Constance Swander began her career as a serologist back when blood samples had to be tested by hand and results took days instead of hours.
After a half-century in laboratories aroundthe state and advances in forensic science playing an ever-widening role in crime solving, she’s preparing to hang up her lab coat on Tuesday.
It has been, she said, a real-life game of Clue, with flesh-and-blood suspects instead of Colonel Mustard and Miss Scarlet. She’s analyzed evidence from crime scenes and has testified more than 300 times as an expert witness on cases ranging from murder and sexual assault to fatal car crashes.
“It’s a great feeling to solve cases that I couldn’t solve, say, 15 years ago,” said Swander, 74, a civilian laboratory director who is retiring after 35 years with the Michigan State Police. “That’s the exciting part about it.”
Swander built her career in forensic science, rising in the ranks in the once-male dominated field.
Like Dr. Quincy in the TV medical drama “Quincy M.E.” that ran in the late-1970s to early ’80s, she’s studied and sorted through cases, picking apart medical mysteries and criminal conundrums. Swander credits that show for shaping her interest in forensics.
“I used to love Quincy on TV. He was one of the first forensic shows on TV, I think, and he’s solving these crimes, and I loved it,” Swander said.
She got her start in 1967 as a medical technologist at an osteopathic hospital in Jackson. She ran blood and body-fluid lab samples using an elaborate collection of test tubes and hot water baths. It involved pulling one enzyme, or protein in the blood, at a time, whose levels can help determine disease or abnormalities. It’s a method rarely used today in a field where machines can do the work of 20 people.
“When I first started in the forensic field, we could (only) determine if a stain was a blood stain and if it was human or not,” she said. “All work was hands-on, no instruments.”
That has changed. Think “NCIS” now instead of “Diagnosis: Murder.”
After 18 years as a serologist, she joined the Michigan State Police, where her “Quincy” watching paid off.
“I’m doing my own ‘Quincy’ work: I’m playing the game of Clue, finding out who did what, to who, where and how,” said Swander. “I loved every minute of it.”
A new job
She graduated in 1978 from Sienna Heights University in Adrian with a degree in biology and the hope of becoming a medical technician.
In 1985, Swander was a trainee in MSP’s biology unit. MSP didn’t have a forensic serology unit then to analyze blood samples from crime scenes. That would take another five years. In the meantime, Swander had to train at a lab in Bridgeport, where she worked with two others to set up the serology unit at MSP.
“She did a lot of training at the FBI academy that first year,” said her son, Chad Swander. She went from testing blood samples for liver diseases or appendicitis to pulling blood from a murder weapon and matching it to a victim.
A year and a half later she helped set up a serology unit in Grayling that remains the official forensic laboratory for state police.
There, her work shifted more to the criminal side of biology. Enter Dr. Quincy’s influence.
“It wasn’t until the lab really got established and we started seeing her on the news and reading all the different cases where it became more real,” said Chad Swander. “It was like mini-celebrity status.”
Her job meant heading out to crime scenes, analyzing materials and preparing to testify in court.
One time in the mid-1990s, she arrived at a crime scene to find a women “brutally stabbed to death” with her throat slit. Her husband had found her and was being interviewed in the next room.
“She was lying on the floor on a pile of blankets and clothes with a part of her clothes ripped off,” Swander said.
She processed the scene, collecting samples, and came across a bloodied pillow, that “looked like it had been over her bloody throat at one time.” She turned it over and found a shoe print.
She pointed out her find to investigators who were interviewing a possible suspect and they discovered he had blood on his shoes. Investigators collected the shoes for Swander to analyze.
“We were able to detect human blood on the shoe, which matched the victim’s blood, negating his story that he had not been around the victim,” she said.
At trial, a jury came back with a guilty verdict.
Carving out her own space
Swander had to carve out space as a woman in a male-dominated field. When she entered the field, only 25% of all science majors were women compared to today with about 50%. She said she faced instances of discrimination but never let it stop her.
She pushed back against bias by proving her worth, she said. Years of experience and a fastidious nature helped.
“Don’t come in being a minority and not know how to do the job,” said Swander. “Get your degree, do well in school and pursue your degree, because nobody can look down on you for that.”
Swander was promoted to laboratory director in 2003 after 18 years; her job description changed again.
Her role became more focused on being the liaison between departments, a position she said sometimes feels like “running a daycare.”
She learned to pick her battles. She had to learn how to manage and organize units within the MSP laboratory rather than testing blood samples she was so familiar with.
“A lot of it is PR with the agencies that we serve,” she said. “You have to keep everybody happy, and be diplomatic about how we’re running things.”
John Lucey, lab manager of the drug unit at MSP, has worked alongside Swander since 1995. They started as entry-level analysts, Swander working for the forensics unit and Lucey for the drug unit. Lucey said he’s watched Swander’s career take off.
“She’s a positive influence, she is very thoughtful and she’s just a good person,” said Lucey. “She knows the people, shows concern for them and is knowledgeable of the job and what it takes to do it.”
She’s lined up professional credentials: Board of directors for the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors; American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board; FBI Criminal Justice Advisory Policy Board. She was named MSP’s civilian of the year in 1992.
“Connie embodies the traits we value in our forensic scientists as a dedicated, passionate and service-oriented colleague and friend,” said Jeff Nye, director of the MSP Forensic Division. “Throughout her distinguished career she has inspired many professionals to become better scientists through her leadership and positive outlook on life.”
It’s the six cases she’s leaving open when she retires that will stick with her the most, she said.
“I kept saying that I’m not going to retire until all the cases I worked on are solved,” she said.
That won’t happen, but Swander said she believes increasingly improving scientific methods will help resolve her remaining cases.
“A part of me will never retire when I am leaving some cases unsolved,” she said. “My mind will still be thinking about these cases every time there is a new advancement in technology or new information comes forward.”
She will always be asking: “Is there something more we can do now?”