In our last part of touring Idaho State Police's Forensic Lab in Meridian, we see how scientists test the drugs they confiscate and how the analysts are able to prove their work.
Going into the forensics lab, I expected to meet scientists who had the single goal of convicting criminals. What I learned instead, however, is that these analysts are much more focused on discovering the truth in hopes of keeping people out of trouble.
“So the comparison is done first of all you know the kind of the goal that I like to think in my head is I’m trying to exclude. So I look at it first and say are these two of the same pattern type. You know are they circular in nature, and if they’re not, then I can exclude. And if they are I look further,” said forensics lab manager, with an expertise in fingerprint identification, Natasha Wheatley.
This process sounds incredibly tedious, because it is. The job of identifying fingerprints is not an easy task, but it has proved to be the tipping point in so many cases.
“They add the weight when I shouldn’t have been able to touch something. So if I should not have had access to the inside of a bathroom mirror where drugs were taken from, and you found my finger prints there, that’s very telling evidence,” added Wheatley.
After fingerprinting, I moved to the drug analysis section of the lab. These scientists test anywhere from 10-20 samples of confiscated drugs a day and run thorough tests even if they can predict what drug it is just by looking at it.
“So if I have a ziplock bag with white crystals, I’ll weigh just the white crystals to get the net weight of just the actual crystals. I’ll then perform what we call color tests; they’re presumptive tests to get an idea of what type of chemical or compound I have,” said forensic scientist Heather Campbell, “I then take a small amount of the sample and either run it on one of two confirmatory instruments.”
In the controlled substance lab, The GCMS, or gas chromatograph mass spectrometer, works kind of like a backwards oven. You stick in a brownie, or the drug, and it will go through the machine and come out with all the separate ingredients, like eggs, oil, water, brownie mix, but it will print out a sheet that will tell you what exactly was in that drug.
“I luckily started at a time where we had GCMS’s and FTIR’s so that has been huge in the forensic community, you put the unknown crystals directly on a diamond crystal, smash it, and it will read it within a minute,” said Campbell.
Even though the scientist specializing in drug analysis uses machines to speed up the process, when it comes to testifying in court, they take their time and are absolutely certain of the results they have.
Campbell tells us: “I wouldn’t issue a report if I wasn’t convinced that that’s what the sample contained, I wouldn’t be testifying if I didn’t have a report out there that said it. So I am sure.”
The technology behind solving crime is always improving, but the pressure these scientists feel to get it right will always remain the same.
The scientists who work at the lab in Meridian might have their work load lightened a bit, as ISP is making a push to expand and update the lab here in Pocatello to be able to get through more cases in less time.