Letters to the Editor

Crime Scene Revisited
Case Analysis “Off-Target”

I just received the July-August 2008 issue of Evidence Technology. The “Crime Scene Revisited” on Page 40 features a short synopsis of a firearm-related case entitled “I didn't think the gun was loaded . . .” along with three illustrative photographs. From the limited information given in the synopsis, one cannot get a complete understanding of all the facts of the case. That having been said, I am writing you to give a short critique of the information presented.

The author states: In the laboratory, technicians found that when fired with a round in the magazine, the gun left a characteristic scratch on the casing.

The “scratches” the author points to in the first two photos are consistent with marks made by a magazine and are produced as a result of the feeding process, not the firing process. Feeding refers to the process by which a cartridge makes its way to the chamber. In semiautomatic firearms, cartridges are stripped from the magazine by the slide—or bolt, depending upon the firearm's design—as it travels forward. The cartridge is released from the magazine, and the slide or the bolt pushes the cartridge into the chamber.

One would expect to find these magazine marks on cartridge cases fired by semiautomatic firearms.

The author states: But when fired without a magazine and with a round in the chamber, there was a gouge—not a scratch—left on the casing after it was ejected.

If the cartridge was hand-fed (manually placed) into the chamber, the “scratch” (magazine mark) would not be present because the magazine was not used in the feeding process.

If the cartridge was hand-fed into the chamber, the “gouge” (toolmark) in the third photo is consistent with what I and other examiners in the lab have seen when an extractor is slammed against the rim of a hand-fed cartridge upon releasing the slide or the bolt. If no magazine was used, it is no surprise that the “scratch” was absent; likewise, it is also no surprise that the “gouge” is present.

The author states: Conclusion: The magazine was in the weapon when it was fired. For one reason or another, the older brother lied.

This claim cannot be supported by the information presented. The presence of the “scratch” (magazine mark) on the rim and body of the questioned cartridge case does not mean that the magazine was in the firearm at the time of firing. A cartridge can be fed from a magazine into a chamber and the magazine can then be removed. Not all firearms are equipped with mag-azine safeties and, thus, many firearms can be fired without the magazine in place. The “gouge” (toolmark) on the rim does not appear, to me, to have any bearing on whether the magazine was in the firearm or not when the questioned cartridge case was fired.

As stated previously, one cannot get a complete understanding of all of the facts of the case; however, the information provided in the synopsis does not support the statement “The magazine was in the weapon when it was fired.”

—Charles M. Clow
Firearm & Toolmark Examiner
Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences
Dallas, Texas

 

One of the latent-print examiners brought this article to my attention. As I read in interest, I realized that the article passes on false information. The first two photos show magazine lip marks and the third photo is an extractor mark that should also be on the first two casings, but [I suspect] they were not photographed. The fact that the magazine lip marks were on the casing from the scene only shows that the cartridge was once loaded in the magazine. Many people forget and die every year because the magazine is removed and many think it is unloaded despite the cartridge in the chamber. The credibility of these writers should be checked. They must not be trained in firearm examination. I am passing the word on to examiners across the country and will shred the magazine as it arrives for it is best in the recycle bin.

Kimberly Stevens
Maine State Police Crime Lab
Dual Forensic Scientist
Augusta, Maine

 

I was reading an article in the July-August 2008 edition of your magazine entitled “I didn't think the gun was loaded...” The characteristics of the marks on the cartridge cases don't support the conclusions that the magazine had to be in the weapon when it was fired.

The marks on the subject and exemplar cases appear to be magazine marks caused by magazine lips, and can be caused during chambering a round in a pistol, or simply removing a cartridge from a magazine. The mark on the test-fired “ejected casing” is characteristic of an extractor over-ride mark, likely caused when loading the pistol without a magazine, not when firing without a magazine. A possible scenario is that a cartridge was loaded into the pistol from a magazine and the magazine subsequently removed. A common mistake is to assume a firearm is unloaded if the magazine is not in it; however, there could be a cartridge in the chamber. The mark on the ejected casing, I feel, could be the result of placing a cartridge in the chamber of the pistol by hand (hence no magazine lip “scratch”), and then closing the slide, thus causing the ejector to ride over the case rim. This does not happen when loading from a magazine since the rim slips up under the extractor, resulting in the absence of an over-ride mark.

I realize this article is just snippets of the whole case, but read in isolation it gives me great concern as to the validity of the tests and conclusions.

Mark Bennett
Firearms Examiner
Oakland Police Department
Oakland, California

Unfortunately, no additional details on this case could be found. The firearms examination was performed by Packer Engineering, a private firm. The case is old enough that the files apparently are no longer extant. Weiss said that the case did not go to trial. It should be noted that Weiss did not perform the examination and his only role in the case was photographing the casings. If you have additional comments or observations, please send them my way.

Kristi Mayo, Editor
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Take More Interest
in Solving Property Crimes

I just read your Editorial in my latest issue of Evidence Technology (July-August 2008). The treatment that your team member got from the officer who responded to her burglary is very real and somewhat prevalent. I am retired from what would be considered a medium-sized county police department (600+ sworn officers). During my time, I was assigned to the Evidence Collection Unit for Crimes Against Persons. After my retirement, I was hired as a civilian Crime Scene Tech-nician for a larger police department.

What I have observed over the years is that the problem is not the lack of funding and resources, as you suggest. Rather, it is the lack of interest, for whatever reason, on the part of the officers who respond to the scene.

After I retired, I had occasion to witness a theft from a vehicle in progress and phoned it in. I tried to follow the suspects and reported their direction when I lost them. I returned to the scene and met with the officer. He did not know me and I did not divulge my background. The suspect had pried the rubber molding from around a window in the back door of a work van, gripped the window with his un-gloved hands, and pulled it out. When I got back, I saw the officer step on the intact glass to look inside the van. It broke. But, because the inside had a tinted film on it (which is where the pads of the suspect's fingers would have gripped when he pulled it out) the window stayed together. The officer then realized he had stepped on the glass and picked it up with un-gloved hands. I asked if he was going to have the glass (with the tint film) fingerprinted and he said, “No, you can't get anything off this.” His ignorance caused me to call the Chief, who I knew from my early years, and make a complaint. Had I been the victim instead of the witness, I would have probably thought that he knew best and let it go. Everyday citizens do not know what can and cannot be processed.

So, no matter the size of the agency or their budget, there is no excuse for police officers anywhere to not try to collect evidence or have it collected, no matter how trivial they think it is.

I could go on and on—as I am sure countless other crime-scene techs, detectives, and victims could—about the crimes that would have been broken if only the initial officer had been a little more interested. Who knows, the person who broke into your team member's house could have been responsible for five other burglaries, two homicides, a robbery, and several stolen cars—and the officer could have been a hero for breaking all of those cases… if only he would have had the handprint processed and lifted.

Perhaps you could make some inquiries from other current and retired crime-scene technicians or detectives and do a whole story that may wake up some of these agencies to try and do a little more.

Wm. S. Meyers
Retired
Anne Arundel County Police Department
Millersville, Maryland


Don’t Discount the Value
of Latent-Print Evidence

I would like to comment on the article by Dale Garrison, “Solving Property Crimes with DNA Evidence” (July/August 2008). First and foremost, it was a very informative and well-written article.

As a Forensic Investigator I have responded to hundreds of burglaries. I have always searched for DNA, fingerprints, shoe impressions, and anything else that may link an offender to the crime. I would agree that DNA is a good way to track the history of an offender, assuming that they left DNA at each scene.

The problem, however, is the amount of time it takes to obtain the DNA results. When the DNA is received at the laboratory, its priority is often low. At our department, obtaining DNA results can take up to a year, depending on the case. In the amount of time it takes to test the DNA and enter it into a system (i.e. CODIS), the offender has often committed more offenses.

Conversely, if a department has a fingerprint scanner nearby and access to AFIS and IAFIS, the turn-around time for latent-print evidence is usually the same day, which results in a quick arrest and the prevention of more crimes. I have often seen a conviction due to the fingerprint evidence in the amount of time it takes to receive the DNA report. The problem with DNA analysis being completed in a timely fashion may be because of personnel shortages, budgets, or workload.

Your article suggests that DNA can show an offender’s history. Fingerprints can also show a pattern of criminal behavior. The computer systems that store the fingerprints often link unsolved crimes with the fingerprint evidence submitted. Our department is doing the same with palmprints. I have a higher conviction rate with fingerprints and palmprints than DNA.

In short, I am not suggesting that DNA evidence be overlooked, but that fingerprints and palmprints are equally important.

I think what should be reinforced to technicians is the collection and analysis of all evidence. When a criminal history in Pennsylvania is accessed, it states if the offender’s DNA, fingerprints, and palmprints are in the system. Eventually, shoe prints/impressions, hair, and—who knows—even pupils will all probably be entered into a database that associates an offender with that particular piece of evidence.

Trooper Josh Whiteside
Forensic Services Unit
Troop J, Lancaster Station
Lancaster, Pennsylvania


Do you have
something to say?

What do you think? Is there a widespread problem with officers lacking the interest, ability, or resources to properly collect evidence at the scene of a property crime? Is the perceived value of friction-ridge evidence fading in the face of DNA technology? Send your comments to: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED:
Letters to the Editor
September-October 2008 (Volume 6, Number 5)
Evidence Technology Magazine
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