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CSI: Washington County

February 17, 2004|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

Testing blood, analyzing fingerprints, interviewing witnesses, solving murders in an hour's time - Hollywood crime scene investigators make nabbing killers look easy.

But local CSIs say the process is a lot more complicated, and far more time consuming.

Popular television crime shows such as "CSI," "Cold Case," "NYPD Blue" and "Law & Order" showcase detectives and forensic scientists who can "do it all," said Jeffrey Kercheval, a forensic scientist at the Western Maryland Crime Lab.

"They're entertaining, but they're not real," he said.

At a lab in the basement of the Hagerstown Police Department, Kercheval, a forensic scientist for 18 years, works with one other forensic scientist, Susan Blankenship. They have two assistants and not enough time to even think of doing the multi-tasking that celebrity sleuths manage, he said.

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Washington County Sheriff's Department Cpl. Roy Harsh, a member of the county's Criminal Investigation Division, said there are six detectives in the county's investigative division and they carry fingerprint kits and 35 mm cameras in their cruisers.

"These (forensic scientists on television) do it all: They handle the interviews, do the scene work. We do not interview folks," Kercheval said. "We deal in the realm of physical evidence. These guys have a one-size-fits-all approach."

Kercheval said police officers interview witnesses and communicate with forensic scientists over cellular phones about the information they've received. He said once officers gather information from witnesses they can call the forensic scientists to see if that information matches up with physical evidence.

The physical evidence collected locally rarely brings results as quickly as the evidence television characters find. The rate at which Hollywood detectives get back results on DNA is unreal, he said. Although the amount of time it takes to get the results back is decreasing, he said, it's nowhere near the turnover rate CSIs on TV shows enjoy.

"(Thursday) night they solved five murders in an hour's time. I don't think that happens in the real world," Harsh said.

He said he understands that the show must be wrapped up in an hour for entertainment purposes, but that can place unreasonable expectations on the police to solve crimes in a short period of time.

In Kercheval's world, where there's an expectation from the Washington County State's Attorney's Office and police to prove a suspect is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, one piece of evidence will not solve a case as it does on a TV show.

"There is no single piece of evidence that should be considered the 'magic' piece of evidence, things should fit together," he said. "One single piece of evidence can be very misleading."

He said, for example, a person suspected of shooting someone may have gunpowder residue on his or her hands, but might have been standing close enough to the weapon to be affected by the blast. The residue might be a start, but other evidence must be found that might lead investigators to more correctly point the finger at a suspect.

The machines that television scientists use to narrow down the field of suspects also is alarming, Kercheval said.

Real-life forensic scientists could only dream of getting the crystal clear images off surveillance tapes that celebrity detectives find, he said.

Harsh said he's not sure most of the equipment Hollywood CSIs use, such as lasers to figure out the trajectory of bullets, even exist.

But paperwork exists on a daily basis, Kercheval said. That and keeping up with the maintenance of the lab are more mundane, but essential aspects of his job, which never make prime time, he said.

Perhaps the most glaring error in crime shows is the absence of the emotional drain investigators endure after years of handling gruesome evidence.

"Every year you feel like a piece of you dies because of all the things you see," Kercheval said.

Murder is not glamorous, he said. "What you're dealing with is tragic to anyone involved."

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