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.
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.
"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."
Like all of her fellow forensic scientists at the crime lab, Crego doesn't do field work. Evidence is sent to her by local and state enforcement agencies. Then she sets to work analyzing what they've found. Sometimes that means hitting the lab's indoor firing range for distance determination. It may require shooting into a 500-gallon water tank and retrieving the bullet and cartridge case for comparison work. Crego and Spinder work an average of 200 cases a year.
"We get to shoot a lot of guns, but it's more microscope work, straining your eyes, than actually going around shooting off Tommy Guns and stuff," she says. "We can get whole bullets in good shape. But sometimes we'll get bullets from bodies, bullets from houses, cars, where it's actually just little fragments. So it all depends on the condition of the bullet, of the cartridge case and how good the markings [are]. It can be anywhere from a couple minutes to line it up on the scope... or a couple weeks, going back and forth from the microscope."
The Montana State Crime Lab handled 5,377 cases in 2010, an average of about 22 per day, according to McAlpin; and their workload has been increasing lately by 10 percent a year. Managing the inevitable backlog is one of the lab's greatest challenges. And most technicians shy away from discussing specific cases, because much of what they're working on is still subject to litigation.
While the caseload in firearms and tool marks can be tedious, it's diminutive compared to other sections. McAlpin estimates about 4,000 of last year's cases went straight to their toxicology lab. It's here that he turns for an example of how ever-changing the jobs of forensic scientists are.
"There's an increasing complexity in each case," McAlpin says. "Whereas we used to get plant material to analyze for THC, now we're getting a brownie, and the complexity of measuring that baked good for level or quantity or presence of THC is much greater than just measuring a crumbly plant material."
Some of those changes appear, at least anecdotally, to stem from the increased popularity of forensics in the mainstream. At the crime lab, Latent Print Examiner Connie Muller explains that she's noted increased precautions taken by criminals, based on what she's received from crime scenes. It's hard not to attribute the heightened awareness of forensic methods in part to shows like "CSI," she says. "I see a lot more situations where I see on evidence... the texture of rubber gloves. It becomes obvious that someone was wearing rubber gloves when committing a crime. But at times we've actually been able to retrieve those gloves and get prints or DNA from them." The dramatized idea that criminals can somehow manipulate their fingerprints by, say, burning them off is also fairly ridiculous in Muller's eyes. Such attempts to mask one's identity can actually make prints more distinguishable, she says.
Muller's work in latent prints has gone a long way in bolstering criminal proceedings in western Montana. In 2007, Anne Stout allegedly shot and killed her husband, Bill, in their Hamilton home. Investigators retrieved a pistol from a saddlebag on Bill's motorcycle and pulled a latex glove from a laundry hamper in the couple's basement. The gun and ammunition had no fingerprints on them, but Muller testified in district court in 2008 that she'd found Anne Stout's DNA on the inside of the glove as well as gun powder residue on the outside.
"CSI" has clearly affected the criminal justice system in the past decade. Attorneys across the country use the term "CSI Effect" to describe misconceptions about the limits of forensic science among potential jurors. Missoula Chief Criminal Deputy County Attorney Kirsten Pabst LaCroix discusses the effect of the program during every jury selection she's a part of. She asks would-be jurors how often they think she's seen a usable fingerprint in court in her 17-year career. Guesses come in the hundreds. Then she plays her trump card: She hasn't seen one.
LaCroix says there's a belief among groups such as the National District Attorneys Association that these jury pool discussions are necessary to dispel myths that jurors might carry into trials. "For a while there we were having to compete with the idea of this magical instrument that if you sprinkled in dust from someone's shoes, it would print out not only the identification of the perpetrator but his current location and whether there were any warrants out for him," says LaCroix, who occasionally watches "Law and Order" for the sheer novelty of an open-and-shut case playing out in a single hour. "Now the biggest issue is explaining to the jury why there is no forensic evidence, because they do expect something."
One of the biggest misconceptions LaCroix notes is why forensic evidence is introduced. Courts here rarely deal with questions of identity, she says, as perpetrators are usually known to victims. Occasionally the outlandish side of forensic science will offer up new evidence, as in the 2000 case against Martin Reed Swan where food particles from the suspect's car were matched to food particles found on the body of the victim, Ginny Hann. But more often the question facing Missoula jurors is one of intent rather than identity. "Without forensic evidence, people are worried that perhaps they're going to wrongly convict someone," LaCroix says, when in fact, "99.9 percent of our cases don't involve a question of who the perpetrator was. It's more a question of what did they do, or what did they mean to do, or was it an intentional act."
Legal researchers have examined the CSI Effect for years. St. Thomas University law professor Tamara Lawson found, in a 2009 study, that "the CSI Infection goes well beyond the application of a lower or higher burden of proof; it delves into the realm of warping, skewing, and manipulating the realities of evidence in a way that threatens the accuracy of the verdict and the legitimacy of the criminal justice system." Potential jurors in Canada and Australia have exhibited similarly false expectations when it comes to forensic investigation.
The CSI Effect was at one time a strange and difficult obstacle for county attorneys, prosecutors, and public defenders, says Steve Bullock. "When CSI and things first came out, there was an expectation that there would be DNA from any sort of touching of things, that you'd have all this science in every trial." But, he says, "I think over time jurors have become more sophisticated in recognizing that forensic science plays a role, but it doesn't have to be the paramount role in every trial."
LaCroix says that she, too, has noticed the trend beginning to fade. She believes shows like "CSI" have outlived their mild credibility with viewers. As plots become more ludicrous, public perception starts to shift towards disbelief or skepticism. "If you asked me how big of a problem it was... 10 years ago, I'd say it was a huge problem. Even five years ago, pretty bad. But I'm starting to see the pendulum swing the other way with jurors getting a little oversaturated with some of those programs they watch on TV."
Back at the crime lab, McAlpin gets excited talking about real-world successes, such as the case of Lincoln resident Gary Trimble. Last year authorities apprehended Trimble on murder charges related to a Christmas Eve slaying in Spokane from 1986. New evidence in the case had come straight from Montana's forensic division. If the crime lab hadn't run a sample of Trimble's DNA through a national database, the case would likely still be unsolved. Instead, Trimble pled not guilty in Spokane this January and is heading to trial.
"That's something that's an ongoing process, for our folks to try and do the DNA matching," McAlpin says. "When we get a hit like that, it's important to what we do here at the lab. It helps resolve cases as part of the larger work of the lab and I think it can provide comfort to the families of victims."
As the crime lab's image has risen, propelled at least in part by television, so have its obligations, while the underlying science advances more slowly, tugged along by new technologies. At the same time, says forensic toxicologist Scott Schlueter, the CSI Effect has also meant that their actual work is better understood in venues where it counts. "Five or 10 years ago, we were seeing the same [kinds of lab] results, but now we're being asked better questions in court and people have a better understanding... They expect to see you there, to see that that testing was done."
The mainstreaming of criminal forensics has generated some less expected side effects as well. Select high schools in Montana are offering classes inspired by "CSI." For McAlpin, that's an outreach opportunity. The crime lab teamed up with the Office of Public Instruction in February 2010 to conduct video-conferencing presentations for rural students, and student tours are now common at the crime lab. "There's no question in my mind that the television phenomenon has raised the level of interest among college kids and high school kids," McAlpin says. "Forensics intrigues them as a career opportunity."
Missoula Police Department crime scene technician Barb Fortunate has seen the same thing. Since the advent of "CSI" she's in demand at local high schools, where she draws distinctions between fact and fiction and explains the specialized nature of her work. "I'm not a forensic professional, I'm a crime scene professional," she says. "I always tell people... that when I was hired, DNA wasn't even on the horizon as a crime-fighting tool. Now it is, but as far as I'm concerned it's smoke and mirrors. It's magic. I have no idea what they do with the swabs I send in to them." And, she says, "I don't have to know that stuff."
Still, if Missoula has one character who could have stepped out of "CSI," Fortunate seems like a good bet.
She's a petite, soft-spoken woman with the demeanor of a middle-aged mother. She took the job almost 18 years ago, becoming the city's first civilian crime scene expert. She had no forensic training and no law enforcement background, but she knew her way around a dark room back when crime scene photography hadn't yet gone digital.
Fortunate isn't a scientist and she isn't a cop, though she's taken classes in latent prints and done informal internships at the crime lab over the years. Mostly, she collects things and sends them to the experts. Yet she's the one on scene for every major crime or vehicular wreck in the city, snapping photos and bagging evidence. "I was CSI before 'CSI' was cool," she says.
"They were forward-thinking, because there are a lot of civilians now doing crime scene work. It frees up the officers to do the cop work. This is where, in this department and in many departments, it's way different than 'CSI.' I don't go knock on doors; I don't arrest people; I don't chase people; I don't do interviews. I simply go to the crime scene, process the crime scene, and let the evidence speak to me."
Much of her job actually entails sitting in front of a computer, cataloging databases or filing reports. Even in the field, a seemingly interesting and TV-worthy discovery can end on an anti-climactic note. Take the call she received two weeks ago:
"A woman was starting a new garden and found some bones. I have a degree in anthropology, though not forensic anthropology, so we were trying to get a hold of somebody to go look at the bones and determine if they're human or not. If they're human then we've got to treat it like a crime scene."
Deputy Medical Examiner Willy Kemp eventually arrived and, despite Fortunate's devotion of much of her day to the potential crime scene, he determined the bones weren't human. Fortunate says they'll now be sent to UM for further identification by forensic anthropology students.
Still, there have been a number of dramatic points in Fortunate's career. In December 2007, she worked a crime scene at the California Street footbridge where Forrest Clayton Salcido, a homeless veteran from Missoula, had been brutally murdered in a seemingly random act of violence.
Two young men were later arrested and linked to the case. One, Anthony St. Dennis, was sentenced to 100 years in prison.
For Fortunate, just being involved there felt like a true "CSI" moment. The scene took hours to process, she says. The scattered evidence she collected—shoeprint impressions, blood trail information—contributed greatly to the case. Most important were the photos she took. From there, detectives managed to piece together a jumbled story, one Fortunate feels had as complete an ending as possible.
"It started out being a whodunit, and through really good crime scene work, really good detective work, came to a good conclusion," she says. "Not for Forrest—but he was taken care of in the long run."