IBIS: Integrated Ballistics Identification System


In prehistoric times, when crime-solving technology was basic, almost non-existent, evidence-matching was a daunting task. Remember those days? You know, way back in the early 2000’s… Well, bullet-to-firearm matches were especially tough in those oh-so-distant times. Investigators first recovered spent ammunition, the bullet or bullet fragments and/or the part of the round that once contained the powder (cartridge). Then they set out on the mission of trying to match those bullet parts to the weapon that fired them.

Markings on the surface of a fired bullet – Larry Reynolds photo

Two fired cartridges – Larry Reynolds photo

To do so, they examined the recovered evidence for specific markings left behind by the firearm—lands and grooves left by the pattern inside the gun barrel, and firing pin and ejector marks left on the cartridge.

Then, investigators set out on the mind-numbing task of manually searching scores of image databases and other evidence comparison collections, hoping to locate a match to their piece of evidence. And it sometimes took forever and a day to find a match, if then.

Well, in 2003 a new star in the evidence-matching world was born…IBIS. The Integrated Ballistics Identification System. IBIS is totally automated, much like the AFIS and CODIS systems (fingerprint and DNA systems). Once IBIS hit the scene, investigators were able to enter an image into the system, starting a search of images from all databases AND from all current, on-going, and past crime scenes. And all this is done automatically, without having to paw through page after page of pictures.

But, it’s still not like you see on TV. There’s no moment where an image of a bullet pops up on a computer screen next to a picture of a suspect, complete with the thug’s address, phone number, and shoe size.

Investigators still must compare the items by hand and eye to determine that the two images, the image of the evidence and the database image, are indeed a match.





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Using a fingerprints age

You’ve found several prints at the murder scene and you ran them through AFIS. This time luck was on your side. You got a hit on two of the latents. The first belonged to one of the usuals, a guy who goes by the street name “Popcorn.” You’ve arrested Popcorn several times over the years for assault, a few larceny charges, and a B&E or two. The dead guy was one of Popcorn’s card-playing buddies. Popcorn definitely could be good for this one.

The second suspect is an older man, Ima Forger, with a record of writing bad checks and one charge of embezzlement that occurred almost ten years ago. Violence just doesn’t fit. But, his prints were found at the scene. So, you round up both men and haul them back to your office for a little I&I (Interview and Interrogation).

Both men admit to visiting the home of the deceased, a Mr. I.M. Coldnclammy. Forger admits to being there, stating that the two of them had shared a pizza and watched the Red Sox and Yankees game. He claimed that his friend was very much alive when he left. But Forger also stated that just as he was leaving, Popcorn showed up and boy did he ever look mad. Forger said he could hear the two men arguing all the way from the bus stop in front of Coldnclammy’s house, some fifty-feet away from the front door.

Popcorn, however, says he hadn’t been to Coldnclammy’s house in over two weeks. But he has no solid alibi and everyone who knew Coldnclammy has already told you that he and Popcorn were not on good terms—something about one owing the other a great deal of money. And, there’s a rumor floating around the streets that Coldnclammy has been seen around town with Popcorn’s girlfriend on his arm.

So, all you have so far is the word of two crooks and a couple of fingerprints. One thug says he was there and the other says he wasn’t. But one man clearly implicates the other. You glance to the fingerprints. Both look the same to the naked eye.

They’re both attached to a white backing covered by the clear plastic of the hinged lifter from Sirchie Fingerprint Laboratories, you’re favorite brand.

What if the prints could tell you which man was truthful? The only way that could happen is if you knew the age of the prints. If Popcorn’s print was older than Forger’s, well…

Actually, it is possible to tell the age of a fingerprint, and it’s done by using a sensor that detects extremely faint electrostatic charges, such as those occurring over the surface of a fingerprint. Not only does this method allow the technician to successfully photograph the formerly invisible fingerprint, the process also detects the gradual reduction of electrical charge as the print ages. And, when compared to the time a crime occurred, officials can now eliminate or include potential suspects as the possible perpetrator of the crime in question.

In the case of Popcorn and Forger, well, the print was hotly charged and wasn’t very old. Definitely not two weeks old. So, you’re able to rule out Popcorn as a suspect for this crime. But he’ll be back. Forger, on the other hand, confessed when confronted with the “electrifying” evidence against him

Fingerprint's reveal a smoker


Imagine how difficult it is to solve a murder when all you have as evidence is a single fingerprint. And, that print is not in any database, anywhere.  Sure, there were eight men who were seen near the scene of the crime on the night it occurred, but you have nothing solid pointing you in their direction.

Man, if only that print could talk.

I guess, for starters, the print could tell the investigator what the suspect had been holding in his hand, recently. For example, a cigarette, or a bottle of beer. Or even a bag of cocaine. But would it help to know if the fingerprint belonged to a smoker? Well, during your surveillance of the suspects you’ve seen six of the eight puffing away at various times. So that’s not a lot of help. How about if the print belonged to a person who drank alcohol? During the course of your investigation you’ve learned that only four of the suspects consumed alcohol. And you verified that information with family and friends. What about a drug user? Would it help to know if the print belonged to a drug user? After all, one of your informants says the guy with the big ears and red hair smokes crack regularly. So you try to dig up similar information about the other seven. Nothing. They’re all clean. No drugs. Red-On-The-Head is the only one who uses drugs.

So, if you knew for sure that the print belonged to a drug user and one of your only seven suspects is a confirmed crack smoker…What does that tell you?

The fingerprint, if it could talk, would probably say,

“Look, I’ve told you the guy smokes crack. What else do you want? You know what they say…If he walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…he’s probably the killer.”

But can a single fingerprint provide that sort of information? Sure it can, and here’s how.

Our bodies deposit metabolites—tiny traces of what we’ve consumed—into the sweat released from the pores located in our fingerprint ridges. Scientists use gold nanoparticles to detect the metabolites in fingerprint sweat to learn what, exactly, that individual has taken into his body, such as cotinine, a metabolite of nicotine. And the beauty of detecting cotinine is that a person would have had to ingest it, not merely touch a tobacco product, for it to show up in test results.

The process is simple. Dab the print with a solution containing gold nanoparticles with attached antibodies that bind to the metabolite. Scientists then apply a second antibody, one that binds to the cotinine antibodies. This solution also contains a fluorescent dye. If the person is a smoker, the dye will then glow along the ridge patterns when exposed to an alternate light source.

The test is also capable of testing for alcohol and drug use, which could help narrow a field of suspects. If the test detected cotinine and the guy you’re looking at for the murder is a non-smoker, then you need to at least start looking for an accomplice.

“I always wanted to be a detective when I grew up, and I’ve finally made it. Now, if I only had somewhere to pin a badge…”


*     *     *

Want to learn more about fingerprints and the equipment used to detect them? How about bloodstains? Well, you’re in luck. A team of experts from Sirchie Fingerprint Laboratory will be on hand at the Writers’ Police Academy and they’ll be presenting a couple of mind-blowing demonstrations. Bring your questions and your cameras!



* Have you reserved your hotel room for the Writers’ Police Academy? If not, please do so today. The block of rooms we reserved at the Embassy Suites is nearly full and there may not be any additional rooms available once those are gone. You won’t want to miss out on any of the fun! Ask for the Writers’ Police Academy discounted rate.

* Also, spaces for the Writers’ Police Academy are filling fast, therefore, we may be at capacity soon. So register today for this one of a kind event. Remember, Sisters in Crime will pay over half of your registration fee! This offer is open to everyone. See the WPA website for details.







DNA: Going too Far?

In 2009, Ruben Mitchell, a Stockton, California resident was arrested for trafficking drugs from California to Pittsburgh. Authorities alleged that Mitchell filed a claim for a lost bag on a Southwest airline flight bound for Pittsburgh. Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem, but Mitchell’s bag contained 19 kilos of cocaine.

Ruben Mitchell

Mitchell, upon arrest, refused to provide a DNA sample, arguing that authorities needed a search warrant to obtain that sample. Later, a federal judge in Pittsburgh agreed.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Irwin claims that taking a DNA sample is no different than fingerprinting someone at the time of their arrest. But is swabbing the inside of someone’s mouth really the same as taking fingerprints? Or, is that step actually a body cavity search that would normally require a search warrant? The difference could be that DNA contains a person’s genetic code, not just a bunch of ridges that’re used to identify that person. And, to stick something inside a person’s mouth to retrieve a sample, well, that’s certainly much more invasive than holding a finger over a glass screen to electronically record a fingerprint.

Either way, the case is going to an appeals court for a ruling on the matter. But it won’t end there. Nope. This is a 4th Amendment issue (unreasonable search and seizure). So we’ll definitely see this case before the U.S. Supreme Court because neither side will give in.

So how will all this play out for departments like the Palm Bay Florida Police Department that currently uses DNA to solve many of their cases, including property crimes?

Palm Bay PD has built an in-house DNA database by collecting samples (150 per month, or so. Nearly 13,000 in four years) from any arrestee who agrees to submit one, not just convicted felons. In fact, PBPD detectives even collect samples from soda cans, doorknobs, cigarette butts, or anything else a person may have discarded or touched in a public place.

Then officers collect and enter that person’s DNA into the department’s local DNA databasing system (LODIS).

Palm Bay officials say their DNA database has paid off big time. Within a period of two years they’ve reduced property losses by a staggering $6 million. And they’ve done so by getting the burglars off the street by using DNA to identify them.

One particular Palm Bay DNA case that made the news was interesting, to say the least. But was it a case where DNA should have been used to find the suspect? Well, you be the judge. Remember, to process each sample the costs range between $100 – $800. And that doesn’t include police manpower, vehicle costs, dispatcher’s time, paperwork, court time, overtime, investigation time, follow up time, transportation to the lab, etc.

Anyway, police officers were called to a burglary scene where they discovered a broken piggy bank and knife lying on the bed beside it. Officers took DNA samples and 30 days later they arrested 19-year-old Jerome Jordan for breaking the bank and stealing the $121 he’d found inside.

Officers were able to identify Jordan as the suspect because his DNA profile was in the local database for an unrelated sample collection, possibly from a soda can he’d tossed in a mall garbage can in front of a police detective who decided it might be a good idea to collect it.

What do you think? Should the police be allowed to collect DNA samples from items collected in public places? Should authorities even be allowed to collect DNA samples from everyone who’s been arrested, but not yet convicted of a crime? Is this over-reaching? A violation of search and seizure according to the 4th amendment?



Lifting Fingerprints:


A technique called vacuum metal deposition (VMD) currently uses gold and zinc to recover fingerprints on items such as glass and plastics. VMD is not a new method of of developing latent prints. Not at all. In fact, it’s been around since the 1970’s. However, its latest use has generated quite a bit of buzz among the fingerprint experts and the law enforcement officials charged with locating criminals.

Now, using VMD, experts are finally able to locate and recover fingerprints from fabrics. And the process is relatively simple. The fabric is placed inside a vacuum chamber where gold is heated to the point of evaporation and then the pressure is reduced, which spreads a very thin film over the material. Then, zinc is heated and attaches to the gold, BUT only in the spots where there are NO fingerprint ridges. What’s left behind is clear fingerprint ridges showing through as fabric. The spaces between the ridges show as a grayish zinc color.

Toronto police lab technician places item in a VMD chamber

Fingerprints recovered using VMD are photographed, not lifted.

Of course, a fingerprint itself a valuable tool for identification of criminals. But think about how valuable it could be in the case of a victim who police believed jumped to his death from the balcony of a 20-story building. But when scientists run the victim’s clothing through VMD testing, they discover a pair of hand prints on the back of his shirt. Clearly, the presence of those prints would indicate someone had pushed the victim off the balcony. Then, instead of working a suicide case, detectives would then have a murder to solve.

The best types of fabric for turning up positive results are polyester, silk, and nylon.

Another advantage of using VMD is that it can detect prints on items that were previously immersed in water.

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Friday's Heroes - Remembering the fallen officers


The Graveyard Shift extends our condolences to the families of each of these brave officers.

Deputy Sheriff Dewayne Crenshaw, 62

Tippah County Mississippi Sheriff’s Department

December 3, 2010 – Deputy Dewayne Crenshaw was shot and killed by a male suspect who was involved in a domestic dispute. The fatal shooting occurred after Deputy Crenshaw and another deputy approached the man outside his residence.

Deputy Crenshaw is survived by his wife, four children, and one stepchild. One of his sons is also employed with the sheriff’s office.

Deputy Sheriff Brandon Coates, 27

Orange County Florida Sheriff’s Office

December 8, 2010 – Deputy Brandon Coates was shot and killed during a traffic stop. At some point during the stop Deputy Coates had deployed his Taser while struggling with the driver of the vehicle. Coaters was later discovered with two bullet wounds to the head. He is survived by his wife of about one year. She, too, serves as a deputy sheriff with the department.

It’s frustrating to spend hours, maybe days, working a criminal case only to see your suspect walk out of jail moments after booking is complete. A quick phone call to a bondsman and off they go. Now, if officers had rock-solid evidence, such as DNA, judges wouldn’t be so quick to release offenders back to the streets where they may commit another crime before their court date.

Thanks to Andrew Hopwood at the Forensic Science Service and Frederic Zenhausern from the Center for Applied NanoBioscience and Medicine in Arizona, the days of pre-trial revolving door justice may soon be a thing of the past.

These two scientists have developed an impressive device that allows technicians to simply obtain a cheek swab (DNA sample), test it, and presto…four hour DNA results!

The test is actually fairly simple. As stated, technicians swab the inside of the suspect’s cheek, mix the sample with a solution, and and then place it on a special platform (a chip) inside the machine. The platform (microfluidic platform) extracts the DNA, amplifies it (makes exact copies), and then, through laser electrophoresis (remember, the old method used gels and later a genetic analyzer—still electrophoresis, only slower) the DNA can be compared to a victim, suspect, or other evidence.

And all this is completed in just four short hours! Older methods of DNA testing sometimes required a period of approximately 24 hours simply to extract DNA from the evidence. This method required the sample to soak in an enzyme at least overnight before scientists could begin the actual testing.

Hopwood and Zenhausern are now hoping to reduce turnaround time of their already lightening-fast chip (the platform) and dip (the swabbing) system to a mere two hours!

If only they could do something about the laboratory backlogs

Sexing Skeletal Remains

In the past, experts have traditionally determined the sex of skeletal remains by examining characteristics of the pelvis—the pubis is larger in females; the ischium is larger in males. Simple as that. Or, is it?

Suppose the forensics team has mere fragments to study? What if only a portion of the pelvis is available? How about if they only have as little as fifteen percent of the pelvis?

Well, scientists at North Carolina State University have come up with a better, more accurate method of separating the boys from the girls. They’ve learned that there are 20 distinct areas (landmarks) on a pelvis that can be used for sex determination. This was a huge discovery because it meant that even a small section of a pelvis would contain at least some of those distinguishable trademarks. And, to add to this icing on the cake, the new method touts a 98% accuracy rate as compared to a 90% success rate using the standard method of visually examining the bone(s).

Now to be a little more specific about how the process works (easy as 1-2-3). First, a 3-D image is fed into a digitizer, which measures the landmarks on the bone fragment. Then those measurements are compared to a standard. Next…the results. It’s a girl! Pass the cigars.

This new development is terrific news for prosecution and defense teams. Not only do each of them have more accurate results to present to judges and juries, they no longer have to rely on opinion. Defense attorneys won’t need to try and make the forensic anthropologist look like a babbling idiot, and the prosecutor won’t have to make them out as gods. It’ll all boil down to the reliability of a computer and the research of two North Carolina State scientists—Dr. Ann Ross and Dr. Joan Blytheway.

Dr. Ann Ross, on right, with students at NC State

But, this may have all been a huge waste of time. All anyone had to do was ask any teenage boy to identify the bones. After all, they’re pros at determining sex by examining hips.

DNA not always squeaky clean


Problems exist in every aspect of our lives. No, our world is not perfect, but we do the best we can with what we have. But there’s trouble everywhere. Toyota is recalling hundreds of vehicles. A brand of over the counter medicine has some sort of funky odor and shouldn’t be consumed. Produce is contaminated with deadly bacteria. A major oil company is killing the entire Gulf of Mexico and everything around it. Russian spies. Politicians. Even our criminal justice system is faulty, including the Golden Child of forensics, DNA.

Wait! Did I say DNA is faulty? Surely, that can’t be true…

But it is, and here are a few problems associated with DNA testing that could cause real trouble for prosecutors.

1. Mixtures – When more than one person’s DNA comprises a single sample, then three or more alleles (one of two or more alternate forms of a gene) could be found in at least one location on a chromosome. In short, a mixture of DNA can be confusing and is subject to multiple interpretations, which equals reasonable doubt. And reasonable doubt could result in letting a guilty person off the hook.

2. Degradation – DNA samples can degrade when exposed to harsh conditions. Samples may also deteriorate with age. The electropherogram plotting below shows the reduction in peak (the individual markers that set each person apart) size with degradation of the DNA sample.

3. Stutter peaks – Stutter peaks are little blips on the *electropherogram. These “false peaks” are actually caused during PCR (DNA copying process) and show up as a larger or smaller duplicate of the actual fragment. They’re not real, but they’re there, which allows a defense attorney to cry reasonable doubt.

4. Blobs and Noise – During the process of DNA testing, DNA is separated and the tiny pieces are dyed so they’ll show up (That’s not quite right, but it’s the best simple explanation I could come up with. It’s close enough). Sometimes extra globs of dye (remember, these are tiny, tiny bits of dye) bind together and as they pass through the genetic analyzer they show up as their own peak. This can be quite bad since the extra peak combined with the real peaks could mimic someone else’s DNA.

Air bubbles and minute particles of whatever (dust, debris, etc.) could pass through the machine creating “noise” which also appear as odd peaks. An expert would probably recognize the blobs and noise for what they are, but again…reasonable doubt.

So, as you see, DNA is not an exact science. It’s very close, but there is definitely enough wiggle room for error. And that’s all a good defense attorney needs to cry foul. However, not every defense attorney is familiar with DNA testing and the errors that could result from the various problems. Of course, these aren’t the only problems that could occur with DNA testing. For starters, there’s the evidence collection/contamination by police officers and evidence technicians. But that’s a story all it’s own.

* An electropherogram is basically a computer printout of DNA.

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Since not all blood deposited at crime scenes is spatter, investigators now call this extremely valuable evidence, “bloodstain.” Detectives can learn a lot from studying bloodstain patterns, such as what type weapon was used to deliver the fatal blow, the manner in which the victim was killed, where the assault took place, and where the attacker stood when he committed the act. They learn these things by studying the shapes of the blood drops and droplets, the location of the blood evidence, the patterns made by the spatter and stain—generally, what happened to the blood when it was released from the victim.

A good bloodstain training class uses actual human blood, because nothing else accurately mimics the real stuff. Although, a decent substitute is a mixture of Karo syrup and red food coloring. During training classes students are exposed to nearly every type real-life scenario imaginable, but the first order of business is to learn the basics—characteristics of a blood drop.

– blood drops are formed by gravity

– blood drops cannot break apart unless contacted by an outside force

– larger drops travel further than smaller drops (due to mass, not size)

– blood drops always travel in an arcing path

– size ranges from a few millimeters to few centimeters

– volume of a drop of blood is in direct proportion to whatever it’s dropping from (ax, stick, arm, leg, etc)

Crime scene investigators only measure bloodstains that hit surfaces on the way up, never stains made by blood that’s on its way back down. Stains made when traveling upward are much more accurate for use as evidence, because gravity is not as much of a factor in the pattern’s formation.

Types of Bloodstain Patterns

Impact – caused by high-velocity or medium-velocity wounds—gun shots or blows by an object such as a baseball bat or hammer.

Swipes (Wipes) – Caused by a bloody object being wiped across another surface (these stains are the reason from changing the name from bloodspatter to bloodstain).

Cast-Off – Caused by slinging blood off objects in motion (a swing of a bloody hammer, or arm).

Drip and Flow – Caused when blood drops off one object onto another.

Projected – Caused by arterial spurts. Often seen in stabbings and cuttings.

*Images provided by HemoSpat.