Examining the Evidence

Solving crimes with science at the Connecticut Forensic Science Laboratory in Meriden.

 

Ray Bendici

In front of the Connecticut Forensic Science Laboratory in Meriden is a sculpture by Bright Bimpong entitled “Witness” featuring a skeleton in a chair with the following inscription: “If the law has made you a witness, remain a person of science; you have no victim to avenge, no guilty or innocent person to convict or save. You must bear testimony within the limits of science. Let the evidence speak for itself.”

“That’s our motto,” says Kenneth B. Zercie, the lab’s director, nodding to the statue that  has been affectionately nicknamed “Bones.” “It doesn’t matter the scope of the crime—examining the evidence in a vandalism case is just as important as the evidence in a murder case. Each examination receives 100 percent of our effort and attention.”

When you start doing the math (in addition to the science), you realize that’s a lot of effort and attention. In addition to the forensic examinations for the Connecticut State Police, the lab also processes evidence for every police force in the state (over 100) as well as the FBI, ATF and other investigative organizations. The full-time staff of 90 includes a combination of scientists, civilians and former law enforcement officers, many of whom “do a little bit of everything” in terms of investigation, according to John A. Brunetti, a former West Haven police officer and current forensic-science examiner who takes a few minutes out of his busy schedule to show me around.

The first thing I notice—and Brunetti is quick to point out—is that a real working forensic lab is nothing like what is seen on the “CSI” TV shows. Investigation and analysis of evidence usually take days, not hours, and there are no supercomputers that instantaneously integrate and match fingerprints, ballistic reports and DNA results, and then spit out a suspect profile, complete with Hollywood-friendly headshot and current whereabouts. And unlike the dramatically shadowy labs on TV, the entire place is very brightly lit, except in certain situations where evidence is better examined in low-light conditions.

One such section that occasionally works “in the dark” is the forensic biology lab, where the detection of blood and bodily fluids on clothing or fabric can be done using certain methods. I am given a pair of orange goggles and when an examiner passes a special light over a shirt, I can see stains that are not visible to the unaided eye. (Another departure from TV: Evidence is usually acquired via cotton swabs rather than searched for with sprays like luminol, since spray chemicals can contaminate evidence.) The biology lab is an especially active place, processing 500 to 600 cases a year, three-quarters of which are sexual assaults. In many violent crimes, this is usually the first stop for evidence.

The trace-evidence lab also gets a high volume of work, as paint, hair, fibers, powders and the like are examined here. It’s a labor-intensive area, where every object is inspected—often under high-power microscopes—for the tiniest particles, which are then analyzed and identified, if possible. I’m shown a speck of paint (so small that it’d fit comfortably on the head of a pin) taken from a hit-and-run victim, and told how once the examiner determines its specific chemical makeup, it can be tracked back to the manufacturer.

Speaking of leaving unique traces, the fingerprint lab is also busy (notice a theme here?) identifying culprits: In 2009 alone, 995 fingerprint identifications were made, along with 327 palm-print IDs. From fingerprints, it’s on to firearms and ballistics, where an average of 1,800 gun-related cases are processed annually. Like a fingerprint, every weapon has a unique signature, and by using a sophisticated software program that can compare and suggest weapons that have similar patterns, analysis that used to take days can be done in hours. The lab also has an extensive gun library to aid in the identification process, an impressive cache that’d make any NRA member giddy, featuring 3,000 weapons that have been collected since 1973 by state troopers.

Opening this month is the newest addition to the 74,000-square-foot forensic science laboratory, a wing that will feature an area designated for receiving evidence, expanded room for the computer crimes unit, and a new state-of-the-art forensic toxicology lab, which until now was located in Hartford. The addition will aid in the processing of drug cases, and help consolidate the forensic division.

The forensic lab recently made headlines when it was announced that federal TARP funds would be channeled here to help alleviate the massive backlog of DNA evidence awaiting processing. According to Dr. Carll Ladd, who heads the DNA section, in addition to the 12,000-case backlog, the lab will receive some 3,000 new DNA case requests in 2010. As he points out, despite the volume, “There’s never been an issue with the quality of our work. The citizens of Connecticut are getting a first-class job of forensic science.”

That’s another theme of my visit—everyone I meet, from the arson investigation unit to the forensic photography section, is clearly passionate about whatever task is at hand, and takes pride in the effort, no matter how long the examination. As Zercie says: “Once the headlines are gone, there’s still work to do.”

Examining the Evidence

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