Longform

The Dead Zone

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Inside, Courtney, 57, is puffing on his ever-present pipe as he begins another day of gathering and interpreting evidence that will ultimately help determine the guilt or innocence of those accused of crimes ranging from murder to drunken driving--without cameras rolling or scripts to follow. Only on those days when he is scheduled to appear in court as an expert witness does he bother with a suit and tie.

He and his staff work amid a montage of microscopes and computers, ballistic testing equipment, scales, high-tech cameras and bulging filing cabinets. Currently, Forensic Consultant Services does lab work, aids in crime scene investigations and conducts teaching seminars for dozens of neighboring police departments (Arlington, Grand Prairie, Burleson, Mansfield, Cleburne, Hurst, North Richland Hills, etc.). As its reputation has grown, calls have come from as far away as Florida, Louisiana, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado and California.

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.

"'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.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers

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