Persistence gets results at state crime lab
Life doesn't always imitate art; sometimes it's not even close.
"We don't come to work in leather pants and stilettos," said Sarah Castagno, a criminalist at the New Hampshire Forensics Laboratory in Concord, referring to the dress code adhered to by some fictitious characters in movies and TV shows. "We don't drive Hummers, and we don't carry guns. A lot of the procedures they do are generally similar to what we do, but things don't happen that quickly."
Instead, the methods used at the lab are often painstakingly slow and deliberate, requiring real people with real expertise to put in hours examining pieces of evidence.
"It's not like you can put two fingerprints into a computer and it comes back that they are a perfect match," said Tim Pifer, director of the state lab. "That's not what happens. It takes a human examiner to prove something is a match. I view it as a science. We follow the scientific method and utilize a step-wise methodology. We back up and document, everything we do."
The lab receives about 1,000 cases each month, he said, and each has on average two to three evidence items submitted with it. That means Pifer and his staff handle about 2,000 to 3,000 pieces of evidence per month.
The evidence is dropped off at the front office and a bar code is applied.
"The cataloging is critical to the process,'' Pifer said, "so we know where it is stored, how long it's been here, who has it, etc."
Police drop off evidence on average a couple of times an hour. Sealed envelopes are signed in, with three lab staffers handling the process. The items are then stored until technicians are ready to analyze them.
"They could bring us anything," said Pifer. "It could be a single hair. It could be part of a car, a piece of a house, a piece of a person ... we deal with a lot of different things. The city of Manchester is probably our biggest client. They were up here this morning, dropping 20 to 30 cases involving drugs, sexual assaults, etc."
The laboratory occupies about 15,000 square feet of the third floor of New Hampshire State Police headquarters at 33 Hazen Drive. Pifer heads up a team of 47 staff members, including medical technologists, chemists, forensic scientists, biologists and molecular biologists. "There's 40 scientists with probably 15 different backgrounds," said Pifer. He's been at the lab for more than 23 years and has seen it grow from 14 employees to its current staffing, "but we still have a backlog."
There are also administrative and support staff members and evidence technicians.
The staff is divided into two groups: the criminology group - which handles traditional crime lab duties, such as fingerprinting, firearms tests and DNA analysis - and the toxicology group, where technicians analyze body fluids for presence of drugs and alcohol.
"We physically separate the two labs because in one we get kilos of cocaine and over the other side we are looking for nanograms of cocaine in someone's system," said Pifer. "We don't want issues of cross-examination."
Pifer said the busiest area of the lab is the drug-analysis section.
"We take in about 600 new drug cases each month, and they range from marijuana to cocaine to heroin, to pharmaceuticals," said Pifer. "Our biggest problems right now involve pharmaceuticals and synthetic cannabinoids. Some are controlled and some are not, so we need to analyze the sample and look at the list and see if it's controlled or not. If it's not, it's not a violation. So we spend a lot of time on them. We used to spend about 20 minutes on a marijuana analysis, now we're spending hours."
Without citing specifics, Pifer talked about what type of evidence might come in from an investigation like the Bedford home invasion on Nov. 24. In that case, a husband and wife were injured, and police are still looking for the attacker. Evidence from such a crime could include blood or fingerprints.
"Ten years ago, you needed to see a stain to take a DNA sample," said Pifer. "Now we're taking swabs off cigarette filters, beer bottles, anything that has come into contact with someone. And it's quick. We can turn a complete DNA profile on someone in two days.
Pifer said he and his staff have noticed an increase in cases involving violent assaults and burglaries.
"From what we've seen in the lab, in terms of evidence submissions, the frequency of these incidents have increased," said Pifer. "What it means, I'm not sure. We've heard everything from the economy, to these people have addictions. Those types of cases are on the rise. The state of New Hampshire's population hasn't grown all that much, so something's giving here.
"What is interesting to me is that when I started, we were averaging 30 homicides a year in this state," said Pifer. "Now we are down in the teens. It's still the safest state, in my opinion, and our responsibility is to give the officers the tools so they can prosecute and maintain that designation as the safest state."
DNA and fingerprints
Anyone convicted of a felony in New Hampshire is required to give a DNA sample.
"Police bring in a blood sample from a burglary, say, where someone cut themselves on glass," said Pifer. "A police officer shows up, swabs the blood, brings it to us. That's an unknown sample. If they have a suspect, great, we'll see if it matches. If not, what we would do is work up that profile and upload that into the national database and get a name and date of birth to give to the officers."
Fingerprint analysis is one of the oldest forms of analysis a crime lab provides, though the equipment used has been updated. Pifer demonstrates how easy it is to lift a print by taking a recently handled tube and spraying it with particle reagent solution, then lightly dusting it. A print is now clearly visible, which he covers with a special adhesive tape to create a copy of the print. An image can then be taken of the print and uploaded into the crime lab's database.
"From there we can actually do two different kinds of searches," said Castagno, sitting before a computer terminal comparing two fingerprints. "We can do what's called a forward search, where we put an unknown impression into the system and search against known criminals that have been entered into the database. Or we can do what's called a reverse search, when fingerprints from new arrestees are put into the system, and all the data from unsolved cases are searched against new entries. That way we can potentially identify a suspect in a case from however many years ago."
"We have it set to bring up five potential candidates," said Castagno. "It's not like on 'CSI,' where it just brings up two images and says, 'Match! Match! Match!' Go pick up Johnny Jones, he's at the coffee shop on the corner.' That doesn't actually happen. We have to go in and do all the comparisons ourselves."
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Paul Feely may be reached at email@example.com.