Burden of proof 

Separating fact from fiction at Montana's crime lab

Forensic investigator Gilbert Grissom and his team are racing against the clock to save one of their own from a criminal bent on revenge. In just one hour, they seamlessly piece together a crime scene; pick up clues at the criminal's home through sheer chance; analyze a plant bud from the perp's car, narrowing their search to one point in the expanse of desert west of Las Vegas; and, finally, rescue their battered, dehydrated comrade. And so much for CBS's "CSI"—which is preposterously melodramatic when you consider it alongside the reality-based drama comprised by the Montana State Crime Lab, in Missoula.

The Forensic Science Division of the Montana Department of Justice, with its harsh overhead lighting, industrial desktops, and clustered equipment, resembles a high school science lab more than a Hollywood set. Yet the work done here, off Palmer Street, is just as effective as anything on CBS. When it comes to real-life crime labs, Montana's is about as cutting-edge as they come: The facility was accredited by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors this January, making it one of only 149 ASCLD-affiliated labs worldwide that have received international accreditation. This entailed rigorous testing in disciplines from toxicology and trace evidence to latent fingerprints and digital and multimedia evidence. Not bad, considering its humble origins.

click to enlarge Firearm and toolmark examiner Lynette Crego is one of the few forensic scientists in Montana who fires guns on the job. But unlike TV’s showy take on forensics, Crego says she spends more time in front of a microscope than on the firing range. Once people see her real work close-up, “they realize it’s not as glorified.” - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Firearm and toolmark examiner Lynette Crego is one of the few forensic scientists in Montana who fires guns on the job. But unlike TV’s showy take on forensics, Crego says she spends more time in front of a microscope than on the firing range. Once people see her real work close-up, “they realize it’s not as glorified.”

The crime lab began on the University of Montana campus, where forensic technicians had to shoot down hallways to run ballistics tests, recalls Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock. From there it moved to the basement of the Wilma, then to St. Patrick Hospital before settling in its own facility, by Palmer Street, in 2000.

Just past the reinforced, bulletproof glass at the front desk is the office of director Dave McAlpin, a former three-term Missoula legislator with a disarmingly calm voice, and a slow, studious gaze. Sitting in his office recently, he spoke about the increasing demand for the lab's services. He said he thinks that's due to "more people being aware of the kind of results we can provide, either by vindicating someone or by showing that there's evidence to convict. For us, we don't bias one way or the other. We just look at the evidence and provide the scientific result."

Since taking the helm of the lab two years ago, McAlpin has learned more and more about the painstaking intricacies of forensic science, and how it diverges from the fantasies proffered by shows such as "CSI." If the type of moving-computer-screen technology those shows use actually existed, he says, he would have had a requisition in to the state long ago. Instead, when talking to outsiders, he finds himself having to dispel TV-promulgated myths about the work of crime labs.

If you took your cues from television, you'd assume that this was work done by bombshell women and brainy men with pistols and badges and six-inch heels; folks in cool shades who can read blood spatters like Green Eggs and Ham. By and large that's not the people on McAlpin's staff, who typically wear lab coats over sweaters and have the mien of excited kids at a science fair. Yet they do help catch actual criminals.

click to enlarge Since the dawn of “CSI,” criminals have gotten wise to forensic investigation methods. Connie Muller, a latent fingerprints expert at the Montana State Crime Lab, sees much more evidence of rubber gloves being used in crimes these days. She finds it hard not to credit that, in part, to television. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Since the dawn of “CSI,” criminals have gotten wise to forensic investigation methods. Connie Muller, a latent fingerprints expert at the Montana State Crime Lab, sees much more evidence of rubber gloves being used in crimes these days. She finds it hard not to credit that, in part, to television.

"In Montana, and in most real criminal justice systems, the forensic scientist is not the investigator or even the crime scene analyst," McAlpin patiently explains. "In our laboratory, we take the evidence that is submitted and do our best with it. By the same token, we are not prosecutors. Our role in testimony is not to set the stage of the case, but merely to testify only to our small part in the system... the unbiased result of our analysis."

•••

A homemade battleaxe, several fully automatic rifles, and a crude silencer made from a plastic bottle rest on a wall in the firearms and tool marks section of Montana's forensic division. It's what the lab calls "the gun wall," a rack of unusual and sometimes seemingly impractical weapons collected from crime scenes. Some were donated by victims' families who had no interest in holding onto them. Others come from agencies such as Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks that have closed the book on cases like the high-profile poaching investigation in Seeley Lake tied to one of the rifles. There's a James Bond quality to some of the weapons, like the flashlight-turned-pistol.

This is Lynette Crego's playground. As firearm and tool mark examiner, she's one of the only forensic experts in Montana who actually uses a gun on the job. She jokes about the flashlight gun as she pulls a Beretta 9-millimeter from a rolling storage locker. She and her coworker Travis Spinder use the lockers to stash firearms for comparison work. Crego isn't wearing six-inch stilettos. "They don't work well in the lab," she says. She also doesn't have a badge, though she does have a bachelor's degree in business from the University of Montana. And while Crego's job may be one of the flashier disciplines at the state crime lab, it's still a far cry from what she sees when she turns on the television.

"CSI" and its ilk glamorize everything, she says. "It kind of shows it in the light of people doing both the science and the investigation part: interviewing suspects, throwing them against the wall, all that. I think a lot of people get that sense, that it's also a law-enforcement-type interaction. But once they get in the job, they realize it's not as glorified. We don't have all the cool instrumentation. It takes longer to work a case. Some cases are tedious and painful."

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