Burden of proof 

Separating fact from fiction at Montana's crime lab

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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.

click to enlarge “We get to shoot a lot of guns, but it’s more microscope work, straining your eyes,” Lynette Crego says of her forensic duties. She adds that comparing imperfections on bullets and bullet casings to get a match can sometimes take days—unlike what she sees on television. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • “We get to shoot a lot of guns, but it’s more microscope work, straining your eyes,” Lynette Crego says of her forensic duties. She adds that comparing imperfections on bullets and bullet casings to get a match can sometimes take days—unlike what she sees on television.

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."

click to enlarge Toxicologist Scott Schlueter handles thousands of criminal cases a year at the crime lab. Much of his work involves analyzing narcotic compounds and identifying the types of drugs being manufactured and peddled in the state. Staying up on what  drugs are in vogue is a constant challenge for his lab, Schlueter says. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Toxicologist Scott Schlueter handles thousands of criminal cases a year at the crime lab. Much of his work involves analyzing narcotic compounds and identifying the types of drugs being manufactured and peddled in the state. Staying up on what drugs are in vogue is a constant challenge for his lab, Schlueter says.

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.

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