Crime labs put to test

November 30, 1996


Staff Writer

An evidence-testing crisis is brewing in Maryland and police and prosecutors in Washington County could find themselves in the middle of the dilemma.

The growth in the amount and types of physical evidence collected at crime scenes these days is at the heart of the problem, according to Jeff Kercheval of the Western Maryland Regional Crime Laboratory in Hagerstown.

"The courts, the public, even juries all expect physical evidence now,'' Kercheval said. The resulting explosion in the workload at testing laboratories is incredible.


And the strain is being keenly felt, Kercheval said.

"The FBI labs are a case in point,'' he said. "They are so busy they won't handle property crimes under $100,000 anymore.''

While the FBI labs are still doing homicide cases, they have been slow because of backlog.

In a recent local murder case, Kercheval said, the FBI sent samples back to Hagerstown, saying they didn't have the time or the staff to handle them.

"We understand the problem but in the meantime, more crimes are happening,'' Kercheval said.

New people have been hired, he said, and in many cases they are civilian scientists instead of police or agents.

But while they are being schooled and getting valuable on-the-job training, the lag time continues to vex local police.

"The Maryland State Police lab is the same way, busy and backlogged,'' Kercheval said. "And they aren't doing any handwriting analyses anymore.''

That's a problem in bad check cases, Kercheval said. If the local case is a serious one, a private handwriting analyst must be obtained.

These gaps and lag times can be critical for prosecutors too since they are always laboring under a "180-day rule'' mandated in the legal system in Maryland.

That time frame is how long prosecutors have to get a case to court so the defendant's right to a speedy trial isn't compromised.

"It can be a real problem for us,'' said Washington County State's Attorney M. Kenneth Long Jr. The state, after all, has to have test results before it can successfully prosecute cases, he said.

Fortunately, Long said, this area has the benefit of the local lab.

Kercheval and Susan Stickline are both experienced forensic scientists. The local lab has been around since 1986, constantly evolving and growing in its capacity to handle evidence.

"We can do drug testing, fingerprints, palm prints, shoe prints, photo enhancements and some blood typing,'' Kercheval said.

The lab also has the capability to check hair, fibers, glass, paint, physical comparisons and most recently, the technique of lifting latent fingerprints from bodies.

"We're in really good shape here,'' Kercheval said. "We have experience, training and good investigators.''

Physical evidence testing has two purposes - to narrow down and lead to someone, or to exclude by eliminating someone.

In the case of the former, Kercheval cited a case where a suspect was developed from clues supplied by the victim.

First, the victim reported the smell of kerosene on the gloves the suspect was wearing at the time of the crime.

Later she found an item that had been stolen by the suspect, wrapped in a shirt that was tested and found to have traces of wood and construction glue on it, Kercheval said, indicating the man's possible profession.

A wavy brown human hair narrowed the search. A short time later, a man who lived on the victim's street was targeted as a possible suspect.

Then investigators could use all those clues and eventually, the investigation led to his arrest, Kercheval said.

"This is why we need to get this information to the officers early so they can use that in their interviews,'' Kercheval said.

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