BY Ross von Metzke
October 27 2009 2:55 PM ET
New York Times best-selling author Patricia Cornwell is used to making headlines -- for good (earlier this year, she inked a deal with 20th Century Fox to develop a movie from her Kay Scarpetta series with Angelina Jolie in the lead), for bad (earlier this month, she sued a New York investment house for allegedly losing $40 million of hers and wife Staci Gruber's money) and, in the end, for both (she was outed as part of an FBI investigation in 1996, but says, in the end, it made it easier to talk about her personal life).
With her latest novel, The Scarpetta Factor, she takes that idea of “making headlines” and throws it into the path of her heroine. Scarpetta, a medical examiner–forensics expert, is now lending her voice to true crime stories on CNN, an attempt to make sense of today's sensationalized headlines. Cornwell says her decision to put Scarpetta on TV has a lot to do with the TV-viewing public's lack of understanding regarding forensics.
She also has made it a point to use interviews as an opportunity to further the conversation about gay rights. Her interview with Advocate.com happened the day after the U.S. Senate finally passed inclusive hate-crimes legislation, something Cornwell, a former police reporter and computer analyst, says sends an essential message to society that these types of crimes are not acceptable.
Frank, opinionated, and ready to talk, Patricia Cornwell has found her voice – and she intends to use it whenever possible.
Advocate.com: Kay Scarpetta is now an analyst for CNN – that’s kind of an interesting direction for her. What made you choose to go that route with the character?
Patricia Cornwell: When you have a series out there as long as this one has been around, which is now over 20 years, really, it’s very important that you continue to reinvent the character and the settings and scenarios because the world changes so dramatically. If you imagine a Dr. Kay Scarpetta in real life, there is no way on earth that she would not be hounded by people who want her to be on their shows. She would be, you would think, the voice of reason in all things forensic. She faces the conundrum “Do I do it and make things worse, or is there some way I can do it and make things better?” That’s a real double-edged sword. Her motivation for agreeing to go on television and to talk about basic forensic procedures is that so much is misunderstood – not through anybody’s fault. It’s just, unfortunately, people believe what they see on TV, on the dramas, and think that’s the way crimes really works, and there’s a lot of science fiction – of fantasy – to that.
So do you think that people who watch crime stories unfold on the Web or on TV have a skewed idea of what really goes on?
They do have a skewed idea –there’s no question they do, and it is a major problem for criminal investigators and also for judges and for lawyers. People watch television nonstop, and they’re bombarded with everything about crime you can think of, and it’s fine for them to be entertained, but they can’t discern or edit what they see and realize that this is not the way it translates to real life. If, for example, they are the victim of crimes – let's say you’re robbed or burglarized – the way the police are going to deal with that is not what you see on television. And then you’re going to say, “Well, wait a minute. I just watched a show last night, and you didn’t bring that fancy, magic box with you that would tell you instantly who the guy is who did it, because you can get DNA out of the air.” Well, I’m sorry, we don’t have those yet. The bigger problem is, these people sit on juries. There are a lot of sad cases of justice that go haywire because the jury decides… “Well, I know I saw on the video surveillance camera that this guy pulled the trigger in a robbery and shot the person, but you didn’t get his DNA, so I’m not going to call him guilty.” That’s actually happened.
After a decade of trying, hate-crimes legislation finally passed this week and is headed to the president’s desk to be signed.
Wow, yes, that’s really important.