such as recreating a scene, but the job is not what many people might think, he said.
“It’s long hours… It’s not glamorous, it’s dirty. It’s hard work; it’s very tedious,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times it’s interfered in family functions.”
By the time Hutchins arrives at a crime scene, the site has usually been secured by the local agency requesting the GBI’s services. With a flashlight and rubber gloves, sometimes shoe coverings and a body suit to limit contamination, Hutchins does an initial walk-through to decide how he’ll proceed next.
“One thing with a crime scene, you never assume based on what the scene looks like when you first see it,” he explained. “You proceed with an open mind.”
For example, even though a death might look like a suicide, crime scene investigators will continue as if it might be a homicide, until the evidence rules it out, he said.
Evidence collection and processing is the beginning leg of the overall investigation, Hutchins said. “ Everything starts to build off it. If it’s not done correctly from the beginning, there’ll be problems and it can crumble at the end.”
Improper processing of evidence was a key factor in the O. J. Simpson trial, pointed out Covington Police Chief Stacey Cotton.
“One of the keys is the integrity of your evidence,” Cotton said. “You do everything to remove any thought or any belief that there could be any tampering with the evidence once it’s taken from the person.”
At the CPD station, evidence is dropped off into padlocked mailboxes bolted in the ground and stored in the cells of what used to be the department’s jail, still guarded with thick concrete walls and black steel bars and accessible to only two people in the department.
“The beauty of it is, it’s hard to break out and hard to break in,” Cotton said.
Some of the metal filing cabinets bristling with sealed paper envelopes emit pungent odors, and items of every size and type line the hallways.
At the Newton County Sheriff’s Office, a cave-like garage serves as the workstation where Tracey LaChance, who previously worked at the GBI’s crime lab before coming to the NCSO as an evidence technician, logs evidence that deputies drop off in a padlocked mailbox, lifts finger prints, tests for marijuana and processes larger items like vehicles.
The evidence is shelved in rows of white banker’s boxes in a room just across the hall vaguely resembling a library basement. Though the items from concluded cases were recently winnowed by an audit and disposed of or sold after court permission, some objects linger, such as a medieval-looking treadmill from a still active case — the 2004 dog-fight bust.
Technology and computers have revolutionized evidence processing in ways more mundane and profound than the public might realize.
Ervin, who spent two decades as a criminal investigator in the Air Force before becoming an evidence technician at the CPD, saw the station rapidly transition from card catalogues to logbooks to computers within the span of a year when he first arrived. Now, the bar-coding system allows him to find the location of a piece of evidence at any given moment, be it in the station, prosecutor’s offices or courtrooms.
The NCSO recently began using a fingerprint identification program called Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) which builds a database of all the fingerprints taken from people booked into the jail and sheriff’s office and helps match prints to those in the database, said LaChance. Certified specialists are still required to evaluate the possible matches, though, and several NCSO employees are currently being trained.
Still there are many public misconceptions about what investigators can do with evidence, said LaChance.
“It doesn’t happen as fast as what people seem to believe. It’s a lot more complicated and a lot longer process than that,” she said, of what’s portrayed on television. “(People) think by the end of the night we’re going to have the results back for them.”
Hutchins said the crime scene shows have made his job more difficult in some ways because criminals are more aware of crime scenes.
“Criminals watch TV like everybody else and they do things to keep from leaving evidence,” he said. Even juries are not immune and sometimes question whether he should have gone a step further because that’s what they’ve seen on the screen.
If there is a plus to the popmedia portrayals, it’s that art can sometimes spur reality, said Ervin.
“ Over time, fantasy has become reality,” he said. For instance, cell phones were science fiction not too long ago and DVDs were a rarity, but now both are ubiquitous and have changed the way we do things. TV fictions might just spark ideas and challenge people to find new ways of doing things, he said.