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Wednesday, 03 December 2008 13:38

Prime time pushes trend in crime forensics

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Waynesville defense attorney Don Patten has noticed an interesting trend among jurors in recent years.

They are hungry for hard and fast evidence like hair samples, DNA, blood traces and firearm analysis — tidbits most likely picked up from TV shows like “CSI” and “Cold Case.”

“Nowadays they’re (juries) thinking this is ‘CSI’ world and local police and law enforcement are able to do extremely complex forensic exams,” Patten said. “In reality it is a extremely time consuming and tedious process.”

Patten admits that he plays on the jury’s naïve belief that things are like they are on TV by demanding such evidence from the prosecution.

“Of course we play off it,” Patten said.

However, he does not feel it is unreasonable.

“All I’m trying to do is create reasonable doubt. In every criminal case the state has the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” Patten said.

The scientific side of crime scene analysis and the field of forensic anthropology is rapidly growing. Patten recalls when he became a defense attorney 25 years ago and there was no such thing as DNA analysis.

“Now it’s very common,” he said. “It’s used every day in paternity cases.”

“Back then we were getting into fiber analysis,” he said.

Forensics has improved the field of criminal investigations, he said.

“It adds another level of certainty one way or another,” Patten said. “Depending on what it is, it can be completely damaging or exonerating.”

Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland has seen a big change in forensics since entering law enforcement in 1991. He said it has helped him solve many crimes.

Forensics technology has not reached the point of how it is portrayed on TV, Holland said.

“While ‘CSI’ is a good show, it causes law enforcement nightmares,” he said.

He laughed that shows like “CSI” show someone putting a drop of blood in a machine that then produces a sculpture of the person’s face.

But Holland often sends forensic evidence such as blood left at murder scenes and DNA from rape suspects to the state Crime Lab in Raleigh and Asheville for processing. Holland said all of his investigators are trained in collecting forensic evidence, but the State Bureau of Investigation is also called in to assist in investigations, including all homicides. With forensic technology always improving, Holland said his detectives are continually in training.

The best evidence to have

The “CSI” syndrome among jurors has been an issue for District Attorney Mike Bonfoey of Waynesville.

“Juries expect everything to be solved,” Bonfoey said.

But when investigators can get their hands on it, forensic evidence can be the lynch pin needed to seal a case. When DNA evidence is collected at the scene of sexual assault cases, for example, it can be compared against known suspects making for a cut-and-dry case if there’s a match.

In other cases, gunshot residue tests can be done on suspects to determine if they recently fired a gun, Bonfoey said.

Particles or powder from the gunshot might still be on suspect’s hand, he said. Gases from the gun’s chamber and barrel may also be on the suspect.

Fingerprints, unlike on TV, are often not very helpful, Bonfoey said.

Blood splatters on the wall can be helpful in determining what the victim was doing when he was shot. For instance, was the person killed the initial aggressor, defending himself, or kneeled on the ground execution style.

This type of evidence is helpful when defendants say they were defending themselves.

“Forensics fill in the puzzle,” Bonfoey said.

Ballistics are also helpful identifying the type of gun used in a crime. Bonfoey explained when a bullet is fired from a rifle or handgun it picks up markings unique to certain guns.

Unique pin markings are also left on fired shotgun shells.

Paint left behind from hit-and-run accidents, plaster casts of tire tracks and shoe prints, and hair samples are other forms of forensic evidence Bonfoey said he uses.

Crime lab hold-up

In some cases forensic evidence is a must, Patten said.

“In sex cases and murder cases I’m going to be looking for DNA and hair because the penalties are so severe that it’s not unreasonable,” he said.

Patten said he thinks the state Crime Lab is slow in turning around evidence.

“Right now if a cop finds what is believed to be pot and sends it to the state lab, it could be six months before the lab gets it analyzed and returned to local law enforcement,” Patten said. “If it’s DNA or something more complicated it may be eight to 10 months.”

He suggests the state hire more chemists and forensics experts to work in the Crime Lab.

“When you’re not able to get a lab result for six months the client is in limbo with a cloud over his head,” Patten said.

Holland agrees getting evidence returned from the state Crime Lab often takes a long time, Holland said. Sometimes it takes several weeks to a year, he said.

Evidence he sends runs the gamut including stomach matter, bullets and rape kits.

Drugs have to be sent to the Crime Lab to prove they are actually drugs. A delay in getting evidence back from the lab means it takes longer to get a case through the court system.

“It delays the proof of innocence or guilt of a person,” Holland said.

However, Holland said the court system is backlogged anyway, and getting evidence turned around more quickly probably wouldn’t make a difference.

Crime lab on overdrive

In response to the growing demand for forensic evidence, the State Bureau of Investigation has ramped up the number of DNA experts working in its crime lab from five in 2001 to 42 now. DNA was used to catch more murderers, rapists and other criminals in the first six months of 2007 alone than in the first 10 years of the DNA program combined.

Bonfoey said he would like to get evidence from the state Crime Lab turned around faster. But he said he does not think there is a backlog in getting his evidence back.

“I’d like to see the state have more forensic analysts of various types to see this move quicker,” he said.

Public Information Officer for the state Department of Justice Noelle Talley said there is no backlog at the state Crime Lab.

She couldn’t give an average turnaround on evidence, saying each case is different.

She said a state law passed in 2004 that requires all convicted felons to provide a DNA sample has helped the state clear cases. The Crime Lab has dramatically improved DNA evidence turn-around time and cleared all untested rape kits from local law enforcement shelves, she said

The database now has more than 150,000 DNA samples compared to about 18,700 in 2000.

The database had 342 hits in 2007 compared to just 64 in 2004 — up substantially from 1995 when there was one hit.

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