Real-Life CSI: True Science of what TV viewers see
By IAN ROBERTSON, Sun Media
Sunday, May 20, 2007
CSI stars like William Petersen (Gil Grissom) will be virtual hosts at the new CSI: The Experience interactive exhibit opening Friday in Chicago. ( Robert Voets, CBS )
MONTREAL — Call it CSI: Canada.
A Canadian firm that developed a system used in 42 countries to help police match bullets, cartridge casings and criminals, is going public with the true science of what TV viewers think is real.
Forensic Technology, developer of the Integrated Ballistics Identification System ( IBIS ), contributed to the development of a new interactive exhibit that starts touring U.S. science museums beginning Friday in Chicago.
“CSI: The Experience” runs until Sept. 3 at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.
Developed by the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History in Texas, organizers will consider sending it elsewhere after the initial eight-city tour. The exhibit’s partners include CBS, producers of CSI, with some financing by the National Science Foundation.
Adults and teens can explore simulated crime scenes, identify and record evidence, do scientific tests and pathology analysis in an autopsy room.
CSI cast members like William Petersen (Gil Grissom) will “virtually” welcome guests into the exhibit and lead them through the process.
Olivier Perreault-Smith, spokesman for the Montreal firm which pioneered automated ballistics identification in the early 1990s, said its systems have provided actionable investigative leads in more than 60,000 cases — including 500 “hits” matching guns used in at least two previously unlinked crimes in Canada.
Images for the travelling road show’s game came from Forensic Technology’s newest IBIS BulletTRAX-3D.
Using a special microscope,” the system scans bullets and cartridge casings, vice-president Pete Gagliardi said at the 170-employee firm’s offices in the west-end suburb of Cote Saint-Luc.
“With 3D, we can show examiners what they couldn’t see before,” said Gagliardi, once head of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in New York. “This technology can take accurate quantitative measurements for the first time.”
As a result, the three-dimensional system allows examiners to see marks that were not readily visible to the human eye.
Gagliardi said ballistic expertise dates back to the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago 78 years ago, when U.S. Army Col. Calvin H. Goddard applied his scientific approach and tools to help police solve the slayings of five Chicago gangsters who worked for George “Bugs” Moran as well as a car mechanic and a visiting optometrist by rival Al “Scarface” Capone’s assassins dressed as cops.
Until the late 1990s, Goddard’s comparison microscopes and photography, combined with laborious physical examination by forensic experts, were the methods used to match crime scene bullets and cartridge casings with those test-fired in labs.
Today, IBIS technology can find the “needle in the haystack,” which Perreault-Smith said suggests possible matches between pairs of spent bullets and cartridge cases, at speeds “well beyond human capacity.”
With such matches, forensic experts can give detectives more timely information about crimes, guns, and suspects. Police count on that to help them get potentially dangerous suspects off the street quickly.
Still, experts must remain cautious and not rely entirely on technology, Gagliardi said. “With guns, it’s never absolute,” and though technology produces faster, more detailed results, humans still must analyse the information.
A gun leaves individual marks including striations on the outside of projectiles as they go through the barrel, plus impressions on cartridge cases left by the breech face and firing pin. On a semi-automatic, marks are also left by an “extractor” and “ejector,” which toss out spent cases.
By examining such evidence, police can determine if fired bullets or cartridge cases found at two different crime scenes were fired from the same gun and if a gun taken from a suspect was used in any prior crimes.
They can also be traced to manufacturers if a reference ballistics database has been set up, such as in Maryland, New York and several foreign countries.
Perreault-Smith said when marketing representatives make pitches to police and judicial agencies, they can draw from tens of thousands of “success stories” of IBIS linking guns with other crimes. The storyboards currently used are from U.S. and Australian cases.
Canadian law enforcement agencies are currently considering releasing information about IBIS success stories in this country, he said. Police, however, must balance the need for the public to be informed and the judicial process to run its course.
A lawyer, Perreault-Smith has spoken to top cops in the U.S. who, despite CSI and similar TV shows, expanded internet information and national police publications, “weren’t aware” the ATF has a National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, (NIBIN) database.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s office of the inspector general determined less than 20% of ballistics crime scene evidence is entered into NIBIN, he said.
In one often-quoted murder investigation, Gagliardi said IBIS was used to link a gun used in Houston, Tex. to a robbery and wallet theft. The match led to a man who used one of the victim’s stolen credit cards to buy an adult video. After confessing to the break-in and three murders, the gun was found and he got a death sentence.
To the east, 68-year-old Hazel Love was randomly shot in Alabama by gang members out to collect a debt.
The murder weapon languished for two years in a police vault after being seized at an arson scene four years after her shooting — until a cop decided to test-fire it, Gagliardi said. An IBIS report had been thrown out, but someone kept the key data. Love’s murder, several others and the arson were solved.
In Virginia, where 32 men and women were murdered April 16 at a university by a student who then killed himself, Forensic Technology is working on a pilot project in which guns police found in vacant lots, under car seats and other locations are test-fired for a database registry that could be used to match them to unsolved crimes.
The project, with results sent to the NIBIN database, began before the Virginia Tech shootings.
The ATF says the NIBIN system has led to more than 20,000 “hits” that helped American investigators match guns and crimes they had not realized were linked. It began using IBIS in 1993.
Perreault-Smith said the key to NIBIN’s success is its link to more than 200 ballistics labs across the U.S.
Contrary to TV — and unlike the RCMP’s CIBIN database used by police across Canada — there is no central database in the U.S. The labs, however, are linked to 13 regional databases. Each state is empowered to keep one, but often co-operate, and the FBI also maintains one.
Gun data is a massive undertaking in the U.S., where Gagliardi estimated there are 280 million firearms and up to 300,000 yearly gun-related arrests.
Six labs use IBIS in Canada, which became the 26th country to order the system, company president Robert Walsh has told business leaders. One $750,000 unit was installed in 2004 at the Ontario government’s Centre of Forensic Sciences (CFS) in Toronto and by early 2006, its IBIS had tied 160 guns to GTA crimes.
Labour-intensive hands-on matches made between bullets and cartridge cases from numerous shootings led to two local gangs rounded up in 2003 and 2004.
Since then, CFS examiners have had greater success analysing test-fired projectiles and cartridge cases with IBIS, officials and police say.
Last November, Canada and the U.S. agreed to let the Mounties and ATF share data and forensic evidence about guns, bullets and cartridges.
At the time, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said prior to the accord, the two agencies shared information manually on an ad hoc basis, “a viable but cumbersome solution. A cop investigating a gun crime in New York, who suspected a connection to a similar crime across the border in Toronto, would face such a complicated and labour-intensive ordeal in pursuing that lead, it was likely to just never happen.”
With gangs expanding from many big cities, smaller police forces need to consider modern forensic technology, Gagliardi said. “Canada is generally a peaceful and safe place to live, but the cancer is spreading.”
Among the more than 40 countries whose police agencies bought a system from Forensic Technology, project manager Pierre Reid said South Africa, “which has one of the highest crime rates in the world, is one that achieved the most benefit from using IBIS.”
Fitted with the digital camera developed for IBIS six years ago, Reid said a technician can complete a “topographical mapping” of a bullet or cartridge casing in 16 minutes “from all angles.” It only takes another three minutes to prepare the case file, add exhibit numbers, setup information and gun serial numbers.
Without the 360-degree scan, examiners rotate a bullet or cartridge casing by hand while peering through a microscope, Gagliardi said. “A good guy could take two minutes with a good bullet, or it could take two hours.”
The success of such technology goes beyond science, staff at Forensic Technology say. From offices in several countries, their agents travel the world promoting the benefits to police, prosecutors and judges.
Its 2005 export revenue was estimated at $37 million.
In many cases the firm’s agents must counteract misunderstandings fostered by CSI and similar TV shows.
Toronto Police last year began experiencing the negative impact of what American courts and investigators dubbed the “CSI Effect” — jurors convinced by the popular Miami- and New York-based TV dramas that forensic equipment, tests and methods on the shows exist.
Numerous court cases have been lost due to expert testimony being disbelieved, as in the case of actor Robert Blake, who was acquitted two years ago or murdering his wife. Jurors publicly stated the lack of gunshot residue and blood on his hands undermined the police case.
Toronto Det.-Const. Wade Knapp first encountered the “CSI Effect” while trying for several hours to explain to a jury why he had found no useable burglary evidence at a Scarborough residence.
On the upside, technology-based crime shows have resulted in a major increase in people seeking training in police-style forensics.
“In addition to being introduced to the fields of forensic anthropology, toxicology and DNA analysis,” Perreault-Smith said visitors to the CSI: “Crime Scene Investigation” Experience will also be immersed in hands-on firearm analysis. The exhibit’s creators have been very careful in ensuring that the visitors’ experience mirrors real life as much as possible.
“They want to bridge the gap and make it as real as possible,” he said.