Crime lab director details real-life ‘CSI’

Posted June 18, 2010, at 10:22 p.m.

BAR HARBOR, Maine — Lt. William Harwood started his presentation on the new capabilities and procedures being used at the Maine State Police Crime Laboratory with the opening credits for the television show “CSI: Miami.”

“We’re just like that,” the director of the crime lab told the dozen or so lawyers and judges attending a session Friday at the summer meeting of the Maine State Bar Association. “We wear the same clothes. We even issue everyone sunglasses just like the ones they wear.”

Harwood was joking, of course. Maine’s only crime lab is not like any on the popular CBS television dramas focusing on forensic scientists in Las Vegas, Miami and New York City. It is able, however, to help investigators all over the Pine Tree State solve crimes using scientifically accepted practices.

“We never interrogate a suspect or make an arrest,” he said. “What the shows don’t show is the note taking, report writing and testifying in court that we do.”

Harwood said equipment upgrades at the lab over the past several years now allow for: fire debris analysis to determine what kind of accelerants were used in fires determined to be arsons; the separation of male and female DNA for the identification of possible perpetrators in sex crimes; and the identification of epithelial cell DNA from objects people have touched.

Nearly every state now requires that DNA be collected from people convicted of felonies and placed in a national database called CODIS, Harwood said.

“We are getting more and more hits there,” he said. “In the last month alone, we’ve identified suspects through CODIS from a ski mask left behind after a bank robbery and a cigarette butt left at a crime scene.”

Harwood, who has been with the lab since 1989, did not elaborate on those crimes. Since becoming director of the crime lab on April 1, he said his priority has been to decrease the backlog of DNA the Maine lab needed to submit to CODIS. He said the backlog of evidence waiting to be analyzed also is falling. For example, the number of cases with evidence waiting for chemical analysis is down from 350 to 250 since April 1.

“It still may take a year or two for us to get to evidence from property crimes,” Harwood said. “Our priorities are crimes of violence and those involving children.”

The crime lab has 21 employees, he said, at its main location in Augusta in the following units: forensic chemistry, forensic biology, latent print and firearms. Thirteen people also work in its Computer Crimes Unit — nine in Vassalboro, two in the field and two more who are based with local police, including one in Bangor, he said. In addition, there are 30 Maine State Police employees and local law enforcement officials around the state who are part of the crime lab’s Evidence Response Team.

The lab does not test for blood alcohol or drug levels, conduct handwriting analysis or test for mitochondrial DNA, which might, for example, be in a hair that was not attached to a piece of skin, he said.

The cost of running tests often prohibits technicians from testing every piece of evidence recovered from a crime scene, Harwood said. The cost of materials alone to run a standard DNA test, he said, is $32.18 per sample. Once labor and overhead costs are figured in, Harwood estimated it costs the state about $150 for every DNA sample tested.

His presentation did not include the cost of fingerprint, tire print or other types of analyses or testing.

Despite the desire of juries and prosecutors for DNA and fingerprint evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant is guilty as charged, Harwood said, the state simply can’t afford to conduct tests unnecessarily.

“If an officer brought me a gun and said it had been handed to him by a person with a felony conviction, I’m not going to run tests to show the defendant touched it to prove a charge of felon in possession,” he said.

Harwood said that showing investigators that a suspect could not have committed a particular crime is as important to him and his colleagues as finding evidence that helps prove a suspect is guilty.

“We’re just as proud of that work and, probably more so, because we’ve exonerated someone,” he said.

Bangor lawyer Christopher Largay said after the session that he attended because forensic science is changing rapidly.

“Its usefulness crosses all areas of practice, both civil and criminal,” he said. “It’s essential to see what the crime lab does, how they do what they do and what’s available to us as defense lawyers.”

About 200 lawyers and judges attended the bar association’s conference, scheduled to wind up today.

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