SCA - Class 10
Welcome back to the tenth class of Sheriff’s Citizens’ Academy. I’m glad you didn’t forget since last week we didn’t have class.
Dad and I arrived about 6:15 and several of the others were already there. We found our seats. (Why is it that everyone usually sits in the same seats?) The last few people arrived and Sgt. Davis handed out papers with information about where and when our graduation was going to be. They decided to have it during the Sheriff’s Office Christmas Party. That should be interesting. He also told us that usually each “graduate” received a certificate and a coin, but this time we are each getting a plaque with the coin imbedded. He also finalized a date for those who want to tour the new Sheriff’s offices.
Then the class was turned over to Detective Tim Williams. Since he had taught the first half of our last class, he didn’t have to introduce himself to us.
Our first topic for class was photography. I know, you all thought we were attending a Sheriff’s Academy and learning about what the Sheriff’s department does. Well, one thing they do is take pictures. Of crime scenes. “When you enter a crime scene,” Det. Williams told us, “you are going to change the scene. I don’t care if you don’t pick anything up or touch anything, you are still going to change it. You might track something in on your shoes, or you might track something out. You may accidentally knock something over. So, the very first thing to do is take a picture. Pictures freeze everything in time. You take pictures when you first arrive, before removing any evidence . . . when in doubt, take a picture. They don’t cost anything now that we have digital cameras.”
Here’s a check list for taking pictures at a crime scene:
Make sure your battery is charged.
Make sure the date and time on the camera are correct.
Clean the lenses.
Make sure the picture is in focus.
If you should ever happen to be at a crime scene to take pictures, always take an overall picture of what the room or place looks like. Then take pictures of any evidence you find before you touch it! Make sure this picture shows where in the room the item is and how it relates to the other items. Next take a close up picture with a ABFO scale at a 90º angle. An ABFO scale is a small L shaped ruler that has three circles, colors and measuring marks. The purpose of this scale is to show the size of the item and to give you a reference for a 90º angle picture. That’s pretty easy; if the circles look like ovals, it’s not 90º. And if the picture is at a strange angle, the defense attorney is going to try to make an issue of it.
Also, if any pictures you take are fuzzy, don’t delete them or the defense attorney is going to say that that picture was the one which would prove his client innocent. (It sounds like those defense attorneys will pick on anything!) And if you take a picture of any firearm, make sure you get both sides and the serial number. Try taking pictures with and without the flash because sometimes tire tracks and other things show up better without the flash.
When taking pictures of a vehicle, make sure you get all four corners, the license plate, the interior and the VIN plate or tag. (I’m still not quite sure what this is, but I think it stands for Vehicle Identification Number.) A reason for the four corners pictures is so that if you have the vehicle towed away, and the person tries to sue you because you “damaged” the vehicle, you have proof of what it was like before you moved it. Of course the license plate will tell if it was stolen or not.
And one last thing. Always “bookmark” your pictures after each crime scene. They call it a “case plate.” All it has to be is a picture of a piece of paper with the case number on it. That way if you have to go directly from one scene to another, you won’t later be wondering where the first scene ends and the next begins.
We moved right along in this class and jumped right into DNA. Deoxyribonucleic acid is the building block for each person. Did you know that identical twins, because they came from the same egg, will have the same DNA? But they will each have their own unique set of fingerprints. If you were to take DNA from different cells, such as your blood, your skin, hair etc., it would all be the same. There is also a thing called Mitochondrial DNA which is the same as your mother’s mitochondrial DNA.
“The purpose of getting DNA is not only to find the right suspect, but also to eliminate others,” Det. Williams told us. “If we had these two,” he points to two front row members of the class, “as suspects and have their DNA, but all the DNA we’ve collected from the crime scene doesn’t match their DNA, we can pretty much eliminate them from the crime.” If you ever go to collect DNA, make sure you are wearing gloves, so that your DNA doesn’t get mixed up with the DNA you are trying to collect. Then you have to change your gloves before you collect more DNA because the first DNA might have gotten on the gloves and you don’t want to contaminate the next sample.
DNA can also tell you if it was from an animal or a human. “We got a call once,” Det. Williams told us, “saying that there had been a murder on a certain road right by a bridge. Well, we drove out there and found blood all over the street. Immediately we got to work and started searching everywhere for the body. We searched the woods, got the boat out and were even searching the river. Couldn’t find a body anywhere. We had a sample of the blood sent to the lab and when it came back we discovered it was turtle blood. So much for the big crime scene.”
Did you know that each swabbed sample of DNA is stored in a small box which is then stored in a paper bag which is clearly labeled? “Unlike the CSI shows, we never store evidence in a plastic bag,” Det. Williams told us. “DNA has to be able to breathe or it will end up like a hamburger you put in the fridge that you left too long. It starts to grow mold and eats itself up.”
I didn’t realize how long it takes DNA samples to be returned from the FBI lab. (Yes, all DNA goes to CODIS-Combined DNA Index System which is run by the FBI.) It usually takes 8-9 months to get the results back. First they have to be sent to the highway patrol collection place, and then, once they feel that they have enough things, one of the officers will transfer everything to Jefferson City and they will send it to the FBI. But fingerprints only take about 3-4 months and can be done here in the county. “That’s why we really like to do fingerprints,” Det. Williams told us. “Not only is it faster, but fingerprinting has been going on a lot longer than DNA collecting and there is a much larger database.
“But, the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office was the first in the state to get a ‘cold hit’ with DNA. Someone had been picked up for something and his DNA was taken. It matched another crime that had happened a year or so before had never been solved. It was a big deal when it happened.”
There wasn’t much else and only a few minutes after 8:00, Det. Williams told us we were finished unless we had questions or wanted to stick around and talk. No one really did.
Thank you for joining me again, and I hope you’ll be back next week as we learn about fingerprinting, evidence collection and get some hands on experience in the art of collecting and packaging evidence. Join me then! Until next week, this is Rebekah.