Early morning sunlight seeps through the blinds, casting a pale glow across the room. Items of clothing are strewn across the floor and a shoe is partially visible beneath the bed. On a corner nightstand, a television flickers with the sound turned down. A broken lamp lies on the floor next to the bed where a tangle of sheets partially covers the body of a middle-aged man who won’t be going to work—or anywhere else—this morning. A ragged pattern of reddish-brown darkens the pillow and part of the exposed mattress.
Standing in the doorway, Lisa Berg lifts her digital camera to document that angle of the room before stepping further inside. The certified senior forensic crime scene technician for the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, Berg snaps on a pair of latex gloves to begin processing the scene. It’s going to be a long day.
Blood spatter. Bullet trajectory. Bodily fluids. Fingerprints. It’s all in a day’s work for a forensic crime scene technician. Popular television shows such as CSI, Bones and NCIS have brought forensic science into almost every living room, but they definitely glamorize the investigator’s job and misrepresent many of the facts.
“For every hour you spend on the scene, you spend another hour (in the office) processing, packaging and doing paperwork; it’s all equally important,” says Berg. “If you don’t follow up with everything in a report, years later when you go to trial, you don’t remember details.”
Although the television shows emphasize dramatic crimes, the forensics unit isn’t just called to murder scenes. Burglary, child abuse, arson, sexual battery and theft are just some of the crimes in which forensic science is utilized. Any time the crime scene is larger or more complicated than an officer or deputy can handle, the forensics unit is called to respond, explains Lt. David Redmond, the forensic unit director for the Marion County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO).
“Sure, I miss the car and foot chases, but I like the challenge of trying to find the smallest piece of evidence that will bring justice to the victim,” says Lt. Redmond, who was a patrol officer for 12 years before accepting his current position in September 2009.
Collecting and analyzing physical evidence is the main focus of a forensic investigation.
Once the alert sounds that assistance is needed, Lt. Redmond obtains background information to determine how many CSI techs are needed on the scene, as well as any specialty equipment that may be required.
“When we arrive, we meet with the deputy or detective and walk through the crime scene together, identifying evidence and areas that need to be processed,” he notes. “The first step is to photograph the scene as they see it before collecting any evidence.”
Every piece of evidence is packaged with the date, time and initials of the tech who bagged it. Once the scene has been processed, all evidence is brought back to the Sheriff’s Office.
“Chain of custody is crucially important with any type of evidence,” says Lt. Redmond. “The more people who handle evidence, the more it opens the item up to a defense challenge. The fewer people who handle it, the better. That’s what we try to preach and practice here.”
Although only a miniscule amount of evidence ever goes to trial, every piece of evidence collected from a crime scene—whether it’s a gun or a ball cap—is entered into the MCSO computer system, and a bar code is created. This allows investigators to know where a piece of evidence is at any given time. Items are secured to prevent tampering, and certain pieces of evidence require greater security than others.
Lt. Redmond taps on a large steel door in the Property & Evidence section of the Sheriff’s Office.
“Behind these locked doors are the three things that will get any sheriff or police chief in trouble: guns, money and drugs,” he says. “This door can’t be opened except by two keys, and the area is monitored by cameras.”
If fingerprints are found at the scene, that’s when Tiffany Nader’s job begins.
As a forensic latent print analyst, Nader focuses on details of the latent print known as “minutiae, characteristics or Galton details.” She analyzes and compares the latent lifts from crime scenes throughout the county. The word “latent” means “hidden.” Latent prints are usually invisible to the naked eye and must be developed and obtained by using fingerprint powders or chemicals.
Using a high-powered magnifying glass, Nader studies the intricacies of the skin’s friction ridge detail left behind in the latent lifts.
“The ridges, structure and pore structure of each latent print is unique,” she explains, adding that identifying an individual through fingerprints alone can be “like finding a needle in a haystack.”
Once she’s made an identification, another analyst must verify it using the ACEV method of “analyze, compare, evaluate and verify.”
“Someone’s life is going to be impacted by our decisions, so we are very careful to be 100 percent accurate,” says Nader, who says her work is like solving a small piece of the puzzle.
If someone has been fingerprinted for a past arrest, their prints will already be in the AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System), which is a computer-based system used for storing, searching, reading and cataloging criminal information based on fingerprints and palm prints.
“We can run the unknown latent prints into AFIS as long as they are ‘AFIS quality,’” Nader states, “or into IAFIS (Intergrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System), which searches the FBI’s fingerprint files, a nationwide database.” Both are computerized, and both yield results quickly.
“If a latent print is AFIS quality, but there’s no hit, it can be retained into the AFIS system,” says Nader. “Then, that retained unknown latent can be repeatedly searched against new arrest records throughout the state of Florida. Say a person in the future gets arrested and booked in Miami six months from now and this is their first arrest, but they have been committing crimes here in Marion County in the past but were never arrested. There is a possibility, if they left behind their prints here in Marion County, that the unknown latent can be checked against those current booking prints from Miami, which allows us the possibility to identify a suspect on an old case. That’s what we call a ‘reverse hit.’”
AFIS is, however, just a tool. The latent examiners—not the machine—make the call as to whether an identification is made or not.
In June 2007, the MCSO launched its own DNA Screening Lab. Here, forensic DNA technicians Nicki Palmer and Kayla Fitzgerald screen items from crime scenes to discover the presence of DNA.
A large window overlooks the lab where evidence is carefully laid out on white butcher paper atop stainless steel tables. A row of evidence lockers fills one wall, while across the room cabinets contain case files and a refrigerator holds chemicals needed for testing. Tools of the trade include microscopes and individual desk lamps equipped with magnifying glasses for close inspection, an autoclave for sterilization and neat rows of amber bottles filled with various chemicals.
Technicians are testing specifically for serology, meaning blood, saliva and semen. If an item tests positive for any of these, it’s sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) in Jacksonville for further analysis that will, hopefully, identify the person whose DNA was found on the item.
“Before this lab was established, we had to send items to the regional lab at FDLE for screening and analysis,” says Lt. Redmond. “In 2005, the average turn-around time was 273 days. You might have waited all that time, only to be told there was no DNA on the items you sent, and then you’d have to submit more items. You could have a murderer, rapist or burglar out there committing more crimes while you’re waiting. With this lab, we now average two days to determine if there’s DNA on an item. It’s been a tremendous help with us screening items here, and it speeds up the time for analysis with the FDLE.”
Admittedly, this is the most scientific area of the forensics unit. Forensic DNA technicians must have at least a bachelor’s degree in some kind of physical science to apply for the job.
“When you’re going through college, you really wonder when you dive into something if it’s going to be what you thought it was, and it is,” says Kayla Fitzgerald, who majored in forensic science and began working at MCSO in May 2010.
“I love forensics,” adds Nicki Palmer, who has been with the DNA screening lab since it opened. “It’s always a good feeling bringing the victim justice.”
Real life crime scene investigation rarely takes place as portrayed on television. For example, here in Marion County, the forensic technicians are civilians and aren’t “sworn in,” so they don’t carry a weapon. Another misleading notion promoted on television is that the techs themselves go after the “bad guys” to help solve the crime.
“The goal of any forensic unit is to remain neutral. The only time a forensic crime scene technician would talk to a suspect is to collect an oral DNA swab or to fingerprint them,” notes Lt. Redmond, who, by the way, has never watched a single episode of CSI.
“The most rewarding part of our job is when we find something at the scene that has major evidentiary value,” he says. “Our goal is to find evidence. Whether it exonerates a person or works to convict them is not our concern. We’re just after the facts. That’s how we stay neutral about a case.”
On television, CSI techs are frequently shown walking through a crime scene lit only by their flashlights. Granted, this ups the “creepiness factor,” but it’s hardly realistic.
“The only time we’d be doing that is if we’re in a place without power,” chuckles Lt. Redmond. “Sometimes there isn’t power, but obviously, if there’s power, we’re going to turn on the lights!”
Oh, and the biggest difference between crime scene investigating on television and in the real world?
A homicide is never completely worked and solved in one hour.
Tools Of The Trade
Never mind all those fancy, high-dollar tools seen on TV. While high-tech gadgets have their place, the average forensics crime scene technician regularly relies on the following:
Fingerprint Dusting Kit (this basic tool is No. 1)
Gloves (absolutely essential when handling evidence on the scene or in the office)
Alternate Light Source (allows the investigator to see bodily fluids, particularly semen)
Digital Camera and Video Equipment (Technicians take photos of everything!)
Casting Material (vital for making tire and shoe impressions, tool marks)
Kastle-Meyer Test (determines if a substance is blood, but in real life, it requires drops from three reagents not just one, as seen on CSI)
On the Job
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job openings for forensic science technicians are expected to increase by 20 percent. In May 2009, the BLS reported a mean hourly wage of $26.47 and a mean annual wage of $55,070. Location and tenure affect earnings, and education level can also influence earnings. Some—but not all—agencies require a bachelor’s degree. At the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, a high school diploma or GED is required, and applicants must complete an intense 14-week training period.
Source: crime-scene-investigator.net, MCSO
Explaining The Evidence
As of early August, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office was in possession of 64,200 pieces of evidence. Lt. David Redmond says, on average, 2,000 pieces of evidence come in every month.
Except in the case of murder, sexual offenses and items that contain DNA, evidence is kept until the statute of limitations on that particular crime is up. Once items are no longer needed, the MCSO has several ways of clearing the evidence out of storage. Depending on the item, it may be returned to the rightful owner, destroyed, donated to a non-profit organization or converted for agency use.
“Our number one goal is to return property to the rightful owner,” says Lt. Redmond. “Of course, there are some items that don’t get returned. Obviously, we don’t return drug items. Those get destroyed.”
Drugs are destroyed by incineration, and the destruction must be witnessed by three people in the agency.
At the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, the Forensics Unit is made up of four different areas:
Property & Evidence: Every piece of evidence—from guns to clothing—is identified, labeled with its own unique bar code and safely stored.
DNA Screening Lab: There’s only one other lab like it in Central Florida. This lab allows technicians to determine whether there is DNA on an item, greatly reducing the amount of time needed for analysis at FDLE in Jacksonville.
Latent Exam Section: Fingerprint evidence is routinely used to identify those involved with a crime. Fingerprint powder adheres to the oils left behind on the surface and technicians use tape to “lift” the prints from an object and place it on a white background card for analysis, turning latent (invisible) prints into patent (visible) fingerprints.
Crime Scene Investigation:All the technology in the world can’t replace the training and common sense of technicians who work the scene. In addition to methodically processing the crime scene and collecting evidence, they write up detailed reports and may be called upon to testify as expert witnesses if a criminal case goes to trial.
Time Is Up
Every crime—except murder—has a statute of limitations, and evidence doesn’t need to be kept beyond that period of time. Here are a few examples from Florida’s law books:
Source: Marion County Sheriff’s Office
Degree » Statute of Limitations
3rd/felony » 3 years
Arson of Dwelling
1st/felony » 4 years
2nd/felony » 3 years
1st/felony » 4 years
1st/felony » 4 years
2nd/misdemeanor » 1 year
1st/misdemeanor » 2 years
3rd/felony » 3 years