The Dead Zone

Thanks to TV, crime scene investigating is the new hot profession, but Max Courtney knows it's more science than art

When the Fort Worth Police Department's drug lab was recently shut down for a three-month renovation, the investigation process didn't skip a beat. It simply contracted FCS to do the testing.

Yet here, solutions are not neatly reached in a quick, one-hour crime-to-capture story line. Sitting beneath a framed quotation from Edgar Allan Poe's The Murder in the Rue Morgue--"It is not our part, as reasoners, to reject it on account of apparent impossibilities. It is only left for us to prove that these apparent 'impossibilities' are, in reality, not such..."--Courtney explains the philosophy that drives his profession.

"Our client," he says, "is not the prosecutor or the defense attorney, not the accused or the victim. Our client is science and the truth it provides.

Top: Max Courtney and colleague Candace Horney work the scene of a double murder in Mansfield. Middle: Horney videotapes the entrance to the apartment. Bottom: Courtney at work in his lab in Fort Worth.
Mark Graham
Top: Max Courtney and colleague Candace Horney work the scene of a double murder in Mansfield. Middle: Horney videotapes the entrance to the apartment. Bottom: Courtney at work in his lab in Fort Worth.
Top: Courtney fires a gun into a device that allows him to save spent bullets for ballistics tests. Middle: Jason Allison, a forensic examiner, hands the spent bullet to Courtney. Bottom: The bullet is subjected to ballistics tests.
Mark Graham
Top: Courtney fires a gun into a device that allows him to save spent bullets for ballistics tests. Middle: Jason Allison, a forensic examiner, hands the spent bullet to Courtney. Bottom: The bullet is subjected to ballistics tests.

"'Guilty' is a word invented by lawyers, and I've never seen it as my job to help sway a judge or jury. My mother always told me there were two sides to every story, and as a scientist I'm duty-bound to examine all the evidence brought to my attention and evaluate it as honestly as I can." It is, he says, the philosophy of FCS since it began in a small building in his back yard in winter 1984. If his findings prove damaging to a scenario an attorney--for the state or defense--is hoping to present, so be it.

"I've seen him talk himself out of a lot of jobs," says criminalist co-worker Frank Shiller. "Max is a no-nonsense, call-it-as-he-sees-it kind of scientist. It is that approach which has, over the years, established his credibility and integrity."

"That he will sometimes appear as a defense witness and sometimes for the prosecution is a clear indication of his professionalism and reputation," says noted Fort Worth attorney Jack Strickland. "Not only is he respected as a superb forensic expert but one who is trusted by both sides."

In fact, for the usually easygoing Courtney, the abuse of forensic science--particularly by those he refers to as "40-hour wonders"--is one of the few things that will prompt a climb onto the soapbox.

"A few years ago," he recalls, "I was in a courtroom and watched a police officer who had taken a few courses in ballistics and crime scene investigation testify that because of the angle of an entry wound to the victim, the fatal shot had to have come from someone who was 5 feet, 9 and one-quarter inches tall."

Not surprisingly, the accused had earlier been measured at that exact height. "Now, that's TV-type stuff," he adds, "absolutely ludicrous." Courtney's toleration of fools, false witnesses or forensic guns-for-hire is nonexistent.

His disdain for shortcuts and speculation, legal mumbo jumbo and courtroom theatrics has, over the years, become well-known. "People describe me as a criminalist, a forensic expert, a crime lab director," he says, "but in my own mind I'm simply a scientist. That's my job and I work hard not to forget it."


No TV show or mystery novel directed Max Courtney toward his profession. The choice came almost by accident.

Certainly it is a giant leap from his teen-age days of high school football stardom and oil field roughnecking in West Texas. Once a talented end for legendary schoolboy powerhouse Odessa Permian High, he earned an athletic scholarship to what was then called West Texas State University in the Panhandle community of Canyon. There he suffered a career-ending knee injury his freshman season. In that one painful moment, he went from dedicated jock to full-time scholar, ultimately earning a bachelor's, then a master's, in chemistry. Then it was off to Texas Christian University to begin work on his doctorate.

"Finally," he says, "I reached a point where I was tired of being in school and decided it was time to start looking for a job." It was while checking the Fort Worth Star-Telegram classified ads in 1970 that he learned the Fort Worth Police Department was in the market for a chemist. Leaving academic pursuits to the future, he scheduled an appointment with Rolland Tullis, director of the FWPD crime lab--with no clue what the job he'd applied for entailed.

During the next decade, Courtney found comfort in the solitude of the laboratory where he analyzed drugs, blood, hair fibers, fingerprints and ballistics.

In 1980 he moved to the University of Texas at Arlington where he taught aspiring criminal justice students. He still found time to consult, however.

"Joe Watson, the police chief in Hurst, was among those constantly complaining about the length of time it took to get evidence processed," Courtney recalls. Like most small agencies with neither budgets nor manpower to conduct their own evidence processing, the Hurst Police Department was relegated to the frustrating take-a-number-and-wait process that was common at the only forensic labs available to them--the Fort Worth Police Department and the Department of Public Safety lab in Garland. "One day Joe offhandedly suggested that I open my own lab." Which he did.

"For the first year," Courtney says, "we really struggled. I did a little consulting here, some testing there, but it took awhile for word to get around that we could be of real benefit to the smaller law enforcement agencies that didn't have the luxury of their own crime labs.

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