MISSOULA - The Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula has been recognized for its efficiency by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors for the second year in a row.
Montana State Crime Lab administrator Travis Spinder said in the annual report that the Montana Department of Justice’s Forensic Science Division “underwent a major change in 2021 with the departure of our division administrator, Scott Larson.
Spinder was hired as Larson’s replacement in October. Despite the shake-up, in almost all areas the department’s analysis turnaround times either dropped or stayed the same in 2021.
The FORESIGHT Maximus Award is given out through West Virginia University’s Project FORESIGHT, which is a business-guided self-evaluation of forensic science laboratories. The award measures success based, in part, on how fast a lab can process or test evidence and get the information back to the requesting agency.
Almost 200 forensic laboratories submitted for the award in 2021, and The Montana Department of Justice’s Forensic Science Division was one of 13 award winners.
Staff at the lab work with any law enforcement agency, as well as public defense attorneys. The lab’s forensic scientists and medical examiners test blood samples for alcohol or drugs, identify confiscated substances, conduct autopsies and reveal latent fingerprint impressions. Latent fingerprints are imperceptible to the eye. To be able to examine them, Fingerprint Analysts such as Stephanie Shappee use a vacuum metal deposition chamber.
“It’s a high vacuum chamber that evaporates very thin layers of metal,” Shappee said “So we use gold, silver, zinc, sterling silver. It evaporates, and it does like a light thin coat of metal on the surface and we’re able to visualize impressions on it.”
Shappee placed a plain white piece of paper with her handprint on it into the machine, and a silvery handprint appeared. The lab’s latent print section used to be one section where the crime lab had big case backlogs.
“So we did some outsourcing where we sent cases to other places to work for us, we paid them to do the work,” Spinder said. “And we were able to get their backlog down to where now they’re able to maintain with what’s coming in.”
Similar backlogs in labs across the country spurred the start of federal funding for Project FORESIGHT. An increased demand for forensic evidence in criminal cases coincided with a series of funding cuts for state labs during the Great Recession.
In 2009, the National Institute of Justice funded Project Foresight at West Virginia University to study forensic labs and develop metrics to help measure lab efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
Also in 2009, the National Academy of Sciences published a groundbreaking report called “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States” where research called into question the reliability of forensic science, while acknowledging the good work done by scientists in the field. Researchers gave the example that “not all fingerprint evidence is equally good” because it is dependent on the quality of the latent fingerprint image.
“The simple reality is that the interpretation of forensic evidence is not always based on scientific studies to determine its validity,” according to the report.
Since that report, groups, such as the Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science, formed to create best practices and other guidance to help ensure forensic analysis results are reliable and reproducible. The Montana State Crime Lab provides training for its scientists to keep them up to date on the latest areas of research.
“Make sure we’re following their guidelines,” Spinder said. “Stay up to date with our accreditation and make sure we’re doing the right thing.”