Richland County's crime lab brings science to detective work - - Columbia, South Carolina |

Richland County's crime lab brings science to detective work

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It can get pretty loud out in the back of the Richland County Sheriff's Department. But while David Collins and his staff are working to link guns, bullets, or shell casings to criminal investigations, there's a lot of other activity inside the building of a much quieter nature.

In the drug and fire debris lab for instance.

"What we'll first do is actually identify the substance microscopically," said forensic chemist Andy Farmer.

That's where Farmer tries to establish whether materials seized by deputies are in fact drugs, or in some cases, evidence of arson.

Farmer says the lab is top notch, and one of the best in the southeast.

"The sophistication level and the instrumentation rivals anything that we have in the state and any other county laboratories," said Farmer.

Collins, a ballistics expert in the lab, agrees.

"All your resources are very close by. You have your investigators nearby if you need to obtain additional information about the incident location or other factors about the crime scene. You have -- due to the logistics of the situation -- we also have generally a faster turnaround time on our results," said Collins.

You won't find Rachel Grant disagreeing either. She works in Richland County's DNA lab. It's one of only three run by Sheriff's Departments in South Carolina. The others are in Greenville and Beaufort.

Convinced that DNA analysis would fundamentally change law enforcement and the county needed its own operation, Sheriff Leon Lott pushed council members to fund the lab more than a decade ago.

"We do DNA on all of our cases," said Lott. "It doesn't matter if your mailbox gets knocked down. So we're solving little cases that would never be solved without the use of DNA. Every deputy here knows how to process a scene and get DNA evidence."

"It's fun in a way," said Grant. "Because we're putting pieces together, we're trying to solve these crimes and we're trying to find the bad guy."

Richland County's crime-busting effort goes doesn't stop there. The department does its own fingerprint and shoe impression identification.

"It's financially a lot less expensive for us to run something through our AFIS system than it is for them to pull out a kit and run it through DNA," said fingerprint analyst Trisha Odom.

The county's fingerprint capabilities paid off in a big way in 2009. Experts there used a bloody handprint to find and charge a suspect in the murder of Malverse O'Neil, who was stabbed to death in his home. That case had been unsolved for almost four years.

While finger and shoe prints have been part of criminal investigations for more than a century, Richland County is also trying to stay on the cutting edge of technical advances. Grant has been exploring the use of what's known as "touch" DNA.

"Yes, technologies are so sensitive that if you were to touch an item and I were to come behind you and swab it, most likely I'm going to be able to get your profile off of that item," said Grant.

The county's CSI unit has been working with a device called the Leica ScanStation. It creates 3-D images of a crime scene.

"It's a laser scanner that scans 360 degrees around and a 270 degree arc. And it's used for taking laser measurements and documenting interiors or exteriors of crime scenes," said CSI tech Mike Bouknight.

Lott's department still can't pull off many of the technological feats depicted on TV cop shows, but the sheriff says what his staff can do is enough to not only solve crimes but even prevent them.

"I think the bad guys watch TV, they read the paper. They see what you publicize that we're able to do. And then I think some of them make that decision, I'm going to go somewhere else," said Lott.

One of Lott's toughest challenges might be attracting and keeping personnel from going somewhere else. Lab techs are in high demand. They do have other options. Some pay better than Richland County. Lott says he compensates in part with a good working environment. That's been effective so far and staffers who have been offered other jobs have decided to stay put.

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