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9OYS: Inside the SBI Crime Lab

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RALEIGH, N.C. -

DNA Evidence. Investigators rely on it…Prosecutors expect it.

But at 9 on your side's Kristen Hunter reports, the technology that helps crack thousands of cases every year is becoming a double-edged sword for the people at the forefront of it all.

Good, old-fashioned detective work. It's still one of the most important components to any investigation. But times have changed and the people who fight crime today are turning to technology and science for answers.

In the last fiscal year, the SBI Crime Lab in Raleigh received nearly 33,000 DNA submissions. But the lab only has a couple dozen DNA analysts and the evidence is piling up.

"Very bluntly, candidly, straight-forwardly...we do not have the number of scientists we need to accomplish the workload that we have in a timely manner," said SBI Crime Lab Director, Judge Joe John.

He says it can sometimes take up to a full year before analysts can even get to cases.

"That's creating issues for local law enforcement, for local prosecutors, for the defense and defendants," he said.

DNA analyst, Agent Mackenzie Dehaan says expectations have increased, as well.

"Touch DNA has now jumped into the forefront, where again, everybody thinks we can get DNA off of anything. And so, you know, we're trying. But it's a double-edged sword. Yes, there's potential. But then it also means you've now exploded the number of cases that walk in your door," she said.

In 2010 former Governor Beverly Perdue signed a bill into law changing the way DNA is collected. Instead of only keeping samples from people after they are convicted, the database at the SBI Crime Lab is now made up of DNA samples from anyone charged with murder, rape, or other violent felony crimes.

The expansion of the database is helping to solve many cold cases, including a 1993 assault and rape at the Greenville Town Common. Detectives were able to crack the case this past November after DNA from the scene matched an inmate in West Virginia.

But the cold cases are also adding to the backlog.

"Part of our inventory of un-worked cases is the fact that we have all these new crimes but then people are going back and looking at the old crimes," said Dehaan.

In addition, a 2009 US Supreme Court ruling in MELENDEZ-DIAZ v. MASSACHUSETTS doubled the amount of time DNA analysts spend in court.  The ruling requires analysts to give live testimony in every case instead of affidavits.

"They are not here in the laboratory doing the work that we're required to do, so this court decision has had a tremendous impact," said Judge John.

Even if they did get the funding to hire more people, Dehaan says new employees have to train 6 months to two years before they can even touch a case. The increasing demand, combined with the lack of resources has created a perfect storm.

"That perfect storm has just taxed our capacity to do our job really to the limit and beyond," said John.

Judge John is taking the issue of funding before the North Carolina General Assembly. In addition to more staffing and funding he's also asking for money to add a toxicology unit at the Western Regional Crime Lab.

"THE CSI EFFECT"

It's been dubbed "The CSI Effect."

Prosecutors and forensic scientists say they're finding it harder to do their job because of the popularity of crime shows.

In about one hour, our favorite TV detectives gather the evidence, take it back to the lab and solve the case. But it's not that simple in real life.

Dehaan says the shows have had a huge impact in court, with jurors demanding more forensic evidence, raising the bar for prosecutors.

"We're also having to explain why we don't get results more than we ever have before. People expect that fingerprints and DNA is going to be left behind all the time. And that's just not the case," said Dehaan.

So what's it really like inside a crime lab? It all starts at the evidence vault.

"I can tell you that right now there are 50,000 pieces of evidence in evidence control's custody," said Evidence Control Supervisor, Suzi Barker.

That doesn't include the evidence already being processed in the lab. Detectives sometimes submit hundreds of pieces of evidence for one case, as was the case in the murder of Chapel Hill student body president, Eve Carson.

Usually scientists look at the evidence on a first come first serve basis. But there are certain cases that get precedence.

"We have a "rush" case program that allows some of those cases to get worked out of order. If you have a court date that you have to make…crimes against persons where we need to affect an arrest to get someone off the street…Some cold cases where we're trying to get to...we have potential suspects or potential victims that if we keep waiting, they may pass away and then the case will be lost," said Dehaan.

Before the evidence even makes it to someone's office everything has to get a barcode. It's a way to track everything as it makes its way through the lab.   

"Blood tubes have to be removed. Names have to be verified to make sure the name on the blood tube is the same as the name on the box, is the same as the name on the submission forms," said Dehaan.

Not only does the toxicology department get evidence from death investigations, they also have to process thousands of DWI cases every year.  

"A blood/alcohol is a much simpler examination and that usually can take two to four hours. A blood drug can take as many as 8 and it depends on the number of drugs they find in the sample," said Toxicology supervisor, Ann Hamlin.

 The tedious work doesn't stop there. In trace evidence the scientists wear many hats.

 "They can say whether or not hair is human or animal. Possibly they could tell you whether it had naturally fallen out, if it was cut, if it was pulled, if there was trauma to it," Dehaan. "There is a paint database that's been put together by law enforcement. It's run out of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. That helps them narrow down. It will not pop up the car with the picture of the license plate and tell you where it's parked."

Arson and gunshot residue testing are done in the Trace Evidence department, too.

DNA is one of the busiest sections of the lab.  

"We have three different units inside the forensic biology section. We have database unit, the body fluid identification unit and the DNA unit," said Dehaan.

And the process can take months.

"The first thing we have to do is it's a liquid blood sample. We have to make it into a blood stain that's stable and can be stored. So those stains have to be made, they have to dry overnight before they can be processed," she said.

In 2011 the lab received 21,000 DNA samples from arrestees alone. That doesn't include convicted offenders.

With all of today's technology a new department opened within the last several years. The digital evidence section started off of a grant for Internet crimes against children.  

"Not only does the digital evidence section process the computers and the digital media, they will also take audio visual and recordings to process those to enhance them, to take out some of the background noise so the speaking can be heard," said Dehaan.

Down the hall from digital evidence…firearms and tool marks. Dehaan demonstrated to 9 on your side how a scientist would use a shoot tank.  

"What they do, they lower the basket down. This is filled with water, it goes all the way down to the basement. They lower the lid, they shoot through the lid. The water slows the bullet down, takes away all the momentum and the bullet falls into the funnel. They pull the funnel up. They have a round that they can use for comparison," said Dehaan.

Sometimes it takes a year before a case even makes it to someone's desk and forensic scientists estimate 40 percent of the techniques you see on TV really don't exist.

Regardless, the people who fight crime today continue to turn to science and technology for answers. And although the process may not be exactly what you're seeing on TV, it's solving more cases now, than ever before.

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