes.

But, wait: hold on.

What's this?

Photography of Bodies at the Scene.

Let's go.

Where? To the conference at the Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine - the new, first-in-the-nation center for advanced death and crime investigation studies. It's right here in Richmond, at Fifth and Jackson streets.

Photography of Bodies at the Scene: there are three of them.

A baby, face down on a blanket, amid signs of squalor.

An elderly man, apparently a victim of caretaker abuse.

And there is a younger man, who might have committed suicide.

Three bodies, three potential crime scenes. Not real bodies, of course, but lifelike-enough mannequins, dressed and made-up and set in appropriate attitudes of death in offices at the institute. Set amid scenes that suggest causes of death, but which still leave enough questions unanswered as to keep investigators on their toes.

"It's something they might encounter in the real world. It's ambiguous," says Libby Kinnison, a Tidewater medical examiner and Virginia Institute instructor.

Did the baby, for example, suffer sudden infant death syndrome, or was she suffocated by a desperate mother? Did the elderly man fall, or was he beaten? Did the distraught young man kill himself, or was his suicide staged?

How they died is what on-the-scene photographs can help show. Taking good ones is what the dozen participants in this segment of the institute's conference last week signed up to learn.

Friendly competition within the class to get the best shots and the quietly disturbing, subtly complex scenes themselves make this more than a simple point-and-shoot exercise.

"Sometimes they get overwhelmed by the sense of disarray," says Tom Goyne, technical training coordinator at the institute. "But we don't try to sabotage or do anything to make the scenes any more difficult or tricky."

All in all, it's one creepy photography class. When Goyne and Kinnison talk about lighting, angles and composition, they could be teaching a night course at any community college. But when they address capturing on film the body's relation to the overall crime scene, or the importance of photographing tell-tale objects nearby (items that could be evidence of suicide, homicide or accident), the objective - determining cause of death, often criminal death - snaps back into focus.

Preparing the next generation of crime and death investigators - and helping them master new technology and techniques - is the institute's job.

James Kouten, the institute's executive director, says the first-year class' 14 full-time fellows have backgrounds in pathology, toxicology, drug and DNA studies. While furthering their expertise, the institute has also conducted two basic-level conferences for visiting students and a special child-death investigation course, in addition to the advanced-level conference last week.

"Most of the other states are eyeing [institutes of their own]," says Virginia Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Marcella Fierro. For now, the Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine remains one-of-a-kind. It was formed in 1999 with $1.5 million, since matched by the state, from novelist Patricia Cornwell.

Fierro, model for the heroine of Patricia Cornwell's novels, sat chewing gum and nodding in agreement through much of the death-scene photography course at the institute last week.

Reviewing students' death-scene pictures on the projection screen, Goyne and Kinnison gave mostly favorable remarks. And a few pointers: "Don't use your view-finder like your sighting on a rifle scope," Goyne says of a shot that put the deceased's face in the middle of the shot, getting little of the rest of the body in the photo. "Move the head more to the edge so we can see more of what's going on with the body."

The class, a group of about a dozen local, state and federal law-enforcement types, nods. Then Goyne and Kinnison click to the next shot, which has a dark blur at the bottom of the frame.

"Is that my shoe?" a student asks.

"No, it's mine," another replies, sparking good-natured laughter.

In another shot, another boo-boo: a scale card, used to provide objective size, has been set in a pool of the deceased's "blood," then photographed from so far away as to be unhelpful.

But aiding coroners and swaying juries aren't the only important ends of crime-scene photography. There are distraught relatives to be dealt with; and, particularly in cases of suicide, "photographs are really big sometimes in convincing the family that this really is a suicide vs. a homicide," Kinnison says.

While disturbing the crime scene is a classic no-no, there are exceptions. Because the body eventually will be moved anyway, after the rest of the photography and on-scene work is done, go ahead and lift the baby's arm to see whether or not her nose and mouth are covered by the blanket. Go ahead and move the elderly man's head, or the young man's body, to get shots of blood splatter patterns and such beneath. "Less manipulation is better," Goyne tells the class. "But … you have to weigh: Is this evidence going to be destroyed?"

Fierro nods. When the slide showing the baby's nose and mouth against the blanket comes up, she says: "That is a picture I have to get. If I have to climb over furniture, under furniture, I have to get it because it will help me determine cause of death."

You mean, even world-famous Kay Scarpetta still takes her own snaps?

"I haven't been to a scene in a couple of months," Fierro says. "But when I go, I take my camera,
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