by | Mar 26, 2021 | Lisa Black, The Writer's Life | 6 comments

by Lisa Black

One afternoon last month I held the hands of a man who had, one night over thirty years ago, raped and murdered both a grown woman and an eleven year old girl. I held them in neither anger nor comfort but as part of my job as a forensic specialist—I was in the courtroom to collect what we call ‘major case prints’, inked impressions of not only his fingers but also his palms, sides of the palm, tips of the fingers and the finger joints between palm and tip. I used two cotton swabs to rub the inside of his mouth for a fresh DNA sample as well, though his DNA had already been linked to the scene. That was how he came to be arrested after so many years.

David Berkowitz

He cooperated fully with the tedious process and did not argue with any part of this procedure—there would hardly be a point, surrounded as he was by three deputies, and since the judge had granted the motion for this collection in the presence of his own attorneys. Incidentally, this is routine part of my job. I’ve swabbed the mouth of a child molester. I’ve plucked hairs from the head of a fifteen year old who stabbed his best friend one-hundred and seventy-five times. I’ve collected blood from the hands of a guy covered in it, and none of it belonged to him.

They’re always quite cooperative. And in this case, after I asked the bailiff, in vain, if the cuffs could be removed as they made printing awkward, I probably became this guy’s best friend…at least for a few minutes. I could almost feel sorry for him.

Until I remembered what he did.

Aileen Wuornos

I observed him closely with, I admit, the idea of writing this blog, because it had occurred to me that not many of us come that near to a person guilty (okay, allegedly guilty) of such a brutal crime. At least not that we know of.

At moments his hands shook as I rolled the inked skin against the papers. Fear? (The DNA is bad enough, but a fingerprint match would cement his coffin.) Rage? Simple infirmity?

He had not-great skin and small eyes with thinning hair, none of which is surprising for his age, and of course life in prison doesn’t lend itself to perfect hygiene or snappy dressing. But did I see a sneaky malevolence? A cruel twist to the lips? Evil oozing from every pore?


Ed Kemper

He appeared as ordinary as ordinary can be. If you passed him in a hallway you wouldn’t look at him twice. But isn’t that what they always say? John Wayne Gacy became enough of a local mover and shaker to have his picture taken with First Lady Rosalynn Carter. Friends remember the Green River killer as ‘nice’ and ‘average,’ a man who had no trouble winning the hearts of three wives. Ed Kemper seemed such a pal of the police department that they couldn’t believe he had murdered ten people even when he told them so. Ann Rule described coworker Ted Bundy as ‘kind’ and ‘empathetic.’

These were serial killers, a rarity, whereas the vast majority of murderers don’t know they are killers until they kill. We can be forgiven for failing to peg them from the start when they couldn’t have known as much themselves. But serial killers, of course, know exactly what they are and train themselves to keep up the mask of ordinariness. This may not be as difficult as it sounds because they are ordinary…in every way but one.

Ted Bundy

As much as we authors like to imbue our villains with mesmerizing stares and vibes that chill our bones and that sneaking feeling of dread at the sight of their figure in the doorway, it’s just not reality. There is no ‘look in the eyes’ to provide a handy guide to the soul. Most killers don’t give out the smallest clue, the slightest hint of a disaster in the making—until it’s too late.

And that’s the scariest part of all.

Have you had a frightening insight into someone? Did it turn out to be true?  

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Karna Small Bodman

    What a chilling reminder of the usual “ordinary” appearance of these types of killers. Your forensic experience is incredible — it gives you such great insight to pen your terrific novels. As to having “frightening insight into someone” – I remember when I was a TV reporter back in California many years ago, I was sent to interview a young female member of the Manson gang who was in prison for that group’s killing spree. She was a small, blond, attractive girl – whom no one would have ever “seen” as a potential problem. But when I sat down and questioned her — with a deputy looking on — she turned the tables and questioned me by asking if I had children. I said yes, two sons – and she said “And wouldn’t you kill to protect them?” I could see no connection since I had no clue who she thought she was “protecting” when she committed murder — but that, for me, was a chilling moment. Thanks, Lisa for a great blog.

  2. Gayle Lynds

    Wow, Lisa, what a remarkable blog. I loved this: “There is no ‘look in the eyes’ to provide a handy guide to the soul. Most killers don’t give out the smallest clue, the slightest hint of a disaster in the making—until it’s too late.” The whole thing gave me chills, and then your final sentence was a real capper. No wonder your novels are so engrossing! And btw, you were super gorgeous moderating Rogue Reads this week!

  3. Lisa Black

    Thank you so much, Gayle! You’re too kind.

    Karna, I can’t believe you met a member of the Manson gang!!! Oh. My. Gosh. Just last year my husband and I were watching a documentary and they interviewed a number of people as sort of a ‘where are they now’ and this one woman had not been involved in the murders and never arrested, but–whew! Just as loony tunes today as she was then!

  4. Jenny Milchman

    The monster within indeed. Thanks for offering this look, and this insight, Lisa. Would that it were possible to tell.

  5. Carla Neggers

    I’ve got goosebumps, Lisa. My grandkids just picked out DNA and fingerprint science kits. They can’t wait to get them!

  6. Cap'n Bob Napier

    Some years back I was at the courthouse for jury duty, waiting in the hall for the room to open. In another courtroom I saw a defendant sitting at a table looking rather bored. It was the Green River Killer.