CSI expert separates fact from fiction at library talk


It is not often that an evening lecture at the West Tisbury Free Public Library begins with a warning about the graphic nature of the event. But when Mary Kate McGilvray, former acting director of the Massachusetts State Police Crime Laboratory, spoke about crime scene investigation (CSI) on June 2, she let the audience know what they were in for.

“I do want to forewarn you, there will be some bloody slides,” she said, adding that there would not be any gruesome crime scene pictures.

Ms. McGilvray’s presentation, “Reality Based Crime Writing: Forensic Science Tips for True Crime and Mystery Authors and Readers,” was part of a yearlong library focus on mystery writing.

Using a series of PowerPoint slides, Ms. McGilvray explained how certain blood splatter patterns can be used to recreate sequences of events, detect if a perpetrator was injured during a crime or whether a murder victim had been moved. Using the 1999 investigation into the murder of Mabel Greineder, for which husband Dirk Greineder was ultimately found guilty, she also explored how DNA testing on evidence can be used to solve crimes. In this case, it was a pair of blood-soaked gloves, a bloody hammer, and forensic investigation that ultimately found a mix of Mr. Greineder’s DNA and the victim’s on the murder weapon.

Ms. McGilvray found her calling while still in college, she said. An avid reader of mystery novels, she became intrigued by CSI work and joined the state police as a forensic chemist in the late 1980s, when forensic science was still in its infancy.

Over 22 years, she rose through the ranks to become the acting director of the State Police crime lab, testified in court hundreds of times and worked thousands of cases. In 2007, she retired and created a forensics consulting company, Quality Forensic and Investigative Services LLC, with her husband Tom, a former Massachusetts State Police major.

In addition to showing how DNA can be used to solve crimes, Ms. McGilvray also debunked some common myths about DNA, blood, and CSI work. Blood that has been tainted by gas, dirt, or grime can still yield DNA results, she said. She also pointed out that today’s television dramatizations of CSI work are often misleading.

Namely, it takes dozens of dedicated, hard-working people and time to solve cases. There is a lot more work involved than a quick spin in a centrifuge, she said.

“DNA is only part of the picture,” she said, “It’s a team effort, and a lot of good people do the work, and because of their efforts cases are solved.”

Ms. McGilvray detailed some real life cases that are as strange and baffling as those depicted on TV. She ended her presentation with a series of slides entitled, “And Then There are the Weird Ones.”

For example, the case of a Canadian man who allegedly drove fifteen miles and then murdered his mother-in-law — all while sound asleep. And a case she dubbed “Sewing Anyone?” in which she arrived at a crime scene to find a dead man sitting on the couch with no blood or signs of a struggle, but a neatly sewn-up stab wound in his chest. Investigators discovered that the man had been murdered by his partner, who afterwards realized he would not have wanted to be seen in that condition, cleaned the victim up in the bathtub, and sewed the wound shut.

A $7,500 readers’ advisory grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services paid for the lecture, along with other workshops and the purchase of new mystery novels. The grant, awarded to several libraries last October, comes through the state Board of Library Commissioners. Nelia Decker, youth services librarian, explained that, since mysteries are very popular in West Tisbury, the library devoted the grant money funds to creating a readers’ advisory group and setting up events that catered to the love of the genre.

“It’s been a very fun way to delve into this world of mysteries, ” Ms. Decker said, “Right now we [the advisory group] are reading medical mysteries, and that’s why we wanted Ms. McGilvray to come and share with us.”

Indeed, if anyone ever wanted to solve the mystery of how CSI scientists and investigators use DNA, fingerprints, and other techniques to crack cases and put the bad guys away, the forensic chemist gave them plenty of clues during the presentation.

Ms. McGilvray is not a devoted fan of mysteries and police dramas on TV.

“To be honest with you, I did not watch a lot of those shows because when I was working I did that everyday and didn’t want to see work at home,” she said. “Maybe I’ll watch them now.”