Over the span of her decades-long career in forensic science and law enforcement, Alina Burroughs has investigated some of the country’s most shocking crimes having served as a C.S.I. for the Orange County (FL) Sheriff’s Office on the investigation into the tragic 2008 death of toddler Caylee Anthony and worked as part of an emergency community response to identify the victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub tragedy. Crime Scene Confidential follows Alina as she utilizes her scientific expertise to revisit some of America’s most shocking and controversial cases.
The first episode of the season features Burroughs revisiting the tragic Caylee Anthony case in which the bulk of the suspicion fell on her mother, Casey. She walks viewers through all of the forensic evidence that led to Anthony’s arrest. Besides providing an insider’s POV to the investigation, Burroughs also reflects on her own time working the scene where Caylee’s remains were found and her testimony on the stand.
Crime Scene Confidential airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on ID and streams the same day on discovery+.
Alina Burroughs graciously set aside some time to discuss her new show and the Caylee Anthony episode with SCINQ.
Tell me about Crime Scene Confidential. What can viewers expect?
This show is entirely different. It is a new way of getting crime information that we have not seen before. We are literally following the evidence through the perspective of a crime scene investigator and that has never been done before. We’ve traditionally received Crime Information from police or from the investigator perspective, but this is really the first time that we’re seeing it from the real crime scene investigator, not CSI Miami stuff. It’s exciting. It feels very different, very new, and I’m really excited to bring that to viewers. I think everybody is going to be very excited to see this, Michelle.
It really was compelling. It definitely provides a new perspective.
You’re going to love this season. It gets better as it goes on. There are shocking cases. There are shocking deaths. There are shocking injustices and betrayals. I review somewhere around 2000 pages of documentation for every case for these episodes. I’m sitting at my desk, thinking to myself, every time I review these case files, I know that if I am reacting to their contents, our viewers are just going to be like, “This is insane.”
How long have you been a crime scene investigator? What kind of training does it involve?
I started as an investigator in 2013 and I retired in 2015, so 12 years. I have a Master of Science in criminal justice. It was really mostly necessary to get my foot in the door because of the popularization of crime scene investigation shows, especially back in 2003. That was kind of at the peak of all of these CSI TV shows. I have a shirt that says “I was CSI before CSI was cool.”
When those crime scene TV shows hit, everybody said, “Oh my God, I want to be a CSI” but they really didn’t have much of an understanding of what it took. All of a sudden, agencies started having to increase the educational requirements to weed out people that were just sitting on their couch watching TV and then said, “You know what, I’m going to go apply to be a CSI.” Agencies were all of a sudden going from getting no applicants to getting 300 applicants. It became necessary for them to increase their job requirements. So the master’s degree in criminal justice was really almost what I had to do just to get my foot in the door.
A lot of the training for crime scene investigators consists of on the job type of training. Depending on the agency where you work, there’s a lot of specialized training in things like blood spatter analysis or bullet trajectory, recovery of buried bodies and surface skeletal documentation. There is post-blast analysis which is anything after an explosion has taken place. There’s recognition of illicit drugs. There’s electronic evidence collection, there are firearms there. I mean, I could probably go through a list of different types or specific types of training that crime scene investigators would go through. It depends on what the individual investigator finds they are personally drawn to.
I was on the forensic response team for weapons of mass destruction. I was trained for chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive incidents kind of in a post-9/11 incident world. I had training in National Strategy for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives (CBRNE). I went to just different types of training so I was trained to work crime scenes in your full gear like full Tyvek suits, duct tape, SCBA tanks. I worked with live agents. Everybody picks their niche and then specializes in that area.
So what are the primary responsibilities of crime scene investigators?
In a nutshell, nothing about crime scenes is cookie cutter. It’s not like you can say that at any one crime scene you have to do A, B and C because every crime scene is completely different. A crime scene investigator’s job is to identify, recover and collect, and document a crime scene and collect evidence that relates three things: the victim, the suspect, and the crime scene. That’s called the crime triangle. Those are always the three things that a crime scene investigator is trying to link together. We need to try to put our victim and our suspect together at the crime scene, crime scene triangle.
You touched on how popular sort of like CSI shows are. But those are fictionalized, right? They’re swashbuckling and spectacular. What is a day in the life of a real crime scene investigator like?
Those shows mostly are based in reality, but they combine a lot of different people’s jobs into one because nobody wants to watch CSI and then just sit and watch somebody do paperwork for six hours. That doesn’t make for exciting TV. What they do and like the CSI dramatizations is they take a fingerprint analyst, a firearms analyst, a private investigator, a detective and then a medical examiner, and they smash them all up into one role and that’s what they call it like a CSI. Then they give them a low cut shirt, high heels and a gun.
You can plan your day as an investigator and then with one phone call it’s out the window. That was the great thing and the terrible thing about being a crime scene investigator.
A lot of the day to day is paperwork. There is a lot of paperwork like filling out property forms. For every piece of evidence you collect, you have to record what that evidence was where it was collected. You have to assign numbers so that you can track it.
There are labels you have to fill out because every piece of evidence that you collect has to be packaged and labeled in some way. You have to transport evidence to and from different labs for processing and for storage facilities.
You have to process the evidence once you’ve collected it. Investigators are typically responsible for processing the evidence themselves. That could be swabbing for DNA. It could be processing fingerprints, with fingerprint powder, fluorescent powder, dye stains,or any number of techniques the investigators are familiar with.
It could also be writing reports. It’s critical because if you don’t write it down, it did not happen. Writing detailed reports of all of your observations; your involvement; what you collected; where, when, and what you’ve done with it; how it’s been packaged; where it’s been brought; creating diagrams; doing some sort of analysis if it was necessary.
If you had bullet holes, it’s taking measurements, documentation of the angles, so analyzing the data that you’ve collected. There’s a potential to create documentation for courts of diagrams that would be used in court.
You also need to back up data, if you’ve taken photographs. If they’re on SD cards, you have to transfer those to some sort of system to share them or burn DVDs.
That’s a lot of the boring side of a crime scene investigator. That’s what you don’t really see when you watch CSI Miami.
Is there an art to writing a good crime scene report?
Crime scene investigating is an art and a science. It’s a good balance of both of those. The art entails giving the right amount of detail. If you give too much detail, I feel that it opens you up for questioning in court. You have to stick to the actual facts of the case. What you’ve done with the evidence and where it’s gone, it takes time to get there.
If you have things that you can spontaneously remember in court, it doesn’t matter if you haven’t written it down. It doesn’t exist. You have to learn that if you don’t document properly, it’s really not going to do you any good. It has to be written down.
Now, is there any criteria for sort of like cases that get passed to you? Or does everything get the full CSI treatment?
Criteria for cases that go to a crime scene investigator will differ depending on the actual agency and what the policy is at that particular agency. At the agency that I worked for, the general criteria would be something along the lines of “beyond the capability of a deputy.”
Most police officers or deputies have a digital camera. They can do minor types of cases. They might even have the capabilities to swab a little bit of blood on a property crime where we don’t have a physical bleeding human victim if it’s just a bit of blood at a burglary scene.
If it goes beyond those capabilities, if we’re looking at something like bullet holes where trajectory needs to be performed, if we’re looking at shoe tracks that need to be cast with dental stone or something of that nature, if it’s beyond that capability of a deputy then they would call crime scene investigator.
Where are discoveries generally made? Is it at the scene? In the lab? When you are focused on something else like going for a walk. When do they generally happen?
You can make discoveries about your case at any point in time. So yes, some of the some discoveries are made on scene when you make this immediate connection. Some of them are made later when new information comes out. And some of them are made in that quiet, calm moment when the chaos goes away and you make that connection.
I have literally worked crime scenes in my sleep. I’ve gone to sleep and awakened in the middle of the night and went “I needed to do this.” My brain is still working on a case even when I’m trying to sleep.
I always told my trainees that the best thing that you can do as an investigator is spend time in the space. Oftentimes crime scenes are quite chaotic in the beginning. There are flashing lights and all kinds of deputies that respond to the scene. Over time, things come under control and people start to filter away. After hours, it’s just one one police officer that’s there protecting you and it’s quiet and it’s calm. Stay in the scene because it is in staying in the scene that you will begin to make the smallest observations. Don’t go and sit in your car and take notes. Don’t leave the scene to go. Be comfortable. Stay because all the little things that you’re going to pick up just by standing there and being physically present are going to be very impactful. Just by literally looking around.
For example, the tiniest bit of drywall dust can come to rest on top of something and that is going to lead you to say there’s a bullet hole somewhere because something has penetrated the drywall that has left this tiny bit of dust. That’s going to help me find a bullet. Just by being physically in the space and being observant is going to help you make that connection.
Sometimes things come together when you’re physically in that space. You have to be there because you only get that one opportunity to be in the space once you leave the scene. Typically, you can’t come back. When you leave the scene, it’s forever changed. It’s forever altered and you don’t get a chance to come back and make second observations.
A lot of times with investigations you don’t have all the information right away. Being a crime scene investigator has a lot of pressure because you’re expected to do your job at a moment when you have the least amount of information and the most amount of pressure. People oftentimes are afraid to talk to the police. Depending on the neighborhoods, it’s not going to be the best thing if they’re caught talking to the police. So nobody wants to say anything. Nobody has any information in the weeks and months and sometimes years later, maybe somebody is arrested, and they now feel comfortable coming forward, revealing more of a story that new information comes about so it can literally be that moment. Or it could be years later. That new information comes about from a new route. New revelations are made. DNA information isn’t available right away on the scene so you can spot something but you’re not going to know if you have it right away.
The nature of his job exposes you to all sorts of things that can elicit emotions. Are there any checks and balances in place to deal with making judgments made from emotions?
When it comes to crime scenes, the thing that I love about science and evidence is that it simply is right. We find a print; it is or it isn’t right. It is on that object. I simply locate it. That DNA is there. I can’t manufacture it. I’m just there to find it. I’m there to find the evidence.
The only way that we can fail as investigators is in the interpretation of the evidence, right? The evidence itself is just there. It speaks for itself. In a crime scene, bias is really not a problem. I’m here to find a bullet or a casing. The analyst says the casing either came from the gun or it didn’t, the bullet either matches or it doesn’t, a print either matches or it doesn’t, the DNA either matches or doesn’t. There is no bias that can sneak into it.
Confirmation bias is something that can be of concern when it comes to the investigation as a whole. We see it in investigations. We see it when we’re talking about cases of crime scene confidential. A detective or investigator gets an idea about the facts and they start to think that they are right. They will then ignore evidence that doesn’t support their theory. They only look at evidence that supports their theory. That’s a dangerous type of bias that can happen.
Basically they go okay, this is my guy and I’m just gonna kind of ignore the other evidence that says somebody else’s the guy that can be an issue when it comes to investigation on the whole.
What happens when you get half of a full fingerprint or three quarters? How much of a print constitutes a print?
You don’t need an entire fingerprint to make an identification. Very rarely do we get full fingerprints. People aren’t rolling their fingerprints on the surface of something. Also, a lot of the evidence that we deal with has a very small surface area, so it wouldn’t even be conducive to holding an entire fingerprint. If you look at something like a cartridge casing or something that’s very small. We do not need full fingerprints to make identifications.
And when it comes to fingerprints, it’s kind of a matter of how unique they are and in what arrangement. These are for us to be able to say that this indeed matches this one. For fingerprint examiners that is their entire life, whether or not they would make that match to that person or not. A fingerprint examiner sits in an office where they literally have a print and they don’t know to whom it belongs. They don’t know if it’s a suspect or victim or anything half the time. They have a fingerprint and they mark all the points of minutiae on that fingerprint or the unique identifiers in that fingerprint. They run through a AFIS, which is the Automated Fingerprint Identification System. This narrows it down and says there’s really 30 prints that kind of have some similar characteristics to those that you just indicated. And then they bring up those other ones and they go originally, they say that’s a match that isn’t a match, and then they go okay, well, this will look similar. They’re not even looking at names. They’re looking at patterns.
Caylee Anthony case is pretty well known. We don’t have to sort of go through everything. How much did the final verdict align with what the science?
In every case, there’s always a double edged sword. We walk the line where we want to use the latest, greatest science that’s out there. Forensic Science is one of the most rapidly evolving fields outside of medicine. We want to stay on the cutting edge and use the latest and greatest. We also want to make sure that these are passing Frye standards for evidence in court and that they are solid scientific practices that are valid and reliable. Oftentimes when you’re using the latest and greatest, it means that it hasn’t been utilized and accepted in court yet because it’s brand new.
In the Anthony Case, we were trying to use some new science that was cutting edge air samplings that hadn’t been 100% rigorously tested in court. There were a lot of questions as to whether or not that can be used or accepted. When you use new science, there’s going to be protests as to whether or not it’s valid. We’re always going to be doing that if you’re pushing the edge of the envelope with science.
I always point to the fact that at one point in time we measured people’s facial features as a system of identification, until two twins showed up and had the exact same measurements and then we went, hey, well maybe that’s probably not the best system of identification. Then we eventually adopted fingerprints followed by ABO blood typing. Eventually, we moved into modern day DNA typing. Science is going to constantly evolve; we have to push the envelope. That’s just part of the process.
As far as the science in the Anthony case, one example is where we look at the science of post-mortem root banding or death banding on hair that was found in the car. That’s scientific evidence that supports the fact that the hair came from a body that shed that hair through the decomposition process. Scientifically that would tell us that there was a dead person in the trunk of the vehicle.
Through science we also know that that hair sample was tested for mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited through the maternal line, so that’s passed to mothers so every female along the line, Kaylee, Casey, Cindy would all share the same mitochondrial DNA. That was mitochondrially matched to Cindy and Casey. Cindy and Kasey are alive; Kaylee is not. So if we noticed this post mortem root banding and we have a deceased child, we typically will be logically led to the conclusion that that hair belongs to Kaylee and that Kaylee would have been in the trunk of that car. Science is leading us to that logical conclusion.
What we hope is that science is going to guide jurors to a logical conclusion in that capacity. But what science could not do, in this case, was prove that a physical person caused the death. At some point, people are going to have to interpret science to make their own conclusions.
We can use science. We can say science says this is the child, science says the child was in the car. You know we have all of these facts of the case but science cannot take people we can only lead you so far. At some point you’re going to have to make a conclusion on your own using all of the scientific facts. The jury system is what it is and we have to rely upon people to make the best decision they can with the information that they have.
Another factor is that not all of the evidence that’s collected is allowed to be shown in court. You know, it’s a frustrating fact of being an investigator. In the Anthony case, we fought to get the trunk liner or the odor of decomposition allowed in court. That was not admissible so the jurors were never allowed to visit the car or to smell that liner themselves because there was an argument as to whether or not they would be able to make that determination as to whether or not it smelled like decomposition.That was just not something that they were allowed to do in court.
How strong was the evidence that was presented in court?
When you look at the totality of evidence, and It’s not just a matter of what we have, it’s also a matter of what we do not have. You have to look at both.
So what do we have in this case? We have duct tape, we have a trash bag, we have a canvas tote. We have linked back to the Anthony residence. We have the child that is clothed and diapered in clothing and diapers that have been linked back to Anthony residents.
We have the blanket that is also the same decor as her room at the Anthony residence. We have a car with a hair with the post-mortem root banding that is owned by a member of the Anthony family.
We had all of these things together. What do we not have? When we look at all of this? When we look at all the evidence that we have, we do not have any evidence of third party involvement. Do we see any evidence of a break in the house? Did we see any evidence of other third party DNA? Did we find any evidence of third party fingerprints throughout the entire investigation? Did you hear another name? We see Gonzalez as a suspect, but it’s brought up but has been disproven. Do we see any other random individual’s fingerprints or DNA or being related to this case in any way, shape or form? We do not. So we have to look not only at what we have, we have to look at what we do not. And I think that is strong.
IMAGE CREDIT: ID.