Not as seen on TV
Crime lab scientists do not interview witnesses or suspects of crimes, they aren't experts in all types of forensics, they work many more than one case at a time and don't solve all of them, and they aren't all good-looking enough for television.
These myths about crime lab scientists persist through television shows and novels, and on Wednesday, June 11, at the Chautauqua program at the Crosslake Community Center, Jim Dougherty of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) lab in Bemidji set out to bust them.
"Not every crime is solved," he said. "If there's not enough evidence, sometimes people do get away with murder, although it's getting harder and harder."
"And we have more 'faces for radio,'" he joked.
Dougherty, assistant director at the Forensic Science Service in Bemidji since 2001, described in detail what work is like day-to-day in the lab for him and his scientist colleagues. What forensic scientists actually do includes not only examinations of evidence, but also processing of major crime scenes, providing expert witness testimony in trials and instructing the criminal justice community.
"We are not police officers; we are scientists," he said. "Everyone who works in the lab has some degree in physical science."
The Bemidji location is one of two BCA labs in the state, serving 28 counties in northern Minnesota, with the other located in St. Paul. Employing 12 staff members, the Bemidji lab assesses nuclear DNA, drug chemistry, latent prints, firearms, tool marks and crime scenes. All testing related to violent crimes can be completed in the lab with no reliance on the much larger St. Paul location.
Given the "glamorous" reputation of forensic science, forum participants appeared surprised to hear that the vast majority of cases handled by the BCA are related to drunk driving offenses - a full 73 percent. In contrast, Dougherty estimates the labs respond to around 40 homicide cases each year.
In addition to testing body fluids for the presence of drugs and alcohol performed by toxicologists, chemists on staff also test material itself to confirm whether it is a narcotic. Dougherty described trends the BCA labs have seen over the past 15 years in the types of drugs they are testing for law enforcement. The biggest trend in recent years is a "big, huge comeback" in heroin use, along with a decline in methamphetamine use.
He said that in 2001, meth represented around 70 percent of material tested overall. In 2013, however, this declined to around 30 percent. Dougherty attributed this change to a 2006 federal law that moved pseudoephedrine, a common cold medicine and a key ingredient for methamphetamine manufacturing, behind the counter and limited the amount that could be purchased at one time.
Still, of the 30 percent of meth processed in 2013, a unique type of meth emerged inspired by another popular television show, "Breaking Bad." Chemists began seeing "blue meth," which is a signature product for the show's characters. "Blue meth" doesn't actually exist the way it is depicted on the show; in reality, it's just regular methamphetamine dyed blue.
"They are marketing their product based on a TV show," Dougherty said.
One of the major changes Dougherty has seen in his 24 years with the BCA is improvements to DNA-testing technology. Having begun his career in the DNA field, he remembers a time when if there wasn't enough blood on a piece of evidence, it couldn't be tested at all. Now, a suspect need only touch an object to leave traces of their DNA signature behind.
When asked by an attendee if he could remember a past case in which modern technology could have made a difference, Dougherty recalled his work on the disappearance of 5-year-old Corrine Erstad, who was last seen at a park near her home in Inver Grove Heights in 1992. Blood evidence found in the abduction suspect's vehicle was not present in high enough quantities to be properly tested at the time. Other blood evidence found in the case indicated it may have been Erstad's, but Minnesota law in 1992 did not allow for the full usage of DNA results in criminal prosecutions. The suspect, Robert Guevara, was acquitted.
"Nowadays, we would have definitely gotten enough," he said. "I'm not saying that blood was hers, but I sure would like to know whose it was."
The BCA labs do not receive funding from the county or state prosecution or the approximately 500 agencies they may process evidence for and they do not charge for their services. They are funded by the state, just as public defenders are. A new state law passed this legislative session requires all crime labs be accredited to match national standards, following 2012 revelations that the St. Paul Police Department's crime lab had no established standard testing procedures.
Lawyers for the defense have the opportunity to seek a second opinion from private labs, although Dougherty said he has never seen results that differ from those concluded by the BCA.
He stressed that above all, crime lab scientists are not aiming to make anyone appear guilty or not guilty, but rather are "seeking truth through science."
"Our culture in our lab is that science is neutral," he said. "If the answer is that guy didn't do it, then the answer is that guy didn't do it."