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Calif. sheriff’s crime lab honored

Paying careful attention to detail, forensic unit is recognized for meeting international standard

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By Raul Hernandez
The Ventura County Star

VENTURA COUNTY, Calif. — The eyes of the crime scene analyst at the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department’s Forensic Sciences Laboratory seemed to be absorbed by the slide underneath the powerful microscope lens, gently guided by slow-moving fingers.

In the brightly lighted room, there is an intensity as forensic scientists help police hunt down the human source of DNA left at a crime scene or, perhaps, a footprint or tire print found next to a human body.

Paying careful attention to detail and keeping track of thousands of slide samples and other items is part of a job where an error could mean a guilty suspect is set free or an innocent person might face years, even decades, behind bars.

Renee Artman, Forensic Sciences Laboratory manager, said the lab analyzes almost anything that can be found at a crime scene, “even wood or a piece of glass.”

In a new acknowledgment of the lab’s work, it was recognized this year by a respected certifying body for meeting a new standard for precision measuring of breath alcohol levels, the Sheriff’s Department recently announced.

The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors’ Laboratory Accreditation Board in June recognized the Ventura County lab’s Breath Alcohol Calibration Program for meeting its new “international” standard, sheriff’s spokesman Capt. Ross Bonfiglio said.

“It means that you are the best in the world,” Artman said. “I am very proud of what we accomplished.”

The program measures breath alcohol levels for cases involving driving under the influence.

The new standard is more stringent than those used for previous accreditations, Bonfiglio said. The lab had to meet more than 400 criteria during an April evaluation to win the recognition.

Artman said the 32 scientists working there analyze about 8,500 cases a year, which include between 20,000 and 40,000 different items.

“The science that we are doing is state-of-the-art,” said Artman, adding that the job requires a great deal of knowledge.

“You have to really understand scientific principles,” she said. “When you are working cases, you feel like you have no room for error. You have to be very, very careful. You have to be unbiased. You have to be impartial ... and you have to be able to work under stress, pretty heavy stress.”

In a simple crime case, the analysis might take a few hours. In a more complex case, it could take months.

Tests are conducted for police departments, the District Attorney’s Office, California Youth Authority, FBI and the county medical examiner.

The minimum education required to be a forensic scientist is a bachelor’s degree in science, said Artman, adding that more recently, people can get degrees in forensic science.

The scientists often spend hours in the courtroom giving testimony and offering reports, including giving testimony on DNA evidence that jurors can understand.

Sheriff’s Department Cmdr. Jeff Matson, who is in charge of the laboratory, and Artman say there’s no basis for criticism, sometimes heard from criminal attorneys, that the lab takes too long to conduct blood tests from people arrested on suspicion of drunken driving.

DUI test results involving alcohol usually take two to three weeks to complete, and those involving drugs usually take two to four weeks, Artman said.

She said the laboratory gets about 200 blood-alcohol samples to be tested each month.

It isn’t true that suspects linger in jail waiting for blood-tests results, she said.

About 92 percent of the blood-alcohol tests come back testing positive, according to Artman.

In some DUI and toxicology cases, especially when the suspect is in jail, criminal attorneys or prosecutors can request that a “rush” be put on the analyses so the tests can be done faster, Artman said.

One expedited job recently provided crucial evidence in the case of a Moorpark man.

The man was jailed in March after three field drug tests by sheriff’s deputies showed that a white powdery substance - found in two salt shakers and a jar at the man’s home - was cocaine. A police drug-sniffing dog also reacted to it, indicating that the substance was cocaine.

The man insisted that it was salt, but he was arrested on suspicion of possessing cocaine for sale, a felony. His bail was set at $50,000.

Christopher Welch, an attorney with the county Public Defender’s Office, who represented the suspect, asked the lab to examine the substance on a rush basis. It turned out to be salt. The drug charges were dropped, and the man was set free after 13 days in jail.

Matson believes that the laboratory is doing well this year with its level of resources and staffing.

The laboratory is divided in to six sections: DNA, Trace, Firearms, Controlled Substances, Toxicology and Forensic Alcohol-Maintenance.

Workers in the various sections do tasks such as microscopic analysis of residues such as glass particles and fibers, matching bullets and casings to firearms, identifying drugs in the body and helping determine the cause of death for the medical examiner, and maintaining and calibrating “breathalyzers” used by police to determine blood-alcohol levels.

Artman said the work is stressful and there is plenty to go around, but the staff members who work there are very dedicated.

“I think every single person who works here is very proud, very dedicated,” she said. “They take accountability for their work.”

Copyright 2008 The Ventura County Star