Expert Q&A: Michelle D. Miranda, Ph.D.

Michelle D. Miranda holds a Ph.D. in criminal justice, forensic science concentration, from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, an M.S. in forensic science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY), an M.Phil. in Criminal Justice from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and a B.S. in Biology from Manhattan College. Dr. Miranda is a diplomate with the American Board of Criminalistics and a member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. Dr. Miranda worked as a Criminalist in the Trace Evidence Section of the New York City Police Department Crime Lab, and as both a Medical Photographer and a Death Investigator for regional Medical Examiner’s Offices in New York State. She is an adjunct assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and is currently employed as an associate professor in the Department of Security Systems and Law Enforcement Technology at Farmingdale State College of the State University of New York.

To read an excerpt from her new book, Forensic Analysis of Tattoos and Tattoo Inks, go to this issue’s Digital Edition.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: What led you to cover the topic of tattoos?

MICHELLE D. MIRANDA: During the course of my graduate studies, I was working part time as a death investigator and consulting on casework. Within the same year, there were two criminal cases that led to my interest in tattoos and tattoo inks and their role in forensic investigations. The death investigation case was concerned with the identification of charred human remains in which traditional identification methods (e.g. facial features and fingerprints) were unsuitable due to the state of the remains. A body was found burning in a park, and the criminal investigation and preliminary means of identification were based on a tattoo found on the victim during the autopsy.
The other investigation was a criminal case in which evaluation of the evidence presented questions as to whether or not a tattoo machine stained with tattoo ink had been used to make a hole in a garment. Based on examination of the evidence microscopically and spectroscopically, ink found at the periphery of a hole in a garment was hypothesized to be tattoo ink. Unfortunately, subsequent review of the literature demonstrated that there was a lack of scholarly information available concerning the chemical composition of tattoo inks. It became clear to me that it was essential to build a body of literature that dealt with tattoos and tattoo inks and the role they play in law enforcement and criminal investigations. This included not only evaluating the chemical compositions of different tattoo inks but also evaluating the role of the tattoo itself in identification.

Photo by Kristi Mayo

ETM: In what ways can investigators utilize tattoos to help solve crimes?

MIRANDA: Tattoos can be used as a means of identification, whether the tattoo is on a living or a deceased person. It is not uncommon for investigators to take a photograph of a tattoo on a body and display or distribute that photo in an effort to identify the wearer. Due to technology and social media, these images are able to reach a wide audience and aid in identification of human remains, or at a minimum provide investigatory leads that can be the basis for solving a case. Tattoos on living individuals can also prove useful, as tattoos may serve as an integral part of eyewitness reports or may be recorded by photography or videography during the commission of a crime. With regard to the chemical composition of tattoo inks, chemical information can aid in determining the age, quality, or prevalence of the ink.

ETM: How can tattoos be used for identification of individuals?

MIRANDA: Tattoos can aid in identification based on the design, color, size, and location on the body. More importantly, due to the uniqueness of individual designs as well as the locations of the tattoos relative to one another, tattoos can also be used to individualize.

ETM: How can the chemical analysis of tattoo inks be used in investigations?

MIRANDA: In some cases, it has been found that the perpetrator has attempted to excise, obscure, or otherwise damage the victim’s tattoo in an effort to impede the identification process. In such instances, it is possible to examine the damaged area in order to evaluate the types of pigments that make up the tattoo. While the design may be damaged or obscured, the color profile of the tattooed region can provide investigatory information that can lead to identification. By understanding and documenting the chemical compositions of tattoo inks and how they vary according to color, brand, and country of manufacture, and creating databases accordingly, investigators can be proactive in cases where tattoo inks are encountered as physical evidence and utilize this information to locate the source of the ink, the location in which the tattoo was obtained, or potential artists.

ETM: Do you know of any examples where the chemical analysis of tattoo inks was used in a criminal case?

MIRANDA: In a case in New York City, a man claimed to have been assaulted by a police officer, asserting that the officer used his retractable baton to perforate the man’s underwear and penetrate his rectum. Microscopic examination of the damaged fibers at the periphery of the hole in the man’s underwear disclosed the presence of dark staining. Subsequent isolation and spectroscopic analysis of the stained regions established the presence of organic compounds that are found in tattoo ink.

ETM: Do you foresee the establishment of a national tattoo ink database? Local databases? (Or are there already some databases in use?)

MIRANDA: In addition to the databases generated during my graduate research, I believe there may be some individuals at different institutions pursuing the development of tattoo ink databases as part of their graduate studies. I suspect that any databases that are developed would be confined to an academic institution or found on a local level, meaning that forensic labs will develop their own databases as they see a need for them. Unfortunately, these types of undertakings by forensic laboratories tend to be reactive rather than proactive. Furthermore, most forensic labs do not have the manpower or interest in conducting such research, so often times these projects are left to interns or individuals with temporary assignments. As such, the potential lack of oversight and high turnover rates leave much to be desired regarding the ultimate quality of such databases. While I don’t foresee a national database pertaining to the chemical compositions of tattoo inks, there are federal agencies working on developing tattoo databases based upon biometrics and the identification of tattoo designs. These databases are intended to identify tattoos on individuals that are indicative of gang affiliation, terrorist groups, or criminal organizations.

ETM: What should law enforcement professionals know about the roles of tattoos and tattoo inks in their investigations?

MIRANDA: From an initial examination on the tattoo, whether on a living or deceased individual, investigators should learn to recognize types, styles, and patterns of tattoos that may lend themselves to describing the wearer’s affiliations or associations. In addition, investigators should have some idea of local tattoo artists and their styles in cases where they’re trying to link a certain tattoo to an artist in an effort to try and identify the wearer. Investigators should also understand what forensic experts and crime labs are capable of doing to resolve and evaluate tattoos and tattoo inks, including the use of photographic techniques and alternate light sources as well as microscopy and spectroscopy. Understanding the evolution of tattoo inks as well as the persistence of tattoo inks and designs is also important and should be considered by the investigator.

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Court Case Update

FINGERPRINT EVIDENCE went through a nearly three-year ordeal in the New Hampshire court system, but eventually emerged unscathed. On April 4, 2008, the New Hampshire Supreme Court unanimously reversed the decision of a lower court to exclude expert testimony regarding fingerprint evidence in the case of The State of New Hampshire v. Richard Langill. The case has been remanded back to the Rockingham County Superior Court.