It’s nearly impossible to get away from criminal forensics in anything that deals with crime these days. The fascinating field is the subject of a new non-fiction book Blood, Powder, and Residue: How Crime Labs Translate Evidence into Proof and is a central plot driver in a new movie currently in theaters and streaming on HBOMax, The Little Things.
The Little Things, directed by John Lee Hancock, centers around an investigation into a string of unsolved murders that stretch over the course of years and appear to be related. Deke, played by Denzel Washington, returns to his old precinct in Los Angeles to pick up evidence being processed by the LA crime lab. Once there, his desire to resolve the old murder investigation forces him to stay in Los Angeles. There, he teams up with Detective Baxter, played by Rami Malek, who was his replacement after leaving for a deputy position in Bakersfield. The two narrow their search down to a local appliance repair shop employee named Albert Sparma, played by Jared Leto.
The investigation devolves into a cat and mouse game that takes an unpredictable turn when they abandon the charade in order to grant each other what they both want, echoing the relationship in the 1988 Dutch classic Vanishing (Spoorloos).
The hazards of policing the darkest urges humanity can muster is on full display in The Little Things. The cracks rippling across Deke’s psyche run so deep, are so irreparable, and drain so much of his ability to see past his own obsessions that when he meets a wide-eyed and, for all intents and purposes, inexperienced Detective Baxter, all he has to offer is his brokenness. Internalizing job-related traumas by law enforcement is central to the film and how their miniscule margins for error dooms them. The potential for catastrophic error is too great and ironically even minor missteps can have devastating implications. The same holds for a policeman’s well-being. “It’s the little things,” Deke says, partly referring to evidence that makes a difference. Ultimately, we learn he’s also talking about survival, staying on the solid side of the ledge.
The first time we hear the phrase “It’s the little things” from Deke, he’s referring to the gathering and analysis of evidence. The smallest thing can make the difference between conviction and acquittal. The same distinction lies at the heart of Blood, Powder, and Residue: How Crime Labs Translate Evidence into Proof (Princeton University Press) by Beth A. Bechky. However, instead of approaching the subject from a boots-on-the-ground angle, it places the reader squarely in the forensics laboratory.
A natural tension exists in law enforcement between the subjective desire to apprehend criminals and the objective responsibility to base conclusions on strength of evidence. As science continues to advance, more of the responsibility for analyzing evidence falls on forensic scientists, more commonly referred to as criminalists. It’s a profession familiar to anyone who hasn’t been spending their time on the cooler side of a rock for the past 30 years, thanks to hugely popular police procedural television shows like CSI and Bones. (Though to be fair, Jack Klugman had everyone beat back in the early 1980s in the eponymously titled drama series, Quincy M.E.) Fair to say, the public’s mental image of a criminalist is in the form of a glamorous, swashbuckling scientist capable of extraordinary feats of sixty-minute science. Turns out, the only thing realistic about that image is the “scientist” part. According to Bechky, the truth is much more mundane, much more serious, and much more scientific.
Blood, Powder, and Residue takes pains to stress that criminalists are, first and foremost, scientists. With that identification comes the implicit acknowledgment that any analysis that arises from the lab workbench will be based on evidence alone and not extenuating factors like such as whether a strand of hair came from a prime suspect.
In their approach to analyzing evidence, criminalists hold a neutral stance toward the interpretation of their results. Criminalists identify as scientists: they believe strongly in the tenets and practices of the scientific method, and, when expressing their views on their work, they speak in terms of the norms of science. They remark on their own objectivity and neutrality as they pursue the results of their cases, making remarks such as ‘I don’t have a horse in the race.
This single approach invariably puts criminalists in positions in opposition to police and prosecution investigators. One scene in particular captures the way a criminalist’s findings are often in opposition to law enforcement officers’ demand that the evidence be interpreted in their favor.
After one DNA Analyst said in response to an attorney’s question that she was “looking for the victim’s blood,” Sarah told her “As a forensic scientist, you are not ‘looking’ for anything. You are examining for the presence or absence of blood, testing for presence or absence. Not looking, not looking under the bed, not looking for anything, ever.” A credible criminalist is not “looking,” but testing”.
This tension between criminalist and investigator emerges during the turning point in The Little Things. After going for so long without any evidence, Deke and Detective Baxter finally catch a break. They have a partial print. Eager to use this evidence to their advantage, Baxter visits the criminalist working the case and asks whether it’s enough to arrest Sparma. The criminalist replies that it is not. He informs the exasperated detective that while there are many points on the print that indicate that it belongs to Sparma, it only satisfies 75% of the necessary criteria. Therefore, his conclusion — based on the current legal criteria — is that it is inconclusive. The apparent futility of gathering evidence sends Baxter into a tailspin.
There is a deeper connection between Blood, Powder, and Residue and The Little Things. Bechky makes the keen sociological observation that criminalists are essentially captives, inextricably bound to the responsibilities of their profession. They are at the beckon call of the State’s legal apparatus. They must set aside time to testify in court. They must make themselves available to prosecutors and policemen.
Captivity also plays a central role in The Little Things. Deke, Detective Baxter and Albert Sparks are constrained by their roles and actions. Captives to each other, criminal and crime fighter, they cannot escape each other. When we first meet Deke, it is evident that he’s haunted by a past case. Years later, he and the unknown killer are intertwined just as firmly as they were before. Later, a similar bond forms between Baxter and Sparks. When they attempt to break the constraints of their connection with a gambit, their relationship descends into chaos.
In Blood, Powder, and Residue, Beth A. Bechky brings her readers into the modern crime lab and documents the practices and interactions that define the space in great detail. Her observations and analysis, presented in detached, academic fashion are illuminating. On the flipside, The Little Things ventures into similar territory through Hancock’s visceral storytelling and compelling performances by Washington, Malek, and Leto.
WORDS: Marc Landas