Saturday, March 30, 2013

Forensic Labs and Reality

by Lisa Black
Author of Blunt Impact
From TV you get the impression that forensic labs are vast, gleaming expanses of glass walls and expensive equipment, with mood lighting and every possible resource. I have worked in forensic labs for 17 years and the truth is not quite that glamorous. 

Forensic labs have come a long way and they’re improving constantly, yes. I’ve had two jobs in this field so far and at both places we moved to a new facility, got lots of new equipment and added personnel…but we still don’t resemble anything on CSI.

Sometimes aspects of that extremely high-tech TV lab aren’t real. In no department or agency anywhere in the United States can your average tech take a fingerprint and search it against every single person who has ever been fingerprinted in the world, including job applicants and military. Despite the fact that you’ve seen it on TV every day for the past 50 years, it isn’t true. It may be true sooner than I think, but it is not true now. 

Most databases are local. My database consists of people arrested in the city of Cape Coral, Florida, and recent arrestees in the surrounding county. I can search the databases of selected other cities (about 10) by going through some extra steps. I am embarking on a procedure to search the FBI database (insert sound of angels singing here) but I have no idea yet exactly how that will work. I have no access to job applicants or current personnel, even our own, and certainly not military. This is not backward. The technology has made amazing leaps in just the past decade or two, but it’s still not TV.

We also do not have databases with the chemical formula of every material known to man, such as perfume, wall paint or toothpaste. Companies make their living producing these items, so they’re not going to publish their formulas to any Tom, Dick or Harry who happens to ask. We do have mass spectrometers or FTIRs to analyze the chemistry of such items, but even the most underutilized lab tech is not going to have the time or resources to gather a sample of every kind of paint used in the world, and even if she did, as soon as she finished it would be time for next season’s colors to hit the market. 

Sometimes labs may not have a function or two (handwriting analysis, ballistics) because they’re not reasonable. How often do we really need to analyze wall paint? Most labs grew out of a local or state police department, and began with fingerprint and drug analyses (theft/burglary and drug offenses being the most common crimes committed). Other capabilities are added on from there. But if your town doesn’t get a lot of shootings, it doesn’t need a whole ballistics department when it can send any casings off to the state lab and get the analysis done for free. Perhaps not promptly, but the arrest will likely be made on witness testimony so the analysis can be done at leisure while the suspect cools his jets in a jail cell. 

How often would we really analyze the molecules of perfume in the atmosphere (as if they’d still be there five hours after the crime was committed)? Seriously, it might make a great ‘aha’ moment on a TV show, but try introducing that into a court of law. Me: “There was a hint of Chanel No. 5 in the air! The same perfume as the defendant is wearing right now!” Defense attorney: “So? They sell a bottle of that every thirty seconds.” Me: “Um, nothing. I just thought it was interesting.”

As for ‘hacking into’ the company’s database to find how many bottles they sold and then the store’s database to find out who they sold them to…well, I’m not a lawyer but I think Sears, for example, would be terrifically ticked off about that. Not to mention the ACLU. 

The capabilities of any lab will be a function of space, money and interest.

Space, for obvious reasons.

Money, for equally obvious reasons since new technology requires an investment for equipment, personnel and training. Sometimes this works out better than other times. It’s not always easy to estimate how much use you’ll get out of something when you’ve never had one before. We have a fancy ‘crimescope’ that can supposedly see undeveloped latent prints…I’ve never had much luck with it. But we also get daily use out of the large superglue fuming chamber. 

We purchased a very expensive photography setup with a great camera, filters and alternate light source for photographing fingerprints on a variety of backgrounds (shiny, printed, rounded, plastic) and developed with various methods (superglue, powder, fluorescent dyes), and even though my knowledge of working with filters and lights is more a process of trial and error than anything else, I’ve gotten a lot of use out of it to obtain prints I wouldn’t have otherwise.

And when I say ‘expensive’, I am not exaggerating. The FTIR I mentioned earlier cost $35,000, as I recall, and that was 15 years ago. I loved to analyze paint, synthetic fibers and adhesives on it, but, almost always, those items are still circumstantial evidence. I can prove the killer used the same brand of duct tape as was found in the suspect’s garage. But unless I can make a jigsaw match to that roll, the defense will just point out that the manufacturer made a lot of duct tape. I can say the fiber on the victim’s shirt is the same as the fibers in the suspect’s sweater, but how many of those sweaters did Timberland distribute?  In my current city where we do not have a lot of violent crime, I couldn’t reasonably ask the city for funds to buy one. Car paint can be much more definite, provided you’re lucky enough to have some chip off during the hit and run.

As the hair and fiber expert, a fading and almost completely lost field, I recently got a comparison microscope. (My boss had the idea of farming me out to other agencies since no one in the state does hair and fiber comparisons anymore…hasn’t really worked out but if you need a fiber compared, give me a call!) The problem was, there was only $12,000 in the budget and a decent comparison microscope starts at 40 grand. So, I’ve got a not-so-decent one.

DNA analysis is expensive, but we can get our samples tested for free by the state lab. However, the state lab limits us to five samples at a time, and those will probably take from one to three months, if not longer. We can get the city to pony up for a private lab which will get the results back to us much quicker but will charge from $600 to $1,000 per sample, depending on how fast you want it. And each case will have a minimum of three samples—victim, suspect and evidence. There’s no cheap way to get fast DNA.

Interest also comes into play. We continued doing gunshot residue tests after many agencies had dropped them, simply because our chief at the time believed in them. We have a fancy system capable of copying a computer (meant to be used for child pornography or white collar cases); however learning to use it requires a few long, pricey classes in other states, and after the guy trained on this quit to open a bar (long story), the powers that be are reluctant, understandably, to invest in anyone else. I do not argue with this, I just keep my head well down when the topic arises—you say ‘binary code,’ and my eyes glaze over.

In conclusion, you can’t assume what capabilities your local crime lab may possess or not possess until you ask them. And, though they certainly could be in play, you can’t assume that a lack in any area is the result of disregard, cronyism, backward thinking or bad money management. Most crime labs, like every other facility, try to do the best they can with what they’ve got. 
Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. As a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s a certified latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral Police Department. Her books have been translated into six languages. Evidence of Murder reached the NYT mass market bestsellers list. Visit her website at:

Blunt Impact, available April 1, features forensic scientist Theresa MacLean and a series of murders surrounding a skyscraper under construction in downtown Cleveland. The first to die is young, sexy concrete worker Samantha, thrown from the 23rd floor. The only witness is her 11-year-old daughter Anna, nicknamed Ghost. Ghost will stop at nothing to find her mother’s killer, and Theresa will stop at nothing to keep Ghost safe. Kindle owners can find a bargain in Lisa's new book The Prague Project, written under the name Beth Cheylan. A death in West Virginia sends FBI agent Ellie Gardner and NYPD Counterterrorism lieutenant Michael Stewart on a chase across Europe as they track stolen nukes and lost Nazi gold, hoping to avert the deaths of millions of people.


Sheila Connolly said...

Great post, Lisa, with lots of useful information, even if it doesn't fit into our tidy story lines.

In the real world, how long does it take to process all the samples from one crime, in a local or state lab? And how does that intersect with the court schedule for prosecution?

Can any citizen request (and pay for) analyses at private labs, and would any of that be admissable in court?

And finally: what's the paperwork like? The various CSIs are pretty casual about documenting their samples (although filling out forms does not make good television).

Thanks for being here!

Lisa Black said...

Hi Sheila,
How long it takes to get samples back from a state lab all depends on the sample and the state lab. The Florida state lab used to have a bad backup that meant DNA results took 6 months to a year, but now it's down to a few months. They also limit all submissions to 5 samples; when those are done, we can send 5 more if we like. This is not unreasonable--it forces us to test only what we really need to make a case. If we need it faster than that we send it to a private lab on the east coast. It's exhorbitantly expensive, but fast. I'm sure a private submission to a private lab would be admissable as well, as long as witnesses can verify where the sample came from and the lab personnel can explain their processes and conclusions. The paperwork, like all paperwork, is annoying but not overwhelming. We have labels and forms that have to be filled out, but scanners and bar codes have made it easier to store, locate and sign items in and out. But those papers and labels and seals will definitely be pointed out in court, so they can't be skipped or glossed over. (And yes, it would look pretty boring on TV, so we just have to assume they're doing it!)

Diane said...

Lisa, I'm curios about going to databases looking for matching fingerprints. I understand that not all are available, and why. However, I did think that the FBI's IAFIS system is available to local law enforcement agencies. That system is supposed to be criminal fingerprints from many law enforcement agencies, not just Federal ones. Is it not available for searches to local law enforcement agencies after all?

Lisa Black said...

The biggest myth of television is that someone like me in Average Town USA can put in a fingerprint and search it against everyone who has ever been fingerprinted in the US, including job applicants and military. That has never been true. Most databases are local. For 10 years mine was only people arrested (not convicted, not job applicants) in my town. To search the county and state, I have to physically send them the latent print and they have to enter it themselves. Now, however, I receive known (10-print) fingerprints from the county, though I cannot search their database, and that has increased my database considerably. We also make hits through the state, though I'm usually a year behind in sending the prints to them (it's a 'do when I have time' process). The technology grows every day. Right now I am trying to set up a way to electronically submit prints for an FBI search, though even when it does get worked out I'm sure it will have to be limited to homicides and other violent crimes and only a few per year. I'm sure right now if we had a serial killer case or some such thing we could send the physical prints to the FBI for searching, but as we've never needed to I don't know what that would entail or how long it would take. So the good news is the technology is great and getting better every day, but yes, the TV myth is still not true!