Scientists Wage War on Crime
New Connecticut lab showcases the latest anticrime technology
Politicians on Capitol Hill may vie for bragging rights in the war against crime. But on a hilltop overlooking downtown Meriden, Conn., the battle is being fought in earnest.Skip to next paragraph
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The weapons here, however, are not new laws or standard-issue police firearms, but a new $2.4 million crime laboratory run by the Connecticut State Police.
Sitting in his modest office, Henry Lee, the lab's director, comments on Washington's war on crime: ``Everything is going to be more,'' he says, ``more police, more arrests, more prisons. But what are they not adding? Science and technology.''
The United States got its first crime lab in 1932 after instruments and techniques used in biology, chemistry, and physics matured, but the field didn't blossom until the 1960s, when the US Supreme Court handed down decisions limiting the techniques police could use to interrogate suspects. As a result, Dr. Lee says, ``Physical evidence became a major factor, especially in really high-profile trials.''
Lee, a professor of forensic science at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, is no stranger to such trials. Widely considered the nation's leading forensic scientist, Lee has been called to help prosecutors and defense teams alike, including those of William Kennedy Smith and, most recently, O.J. Simpson.
While Lee has built his reputation on helping to crack difficult cases, he emphasizes that forensic work often protects the innocent. ``Some people look at our results and tell me, `Oh, you work for the prosecution.' But in almost 40 percent of the cases that come to the lab, the physical evidence excludes the original suspect.''
In the past decade, several technologies have emerged to help forensics labs squeeze more information from ever-smaller bits of evidence.
The most significant of these has been DNA fingerprinting, says Capt. Mark Dale, president of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors and assistant director of the New York State Police crime lab in Albany. DNA fingerprinting uses chemically enhanced images of an individual's unique genetic code to identify victims or match evidence on the scene to suspects.
``You're looking at an individual at the molecular level,'' Lee says, ``which makes identification more conclusive and ... excludes the innocent more quickly.''
In addition, forensics labs have been able to capitalize on analytical equipment developed for civilian laboratories - electron microscopes and spectrometers, for example - to analyze everything from paint chips, fibers, and cosmetics to microscopic particles of gunpowder residue.
Finally, the digital revolution has given forensic scientists the tools to enhance images from bad photos of license plates and handwriting on wills and to keep databases of information such as fingerprints, DNA samples, and ballistics evidence from firearms.
``In Connecticut, we have 2 million fingerprints on file. In the old days, you had to manually search these records. It would take one person 59 years to go through it all,'' Lee says. ``Now, you can go through the records in 17 minutes. If we had the wrong person in custody, it might have taken two weeks to confirm it; now we can let them go immediately.''
Although many of the methods used are spin-offs, some are developed during investigations. Others are the result of concerted research. Lee's lab, for example, is working on ways to capture usable DNA samples from materials that have been exposed to the elements for long periods of time.
Because of the lab's workload, much of the research is done late in the evening and on weekends and, occasionally, at home.
``I've even buried bone samples in my garden,'' Lee says, adding that when his family moved, his wife insisted he dig the samples up. ``She didn't want the new owners to dig in the garden, discover the bones, and call the police.''
As technologies improve, a next step will be an ability to take lab technology into the field, Lee says, noting that now it can take up to five weeks to analyze evidence collected by field investigators. Yet if a case is not solved within 48 hours, the probability increases sharply that it will not be solved at all, says Robert O'Brien, the lab's instrumentation specialist.
Meanwhile, the lab has a backlog of 500 to 600 cases and a staff of 32 scientists to work on them. ``With more arrests and more evidence, what do we do with this backlog? We're forced to set priorities,'' Lee says. Crimes such as homicides, rapes, and assaults get highest priority, with crimes against property at the bottom of the list. ``That's why a lot of crimes against property don't get solved,'' he adds.
The omnibus crime bill that cleared Congress last year contained $40 million for a five-year program of grants to support DNA work in crime labs across the country. In addition, another $25 million was earmarked for establishment of a DNA advisory board, set up under the auspices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to establish uniform standards for forensic DNA tests.
Yet when spread over 50 states, ``this is a pittance,'' Captain Dale says. ``If you add 100 narcotics officers to the force, you need at least two more people added to the crime lab'' to keep up with the workload. ``Often they're not added.''
``It's frustrating from the lab point of view, because we know what we can do,'' Dale says. ``If evidence is collected and preserved properly and if the best techniques are used to analyze it, a case never goes to trial.''