July 12, 2005 > CSI: Fremont
by Linda Stone
Deep within the Fremont Police Department is the forensic crime lab where analysis of crucial evidence collected by crime scene investigators is conducted using an array of high-powered technology. Led by Chief Forensic Specialist Kourosh Nikoui, Fremont's CSI team consists of eight sworn officers with special training in crime scene processing.
"It take a long time for someone to become competent in crime scene investigation," said Nikoui. After three years an officer can apply to work on the CSI team. All members of the team have been promoted internally. "There are not many positions available to those who come directly from school. Most agencies hire within."
Documenting evidence is an important part of a case, from recording the condition of evidence to enhancing details that may not be detected by the human eye. Some of these items like bloodstains or tears on fabric require photographs. Several tools such as special light sources are used to see beyond our visible spectrum. This enables investigators to see certain items like fibers that fluoresce under various wavelengths of light. Photomicrography (photography through a microscope) is often used for viewing paint chips, hairs and fibers. "You can't prosecute a homicide without a photo. Photography is one of the most important pieces of evidence," Nikoui said.
Nikoui, who has a degree in Fine Arts specializing in photography, has worked at the lab for 18 years and is one of only 700 Certified Latent Print Examiners in the United States. At the time he started with the Fremont Police Department the lab consisted of two small rooms. Over time the facility has expanded as new technology was introduced. Today the lab has several large rooms with stations for examining various types of evidence. Vacuum chambers for guns or hanging items with finger or shoe prints on them are fumed with a Super Glue mist that adheres to the surface and polymerizes or plasticizes the print residue. Other stations have chemicals and powders used to enhance the prints as well as a darkroom for photo processing and a room equipped with full spectrum light to view the evidence in a more revealing manner.
The Fremont Crime Lab specializes in print analysis; all processing and identification is done in-house. They can identify gun registrations that have been removed, collect fibers, glass and other trace evidence and conduct presumptive testing for bodily fluids and drugs. DNA samples are sent to an outside lab for analysis. "We can't justify having a DNA lab in our facility when we only have five or sometimes no homicides [per year]; supplies, equipment and expert's salaries don't justify the expense," said Nikoui.
Historically, fingerprint analysis was the first method to identify uniqueness in individuals; fingerprints remain the same from birth to death. When a person touches a surface they leave a residue of oil, grease, dust, or sweat which form the imprint of fingers or palms that can be used to identify a perpetrator. But it is not just fingerprints that are unique, "Every part of the body is unique, the arrangement of cells are unique, the back of hand, the way cells are formed, hair growth patterns, crease marks; you cannot find any person who is the same," he said. "You cannot put fingerprinting into pure science, it takes experience, it's not like DNA where you have A and C and G. The challenge is that fingerprint analysis cannot come up with statistics like DNA. What is the probability of this leaf being exactly like another? Everyone's experiences have led them to believe that it is unique, cells, ridges and so on. There has never has been a case where two different people have the same fingerprints or even repeat a reasonable segment of a print."
One key to quick identification of fingerprints is access to state and federal databases. Computer links to the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) and Western Identification Network (WIN) can return "hits" if the suspect has prints on file within the region, but currently there is no direct access to the FBI's database. It takes days to receive a response from the FBI who, according to their website, has over 47 million subjects in the Criminal Master File and receives an average of 50,000 fingerprint submissions each business day. "We are getting close to linking to the FBI. I've been waiting for this for many, many years," emphasized Nikoui. "Especially now with homeland security issues people are realizing that we have to have a system that is linked and accessible for state agencies."
It is anticipated that soon live scan fingerprint technology used when a person is booked, will include palms as well. This will enable impressions to be recorded electronically, which will in turn make comparisons almost instantaneous. "We have a lot of hard copy palm prints, and in those cases we can't solve them unless we know who the suspect is. The majority don't have palm prints on file...in the future we will be able to ID them," Nikoui stated.
The lab now uses mostly film for photographing evidence but it is expected that within a couple of years film will be replaced with digital technology. "We use digital technology to enhance images now but it is not a complete system; we need a 360 degree system to make sense. With digital imaging, CSI's are not concerned with how much film they have to use and there is no film costs associated with it; we would double the amount of photos taken and quality would improve." The Fremont Police Department has formed a committee to assess current technological needs of its crime lab.
Nikoui has seen many changes during his career: the introduction of lasers, DNA analysis and advanced methods in fingerprint identification. "It was a good time to be in forensics because of the technologic revolution in investigation tools." He sees DNA analysis as a complement to fingerprint analysis. "DNA has its own limitations, it will never replace fingerprints in my opinion. It is another way to identify suspects."
Concerns about relying solely on DNA include the issue of identical twins. Although they may share the same DNA, they do not have the same fingerprints. Statistical probabilities and costs associated with analysis can be prohibitive. Fingerprint analysis is less expensive, more viable, and can be easily explained to a jury. They can see samples and decide for themselves - processing time is much faster. Nikoui said.
The passage of Proposition 69 allows DNA collection of adults arrested for murder, voluntary manslaughter, a felony PC 290 sex offense, or an attempt to commit one of those crimes. Beginning in 2009, adults arrested for any felony offense are subject to DNA collection. This approval will extend the database making it easier to identify suspects.
The Fremont crime lab has had many success stories, "We identify suspects in many cases that end up with a conviction. Very seldom do we lose a case," said Nikoui. "When we have solid evidence from forensic processing, it makes the case really strong. Our CSI's have to do the job right. They bring in evidence and we have to make sure that we do a thorough job."
The CSI team is called out when there is a major crime scene such as rape, homicide or an attempted homicide. Last year there were five homicides in Fremont, a low number when compared to other cities with similar populations. Property crime is the most common type of crime seen in Fremont. "The crime lab has put a dent into theft by identifying suspects. We have been really successful," Nikoui emphasized.
Nikoui who is also a Senior Crime Scene Analyst, shares his lab with an administrative assistant and a volunteer who manages the Materials Safety Data Sheet maintaining a database and inventory of all chemicals. At one time, he supervised a much larger staff but due to budget cuts, his staff has dwindled.
As an expert witness, Nikoui testifies in court although not as often as you might think because most cases are handled with a plea bargain. Once a suspect finds out that the police have his or her prints or other evidence collected at the scene, they often confess. "I am happy with plea bargaining, it show the person is guilty, it saves me a lot of time in court which takes away time in the lab or from officers involved crime scene investigation. If the physical evidence didn't exist they wouldn't plead."
New technologies are coming out everyday. Diagramming techniques using Global Positioning Systems will replace the crime scene sketch. This system will give measurements that are now done by hand. "In the field of science it only takes a few months for the knowledge to double," he said. "Colleagues are always introducing new technology. There are websites that offer tons of gadgets. We used to use one vendor; now we have many more that bring in new innovations." More websites are now available enabling forensic scientists to communicate with experts throughout out the country.
Newer equipment is used at crime scenes include electrostatic dust-lifting film. The film is charged and as a result, collects dust from the surface to the film. Then oblique lighting is used and the print appears.
The future of CSI technology appears to be unlimited. "Think of Star Trek - things Hollywood writers dream up - the same thing is going to happen in crime scene technology."