Crime solving scientists and lab technicians are really popular on TV. Here's what they're like in real life.
June 21, 2007
Not long ago a young Japanese woman staying in Wailea for a wedding accidentally locked herself out of her hotel room. It was around 11 at night as she walked on the sidewalk through Wailea on her way back to the festivities. Walking quickly in the dark, a man riding a bicycle approached her. He began asking her questions, apparently attempting to lure her off the main highway.
When he realized she was not going to cooperate, the man grabbed her and carried her into a nearby construction site, where he raped her. Oddly, after having his way with her, the man offered the woman a cold beer. She pushed it away, convincing the man to leave, then called the police.
Being that it was a violent crime, the criminal investigative team, including detectives and evidence specialists, arrived on scene. Vincent Souki was one of the evidence specialists.
According to Souki, at that time the Shops of Wailea had just been landscaped. As Souki and the rest of the investigative team studied the scene, they noticed that the perpetrator had left perfect footprints on the sidewalk while carrying the victim through the loose dirt.
"This was an interesting case because there really was some great evidence left at the scene," Souki said. "We took castings of the shoe prints and photographs of the mud prints on the sidewalk and we were able to determine his shoe size. I also recognized that they were mountain bike shoes."
Souki asked the victim to stay at the crime scene so he could take pictures of her injuries. He also collected forensic evidence, like pubic hair and dried semen that the man had left in her hair.
Of all the rape victims that he had ever worked with, Souki explained, this woman was extremely lucid and brave. Along with giving a clear description of the wanted man, she even remembered to tell police about the perspiration on the beer bottle the man had offered her, clueing in detectives to check the video footage at nearby liquor stores.
After collecting the forensic evidence on the scene, Souki went to a local bike shop. An employee there told him that a pair of shoes similar to the ones Souki described had been stolen a few days prior. He was also able to describe the guy who had taken them.
Two weeks went by. Then for some reason the man returned to the bike shop. The same employee who'd helped Souki was also working that day, and called 911. After a brief chase, the police were able to detain him.
"There was a quick talk but his line was proven," Souki said. "We collected DNA samples, sent them in and made all the connections, came back with all the evidence. We had the shoe prints, his hair and his cells. This was a case that all came together.
"It just doesn't happen in 45 minutes," Souki added, smiling.
I'm a crime solving geek. All my friends know it. I love detectives, forensics, defense attorneys and the psychology that lies behind criminal acts. My television time consists of watching shows such as CSI: Miami, CSI: Las Vegas, CSI: New York (I don't discriminate or play favorites), Numb3rs and Bones. If there's a corpse and a character similar to Horatio Cain, I'm invisible to the world.
A few months ago I met with Lieutenant Glenn Cuomo of Maui's Criminal Investigation Division (CID) and two of his evidence specialists, Souki and Anthony Earles.
Cuomo and I sat in his office and talked for a while. He told me he was retiring soon and that his emotions were mixed. He said he enjoyed his work because it gave him the "ability to right a wrong when possible." He said his team was a vital part of solving crimes. "I really enjoy having the evidence technicians as part of my crew," he said.
As if on cue, Earles and Souki walked in, immediately creating an air of camaraderie within the room. After introductions, it became immediately apparent why Earles and Souki did what they did. The mood in the room was jovial, but both men seemed unusually attentive, as though they possessed a heightened cognizance most people lack.
They couldn't have been more different in appearance and mannerisms. Souki was well-built, garrulous and sharp; Earles was slim, reticent and perceptive. They were a bit like the odd couple, complimenting each other's conduct the way opposites sometimes do.
Forensic science, like all science, is forever changing. I wondered if Maui's country lifestyle might hinder technological advancements within the CID's cases. They said the department was really good about sending them to trainings and keeping them consistently up to date.
"This is a small county, so the volume here is small," Souki said. "Thank goodness. Therefore, we do not warrant a full service lab. Honolulu Police Department has the state lab facility. It depends on the case, sometimes we use Honolulu, a reference lab on the mainland or we also send some of our stuff to the FBI. We do the qualitative preliminary work, determine what's worth sending to the lab and then send it out for the more specialized work. The lab technician's jobs are very specialized. They are the ones that stay indoors and do all the bench work. They have ballistics people that just do ballistics, trace people that just do trace evidence, DNA people that just handle DNA."
Knowing so much about crime scene investigation on television, I started asking about some of the show's more colorful claims. Was it possible to get a fingerprint off a lava rock? Did they have fancy computers in their cars that spit out Automatic Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) info within minutes? Did the evidence specialists frequently interrogate criminals and receive perfect testimonials to their crime?
Cuomo said complicated print lifting did happen, but that there was a line regarding interrogations. Technicians normally did not do homicide interrogations, Cuomo said. And Souki said there were no fancy computers in their cars, though they did have a big computer database.
As a rule, none of the men watched any of the CSI shows, saying it "glamorized the job" and misled people, sometimes even in court. The biggest myth that the public struggled with, Cuomo said, was that people didn't understand why the "CSI guys" didn't appear at every crime scene.
"Unfortunately, we can't bring this kind of expertise to every case," he said.
They also don't carry guns.
"We don't need to because the scene is secure and set up for us once we get there," Souki said. "Things do take time, people really don't get that. We do get good hits on our fingerprints, absolutely. But we can't do it in 10 seconds."
Earles tentatively said he appreciated the awareness shows like CSI brought to the community. "Now the public has some idea but it's not necessarily accurate so when they enter a courtroom as a juror, for example, they have an expectation that is sometimes unrealistic," he said.
"What I do see on CSI is that the technical advisors that they use are very good," Souki added. "Everything that they do is technically correct—it just happens too quickly. The public also thinks that because someone touched a gun, there will be a clear fingerprint. Not necessarily. There are a lot of factors."
Maui PD's CID does have some similarities to its Hollywood imitations. They can call upon a forensic entomologist (bug doctor) if they need to. They can get accurate time of death from Dr. Lee Goff, who runs the forensics program at Chaminade University on Oahu. Once they sent him a mass of maggots for drug analysis.
According to Souki, the State of Hawai'i is now using a DNA database for felony convictions. With over 30,000 convicted felons in the state—not all of whom are currently incarcerated—it's extremely helpful for the CID in solving certain crimes or even identifying corpses. Detectives now carry Buccal kits so they can take DNA samples, or epithelial cells, from felons as they are being processed.
After we wrapped up our interview, Souki and Earles gave me a tour of their work environment in the lower level of the Maui Police Department building in Wailuku. The first room we stopped in was a conventional office, which both men use for report writing, drawing computer-aided design (CAD) diagrams and photo analysis.
Off that was another room holding files and arrest packets, one for the woman who handles latent fingerprints or the AFIS program and one more for dealing with forensic evidence.
Darna Miguel, Maui PD's Fingerprint Identification Technician, works the AFIS computer. Searching for a print is not a simple, quick, computerized process. Basically, when the evidence specialists retrieve a latent print at a crime scene, they enter it into the AFIS system, where it's matched against the tens of millions of prints already in the system. If there's no match, it comes back labeled Jane or John Doe.
From there, Miguel gets a candidate list. It's now her job to compare the latent print against the list. This can be extremely time-consuming.
"Nobody is depending on a computer to make an ID anywhere," Souki said. "A human being has to make that call."
The last room, with access controlled by a double lock system, was the crime lab itself. Inside I found trajectory kits, fingerprint powders, Buccal swab kits, Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) tabs, chemicals such as Luminal (it finds blood traces that aren't visible), metal detectors, Alternate Light Source (ALS) devices for trace evidence and a drying cabinet that had bloody pajamas hanging inside.
It was at once a sobering reminder that solving crimes is far more morbid than glamorous. I asked Souki and Earles to describe the most unpleasant parts of their jobs.
"Probably the worst thing is when you pick someone up and their skin is sliding off of them," Souki said without blinking. "It's not always pleasant. The smells can be pretty bad sometimes, too."
We all agreed that their job, although technical, could be extremely morose when dealing with human mortality.
"Of course it's challenging at times but I really love the problem solving aspect of the job," Earles said. "You are always having to test your senses."
Souki agreed. "I like re-constructing a scene," he said. "Piecing it together and seeing if it corroborates with the story, is really an interesting part of the casework. You will sometimes get conflicting information but evidence is solid and it doesn't lie." MTW
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