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Gotta Catch 'Em All! — The Highs and Lows of the Columbus Forensic Lab — Part 2 of 3

BY JOHN DOUGLAS

Lab Director Austin Shepherd dusts a jar for fingerprints

Lab Director Austin Shepherd dusts a jar for fingerprints

[This is the second in a three-part series exploring the Columbus Forensic Lab, following last week’s “Getting to Know the Columbus Forensic Lab”]

Touring the Columbus Forensic Lab

The Fingerprint Lab
The fingerprint “wet lab” is equipped with anything and everything the Columbus Forensic team could want or need (barring an unlimited budget).

• The Superglue Chamber
Replacing the old-school fish tank that you’ve seen used in the movies to  heat chemicals to enhance fingerprints is the SafeFume superglue fume chamber.  Fully automated, the chamber is able to raise its internal humidity to permeate target fingerprints with superglue fumes.  This causes the prints to show up under certain light sources.
• The Vacuum Chamber
Using the same principles as the superglue chamber, the vacuum chamber is especially useful for pulling fingerprints from soft plastics, such as the small baggies used to transport marijuana or cocaine.  Because of its delicate target materials, the vacuum chamber does not employ a heat source.  Instead, activator chemicals are addedto the chamber to speed up the reactions inside.
• Dusting for Prints
Next in the lineup is the fingerprint powdering workstation.  Working with modern compounds, the forensics team uses the same basic methods that crime scene investigators have been using for over 100 years.  Whereas the investigators of old simply used black charcoal dust to pull prints, modern lab work employs a wide spectrum of colors and ingredients.
• Alternate Light Source
The Crimescope CS-16 (“The Ultimate Forensic Light Source”) provides  a variety of light waves for exposing fumed or dusted prints.  Generating light on the low end of the UV spectrum (with a wavelength varying from 350 to 550 nanometers).  The CS-16 can be useful when examining documents to compare inks with suspected forgeries.

The cell phone analysis system

The cell phone analysis system

• The Wet Station
Working hand-in-hand with the CS-16 is the fingerprint wet station.  Processing evidence with flourescent dyes or reagents, these stations are used to pull fingeprints from forged checks or documents.  With these tools, the team can pull the fingerprints of every person who has touched the paper in question.
• The Fingerprint Imaging Lab
The digital fingerprint imaging lab is set up with the AFIX system, a database that stores and references all the fingerprints logged by the Forensic Lab, Columbus Police Department, the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office or the Lowndes County Adult Detention Center.  The fingerprints include those collected at crime scenes, recovered from evidence and the logged prints of every offender booked into holding in Lowndes County.
[Plans are in the works to have the lab’s database connected to Clay and Oktibbeha County law enforcement agencies to create a regional hub.] There are currently more than 27,000 individuals filed in the Lowndes County database, collected over the last five years. When the database was started in 2008, it contained a mere 900 sets of prints.  Using interns and police officers, a backlog of fingerprint cards were slowly entered into the system.  A short time later, the LCADC database was merged into the AFIX system, adding an estimated 20,000 fingerprint files.
When new prints are entered into AFIX, the logging software automatically identifies “markers” in the print that differentiate it from every other print it has stored.  After scanning the print and comparing it to those in the database, the system presents the top 10 or 20 possible matches.  An analyst then combs over the returns to make a definitive match.
Also in the lab is a camera station, used to photograph prints directly from evidence (bypassing the need to transfer the prints to paper before scanning them into AFIX).  Using a Nikon D300 mounted above a platform, the previously dusted, fumed or dyed fingerprints are photographed and pulled into special software that isolates and enhances them.  A second Crimescope CS-16 is mounted near the camera to optimally illuminate the target prints.  A Digital Imaging Management System tracks any enhancements made to the prints, precluding any chance of tampering.

Forensic Chemist Xin Xu mans the aging GT Mass Spectrometer

Forensic Chemist Xin Xu mans the aging GT Mass Spectrometer

The Drug Lab
One of the busiest rooms of the Columbus Forensic Lab, the drug lab processes narcotic evidence from Lowndes, Clay and Oktibbeha Counties daily.
The DXR SmartRaman Spectrometer can be used to identify the chemical makeup of a substance without ever removing the compound from its packaging.  Scanning through a layer of plastic or glass, the DXR can identify a compound in roughly five seconds.  Obviously, this tool optimizes drug scanning in the lab.
The Fourier Transform InfraRed Spectrometer (FTIR) is a similar tool, but requires a direct sample of the substance.  Results from the FTIR have a five to ten second turnaround.
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 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.] The Precipitant Chemical test station consists of the test tubes you’ve seen on CSI.  Mixing a test substance with reacting chemicals is still a solid way to identify compounds.

Digital Forensics
In todays technology-filled world, an increasing amount of crime is centered around computers.  The Columbus Forensic Lab is equipped to handle these crimes,  with forensic workstations that are optimized for video, internet or cellular phone inspection.
• Ocean Systems designed a custom AVID video workstation for the Forensic Lab’s video analysis purposes.  The system is used for de-interlacing videos, sharpening and lightening images (among other tasks).  While digital video is readily available from most crime scenes (surveillance, cell phones, personal video cameras, etc…), it doesn’t offer up the unlimited detail of analog video. During the days of VHS, zooming in on videos and images was much more effective.  With digital video, the resolution of the camera greatly affects a technician’s ability to work with the evidence.

Fingerprinting Lab

Fingerprinting Lab

• Cell phone alaysis relies on two systems: 1. A handheld UFED system interfaces directly with a cell phone, displaying or copying information from the phone’s storage or SIM cards.  The system comes with hundreds of adaptors, allowing it to connect to any cell phone on the market.  2. XRY is a desktop software that can scan, password hack or clone any mobile device (cell phone, gps or tablet).
• The computer forensics workstation operates from two computers, both blazingly fast military-grade hardware.  Both have additional hard drives to back up all information redundantly.  The computers are secured against any malware found on a suspect hard drive.
The Columbus Forensic Lab is part of Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) for the state of Mississippi.  The workstation is a powerful force in the fight against internet criminals.  Unfortunately, the Forensic Lab does not have a computer forensics professional on staff.  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.

Next Week
The Future of the Columbus Forensic Lab

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