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 inÂ laboratories aroundthe state and advances in forensic science playingÂ an ever-widening role in crime solving, she’s preparing to hang up her lab coat on Tuesday.
It has been, she said,Â a real-life game of Clue, withÂ flesh-and-blood suspects instead of Colonel Mustard and MissÂ Scarlet. She’sÂ analyzedÂ evidence from crime scenes andÂ has testified more thanÂ 300 times as an expert witness on cases ranging from murder and sexual assault to fatal car crashes.Â
“Itâs a great feeling to solve cases that I couldnât solve, say, 15 years ago,” said Swander, 74, a civilianÂ laboratory director who is retiring after 35 years with the Michigan State Police. âThatâs the exciting part about it.â
Swander built her career in forensic science, rising in the ranks inÂ the once-male dominated field.Â
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.Â Swander credits that show for shaping her interest in forensics.Â
“I used to love QuincyÂ on TV. He was one of the first forensic shows on TV, I think, and heâs solving these crimes, and I loved it,â Swander said.
She got her start in 1967 as aÂ medical technologist at an osteopathic hospital in Jackson. She ran blood and body-fluid lab samples usingÂ an elaborate collectionÂ of test tubes and hot water baths. It involved pulling one enzyme, or protein in the blood, at a time, whose levels can helpÂ determine disease or abnormalities. It’sÂ a method rarely used today in a field where machines can do the work of 20 people.Â
“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.”Â
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.
âIâm doing my own ‘Quincy’ work:Â Iâm playing the game of Clue,Â finding out who did what, to who, whereÂ and how,â said Swander. âI loved every minute of it.â
A new job
She graduated in 1978 from Sienna Heights University in AdrianÂ with a degree inÂ biologyÂ and the hopeÂ of becoming a medical technician.
In 1985, Swander wasÂ a trainee in MSP’sÂ biology unit. MSP didn’t have a forensic serology unit then to analyze blood samples from crime scenes. That would take another fiveÂ years. In the meantime, Swander hadÂ 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,”Â said her son, Chad Swander.Â She went from testing blood samples for liver diseases or appendicitis to pulling blood from a murder weapon and matching it to a victim.Â
A year and a half later she helped set up a serology unit in GraylingÂ that remainsÂ 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 andÂ preparing to testify in court.
One time in the mid-1990s,Â sheÂ arrived at a crimeÂ 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.Â
She processed the scene, collecting samples, and came across a bloodiedÂ pillow, that “looked like it had been over her bloody throat at one time.” She turned it over and foundÂ a shoe print.Â
She pointed out her findÂ to investigators who were interviewing aÂ possible suspectÂ and they discovered he had blood on his shoes. Investigators collected the shoes forÂ 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.Â
At trial, aÂ jury came back with a guiltyÂ 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 aboutÂ 50%.Â 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.
âDonât come in being a minority and notÂ know how to do the job,â said Swander. âGet your degree, do well in schoolÂ and pursue your degree, because nobody can look down on you for that.â
Swander was promoted to laboratory director in 2003 after 18 years;Â her job description changedÂ again.Â
Her role became more focused on being the liaison between departments, a position she said sometimes feels like ârunning 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.Â
“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-levelÂ analysts,Â Swander working for the forensics unit and LuceyÂ for the drug unit. Lucey said he’s watchedÂ Swander’s career take off.
“She’s a positive influence,Â she is very thoughtfulÂ and she’s just a good person,” said Lucey. “She knows the people, shows concern for themÂ and is knowledgeable of the job and what it takes to do it.”
She’s lined upÂ professional credentials: Board of directors for the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors; American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board; FBIÂ 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.Â “Throughout her distinguished career she has inspired many professionals to become better scientists through her leadership and positive outlook on life.”
Itâs the six cases sheâs leaving open when she retires that will stick with her the most, she said.
âI kept saying that Iâm not going to retire until all the cases I worked on are solved,â she said.
That won’tÂ happen,Â but Swander said she believes increasingly improvingÂ scientific methods will help resolve herÂ remainingÂ cases.Â
“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:Â “Is there something more we can do now?”