BY JOHN DOUGLAS
This is the third and final installment in a series exploring the Columbus Forensic Lab.
In Part 1, we introduced the lab and its employees. In Part 2, we explored the different departments in the lab and got to know the different equipment and techniques used by the forensic team in their pursuit of truth and justice.
The Future of the Columbus Forensic Lab
Expanding the Vaults
The evidence vaults at the Columbus Police Department are full. Outfitted with 228 bins, the facility has reached capacity due to the high rate of crime in the Columbus area. With more crime comes more evidence. When the vaults were originally built, they weren’t designed with modern evidence storage procedures in mind.
Columbus Forensic Lab Director Austin Shepherd blames The “CSI Effect”.
“Everything is evidence now,” Shepherd said. “ And everyone expects evidence. Juries expect evidence. Prosecution and defense expect evidence. Victims expect evidence, forensic evidence. So, what happens is: we’re collecting more evidence and we’re keeping more evidence. And it’s not as easy as ‘the close of a case’ or ‘the close of a trial’ and then you say ‘Ok, we’re done with this,’ and just throw it out the back door into the dump. You may face years of appeals and retrials if the person didn’t plea. You have to keep that stuff through every appeal he or she could have. We commonly hold on to evidence for 40 or 50 years, even for simple burglaries and robberies.”
Before leaving office, former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour signed a law that any evidence that could contain traces of DNA must be kept indefinitely.
“The only way to get rid of that evidence is to have the judge, the prosecuting attorney, the defense attorney, the police chief, all victims and all suspects sign off on its destruction,” Shepherd said. “The likelihood of that happening is next to zero.”
As such, a small amount of the evidence currently in the vaults can be disposed of, but not nearly enough for the amount of physical evidence that is coming in on a daily basis.
Compounding the issue of restricted space is the outdated nature of the vaults themselves. Essentially just cinderblock rooms, the evidence vaults shares a climate control system with the rest of the police department. While this is less of a problem in the summer months when the entire building is kept at a lower temperature, the use of heat in the winter months posses a threat to the physical evidence stored therein. Over time, heat can break down organic evidence (like marijuana). As the heat affects certain evidence, fumes or mold can be released into the atmosphere, prompting safety and health concerns. Steps have been taken to reduce these issues, but the steps are “a glorified band aid”. At the forefront of the vault’s shortfalls is the need of an independent climate control / air circulation system.
On the plus side, the storage vaults are currently outfitted with a lab grade bio cooler for sexual assault kits. The bio cooler was purchased in 2005 to replace a refrigerator that was “less than dependable”.
Shepherd said he has a plan as the facility’s director, and he has developed a proposal to build a modern evidence storage facility onto the rear of the forensic lab.
At approximately 2000 square feet, the proposed facility would be outfitted with Spacesaver Mobile Shelving rolling compact shelving units for better organization of the physical evidence. These units would increase the Columbus Forensic Lab’s storage capacity to the point where another expansion would not be needed for another 20 – 25 years. The shelving units are pricey, costing approximately $15,000, but the increase in storage space would theoretically secure the evidence for countless convictions for decades to come.
The proposed facility would also feature an overnight evidence deposit, making evidence processing easier for police officers working the graveyard shift.
In addition to drugs, Columbus Police Officers recover a relatively high number of firearms from the streets of The Friendly City. Additionally, with the CPD’s recent gun buyback initiative, the gun storage racks in the current evidence vaults are nearly full. The proposed facility would feature expanded gun racks (measuring 17 feet long) to handle the constant influx of firearms.
A 10” x 10” clandestine lab (meth lab) storage room would sit within reinforced 16 inch-thick walls constructed from cinder blocks with steel rods and concrete poured inside. A solid steel door would secure the room. Meth lab evidence is currently stored alongside all other evidence in the CPD vaults. If this evidence reacted with one another, it could cause an explosion or at the very least, a leak of hazardous fumes
If approved, the proposed evidence facility would tout a $111,000 price tag. However, the city of columbus is not being asked to foot the entire bill. Shepherd has applied for the Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grant which may provide $150,000 towards the expansion and updates for equipment in the lab. This is a very competitive grant, and Shepherd will not know the results of the application until September. In the interview, he stated, “Grants specifically for forensic science are few and far between. We are seeing funding for the grants that are left shrink more and more each year.”
Advancing the Lab
The Blood Lab
One of the lesser used departments of the forensic lab is the Auto-AntiBody Identification Lab (ABPID). Still in development, the ABPID Lab employs a technique similar to DNA testing to identify biological evidence left at scenes.
The lab was started on grants approximately a year and a half ago. The corporation that produces the hardware in the lab, Identity Sciences, will soon visit the Columbus Forensic Lab to recalibrate the equipment and train the newer staff in its use.
The ABPID tests can be used as an effective prescreener for DNA. While a DNA test can cost up to $1000 per sample and have up to a three to six month turnaround, the ABPID test is drastically cheaper and less time-consuming. At $200 per sample and a two hour turn around, the ABPID test can be used to weed out blood samples from victims and isolate questionable samples from possible suspects. For a smaller case with several samples to test, this can save the city thousands of dollars. Also, the ABPID system can store a database of profiles for cross-reference in future cases, so this may save additional time and money in the future.
Though it hasn’t been tested in court yet, the ABP profiles appear to be as unique as DNA profiles.
Shepherd would like to make several changes in the forensic lab itself.
Though repeatedly turned down for budget increases, Shepherd hopes to be able to purchase a new or “gently used” GC Mass Spectrometer for the drug lab. As described in last issue’s tour of the lab, the GT Mass Spectrometer is the oldest piece of equipment in the Forensic Lab. At 28 years old, the GT Mass Spec is a quality workhorse that returns a highly detailed analysis. Unfortunately, the GT runs on Windows ME, a seriously out-dated software. Compounded with the fact that replacement parts for the unit are no longer being produced, the GT is on the cusp of being a hinderance to future forensic investigations. A brand new replacement for the GT would cost around $90,000. While this may seem like a tall order, the sheer number of cases that the drug lab processes would make the purchase worthwhile. [Especially in an area with the drug traffic that the Golden Triangle provides.]
Staffing the Lab
Shepherd’s plan for the lab, that stretches years into the future, also includes some staff changes. Forensic Chemist Xin Xu would act as head of the forensic chemistry department, acting as Assistant Director of the drug lab. (This change is actually slated to take place in the next six to nine months.)
Forensic Chemist Claudette Gilman currently serves as Property Technician for the evidence vaults replacing former property/evidence tech Andy McCants who left the lab last year. As planned, she would retain custodianship of the proposed storage facility.
If the budget were approved, Shepherd would hire an additional forensic evidence tech to assist with the vaults as well as a dedicated fingerprint analyst to man the fingerprint lab full-time.
Additionally, the lab still lacks a digital analyst in the Computer Forensics Department. As noted last issue, due to budgetary restraints, the lab cannot afford to hire anyone for this position. Instead, the staff of the lab must take turns working on digital cases between drug, fingerprint and crime scene cases. Due to this limitation, the digital forensics lab has a backlog of cases (and the stack is growing). It is unfortunate to have a state-of-the-art lab with no one to work the cases. Without the budget to hire a digital analyst, Lab Director Austin Shepherd will have no choice but to shut down the computer forensics lab and send the cases elsewhere, where they may be backlogged behind another lab’s current workload. Without these cases being handled, child pornographers and the like are left to roam the streets until the day when a lab can work through the backlog.
Shepherd’s plan for the lab is meant to be in motion well after his time as director is over. According to the director, “I want to leave something behind that can help people. I believe in forensic science. Apparently judges and attorneys believe in it, too.” He calls the lab a “labor of love.”
When asked about his years-long development of the lab, Shepherd said, “I’m from Columbus. I came back to be around family, watch the Bulldogs play and make a difference in my hometown.”