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Crime Lab Work Often Relieves Burden of Proof

Crime Lab Work Often Relieves Burden of Proof

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The kinds of puzzles Carol Cox solves are not the ones she

used to put together with her grandfather during childhood.

As a forensic chemist for the Tulsa Police Department's

crime lab, Cox attempts to solve puzzles of a more serious nature.

Take for instance the gruesome photographs which show a

fragment of the skull of a woman killed last year. On the

skull fragment are small, round indentations and a hole

where the skull was punctured.

The weapon, an unusual one, has never been found and so

far Cox has not been able to match the damage it caused

with any familiar object. Still, she is not giving up.

`Someday, I'm going to match it up,` she said.

Piecing together puzzles like this are what keeps Cox and

her colleagues in the lab going.

`I like putting puzzles together,` Cox said."I tell my

grandchildren that my job is a combination scavenger hunt,

Easter egg hunt and going antiquing in a garbage bin.`

Cox has been working in the lab for five years analyzing

trace evidence such as fibers, hairs, clothing, debris from

suspected arson fires and other fragments of evidence collected

by police.

`Trace evidence is anything commonplace or minute that could

be easily overlooked,` she said.

Cox said it takes a careful eye and love of details to perform the job.

`You have to be very picky. You have to observe exactly

and report exactly what you see.`

Analyzing the trail of evidence to see where it leads is

what excites Ann Reed most about her job as a chemist in serology.

`I see what kind of body fluid we have and what we try to

do is find a connection between a person and place or person

and an object or disprove a connection,` she said.

Reed has spent her entire career working in forensics including

20 years with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.

She came to the Tulsa crime lab a year ago.

Much of her work involves analyzing body fluids such as

blood and semen taken as evidence in homicides, assaults

and sexual assaults.

`It's like solving a puzzle. You try to see if the pieces

fit or don't, and it's interesting because you never know

what you're going to find.

`You feel like you're doing good by keeping somebody from

being accused who otherwise might be or by helping solving

crimes,` she said.

Ron Pogue, director of the lab, said forensics is a vitally

important factor in the justice equation.

`I would say, without the lab we would probably get less

than 10 percent of cases through the system,` he said. `The

role is a lot more critical than it used to be partly because

attorneys are better educated on what labs can do and what's available.`

The lab performs several functions designed to provide detectives

and district attorneys with information. Defense attorneys

also can obtain the information through the district attorneys, Pogue said.

The lab can perform examinations for trace evidence, arson,

body fluids, firearms, controlled substances and, of course, fingerprints.

`Contrary to what people think of the lab, we are not prosecution

oriented,` he said. `I think people who think we're prosecution

oriented don't realize how many people we eliminate.`

While many types of evidence analysis can be performed in

the lab, it is not yet capable of performing DNA (deoxyribonucleic

acid) tests which provide a more accurate analysis of evidence

such as body fluids, skin and hairs.

Pogue hopes the day is coming when the crime lab will be

able to perform its own DNA testing.

`I think we'll have to go to it in the next 18 months to

two years,` he said.

If the lab performs its own DNA tests, results will be available

more quickly. In addition, more evidence can be tested and

at a lower cost than the current practice of sending evidence

to labs in other states for testing; that process can take months.

`Right now, we probably send out around 15-20 cases a year,"

Pogue said. `If we had a DNA lab, we'd probably be doing

150-225 cases a year.`

Although DNA testing will improve accuracy, it does not

eliminate the need for other forms of evidence analysis.

`DNA's not a cure-all. It will greatly enhance our ability

in the serology area, but not in the other areas,` Pogue said.

Besides analyzing evidence in the lab, forensics workers

often are called upon to testify in court as expert witnesses.

`I like testifying in court,` Reed said. `It's nerve wracking

but I like it.`

Cox has testified more than 30 times.

`Sometimes you're on the stand for hours and hours and hours,`

she said. `A lot of times what I am doing is informing the

jury and judge about what I've done and what it means.`

Because the lab is under jurisdiction of the police department,

Cox said many people have the impression the lab is biased

in favor of the police and district attorneys. That is not so, she said.

Sometimes, their examinations lead to the exoneration of

suspects, she said.

`My very first hair case was a murder with two suspects

and the only thing tying them to the actual crime was a

cap with hairs in it. I analyzed that and the hairs didn't

match those of the suspects,` she said. `I felt it was a

good way of starting my job here.`


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