Under the Microscope – Paul Berry

The ISHI agenda is live  and includes great talks from amazing speakers! While the forensic community is a tight-knit group, we can always get a little closer, right? With that in mind, we interviewed our speakers to preview their presentations and to get to know them a little better outside of their work. We’ve been posting their responses in a feature we like to call Under the Microscope.




Today, we’re chatting with Paul Berry, who will be presenting Sean Vincent Gillis, “Token” Serial Killer during the General Sessions on Wednesday, October 4th.


When and how did it become clear that this was the work of multiple serial killers?

Derrick Todd Lee had been arrested for the rape and murder of numerous women in the Baton Rouge area.  While in prison, additional women were being raped and gruesomely murdered.  Based on the similar nature of the crimes and the post-mortem cutting and dismemberment, law enforcement personnel determined the murders were being performed by a different serial killer than Lee.


What role did DNA play in solving the crimes?

A hair with a root was found in the mouth of one of the murdered victims.  A male DNA profile was obtained from the root, but the DNA profile did not produce a match in CODIS.  Later a victim was found who had her hands severed from her body.  A subsequent hair was found on the stump of the arm where the hand had been removed.  The mitochondrial DNA from the second hair matched the mitochondrial DNA from the first hair discovered.  Lastly the fingernail scrapings of a third victim produced the same male DNA profile as the hair from the mouth of the first victim.  The same DNA profiles were able to link the victims to the same person.


Can you set the scene of what was occurring in Baton Rouge at the time of the murders? When did this occur?

Derrick Todd Lee had the residents of the Baton Rouge area on edge.  The women he abducted, raped, and murdered were not “women of the night,” but rather college students, house wives, nurses, middle-upper class women with advanced degrees, etc…   With the arrest of Derrick Todd Lee, the residents of Baton Rouge were able to feel the relief of knowing a serial killer was in prison.  The subsequent killings from Sean Gillis were not as widely publicized as Derrick Todd Lee’s murders because the victims of Gillis were generally prostitutes or potentially homeless women.  By the time the public became fully aware of the serial nature of the killings the police were able to locate and arrest Gillis.



What do you feel is the biggest challenge that forensics laboratories are facing today?

I would say OUR biggest challenge is keeping up with the sexual assaults and homicides submitted while not neglecting all the OTHER crimes/evidence submitted.  Even being a pretty efficient lab, the struggle is an arduous one.  Couple that with interpreting mixtures with 27 loci…? It’s painful.


What do you think are likely to be the most exciting developments for the industry over the next couple of years?

Probabilistic Genotyping has for some time been seen as this black box where magical computations happened which produced results that seemed impossible to defend in court.  Now that people are becoming more educated about PG, the mystery is being replaced by understanding.  I know at our lab hours are often spent deliberating the best way to interpret a mixture, and disagreements often lead to frustrations.  With PG I think the time spent debating interpretations can be better spent in other ways: making the lab more efficient, tackling backlogs, or validating new procedures.  Many times we have had to say the profile was “inconclusive for the suspect” based on our interpretation guidelines, but often our analysts could SEE that the profile suggested the suspect was in fact present, but the rules prohibited an inclusion.  Probabilistic genotyping seems to be the next great step in solving crimes and resolving discrepancies.


What tips would you give to someone who is just starting out in the forensics field, or what’s the best advise you’ve ever received?

I would say the best advice I have received is “it’s not your job to put someone behind bars.  It’s your job to do the science to the best of your abilities and let the results speak for themselves.”  I believe too many times forensic scientist feel like an additional arm of the prosecution.  It may be true that MANY times our results aid in the prosecution of criminals, but OTHER times our results help show the suspect may NOT have had anything to do with the crime.

The other thing I would say is to try to distance yourself from the crimes themselves.  The rape of a three year old is absolutely terrible.  But in the beginning I would find myself taking the case scenarios home with me and lamenting over the heinous nature of crimes.  I would often become depressed simply thinking about them.  What I’ve tried to do over time is recognize that my position as a forensic scientist allows me the possibility in aiding to the justice of crimes.  I would do the best I could to use the science to resolve the crimes and help give the victim’s the peace that could come with closure or resolution.


Do you have a hidden talent? If so, what?

I can make any situation awkward.  It’s literally a gift.  Sure they’re terrible in the moment, but they make for funny stories later…


When you’re not at work, what do you most enjoy doing?

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and taking care of the day care of children I have at my house.  Are all these kids mine?  They can’t all be mine.  Someone had to have dropped off a kid when I wasn’t looking…


For those who are on the fence about registering for the upcoming ISHI, please share your thoughts and reasons why they should attend.

I have literally NEVER gone to an ISHI conference and left disappointed.  I’ve probably attended 5 or 6 and each time I learn something I didn’t know.  Sometimes we think our lab is on an island and we are the only people struggling to answer some of the questions we have.  When you go to the conference you run into people who are either having the same problems our lab is having or have actually thought of solutions to fix those problems.  (And in worse scenarios, you realize you could have the problems other labs are having and realize, ya know, we aren’t doing so bad… )