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Solving Crime With Science

June 16, 2011, 10:05 PM by Jon Wilson

Solving Crime With Science
SIOUX FALLS, SD - Officers of the law pledge to serve and protect the public. Another group of crime fighters also serve the public, but in a different way.

We take you inside the Sioux Falls Crime Lab, where investigators are solving crimes with science.

Brandon native Matthew Jorgenson manages a busy Sioux Falls Crime Lab.
"Crime continues to grow as the population grows," Jorgenson said.

More crime means more evidence, which is stacking up at the Law Enforcement Center. This evidence room opened in 2004 and was meant to last at least 10 years.

"Seven years later, we're already full and at capacity where we've taken on another building to store our layers of evidence," Jorgenson said.

8,500 pieces of evidence are in this room alone. Every item is logged, tagged and in some cases, bagged before being stored away. Some of these boxes have been here a while. We came across a box of evidence from an unsolved homicide investigation from 1971.  You never know when new technology can break open an old case from the past.

"We're getting 20-year-old cold cases solved based on DNA hits from 20 years ago; that's fascinating," Jorgenson said.

There is also a small lab next to the evidence room, but there's no DNA extraction going on here.

"We've rolled the ability to do all of the controlled substance analysis, fire debris analysis, latent print analysis for Minnehaha County and surrounding area," Jorgenson said.

Sioux Falls sends everything else, including DNA samples, to the state crime lab in Pierre.

"They're going to do things such as firearms analysis, DNA, any of the trace work if it's hair or paint, fiber." Jorgenson said.

Eight people work in this crime lab including chemists, print specialists and evidence personnel. Some specialize in the lab while other CSI's do their best work in the field.

"It started out just with evidence collection out at the scene," Jorgenson said.

Today's crime scene investigators are much more meticulous when processing crime scenes, and in many cases, better educated than many of their predecessors.

"We are going to a more scientific-based crime lab.  Almost everyone we hire in our crime lab has a college degree in a natural science," Jorgenson said.

Jorgenson earned a chemistry degree from Augustana College before starting his forensics career with the Washington State Patrol. He later ran a crime lab in Colorado before moving back to Sioux Falls about a year ago. And what a year it has been.

One of the hardest crime scenes to process is one that hits close to home, like the recent attempted prison escape and murder of Corrections Officer Ron Johnson.

"You really try to keep your mind open; you want a blank slate when you get to a crime scene," Jorgenson said.

Otherwise a condition called situational bias can ruin a case before an investigator even arrives at a crime scene.

"We don't want to put any projections onto it. We don't want to have any preconceived notions; we kind of let the evidence speak for itself," Jorgenson said.

Especially in the cases where the victim is unable, or unwilling, to speak for themselves.

"And that's when science really comes into play.  The evidence is what's going to speak to us; we don't pursue things based on hearsay.  We really want to collect good evidence and let those leads takes us to where it needs to," Jorgenson said.

The last thing I wanted to know is probably the first thing that comes to mind when people hear CSI. How has Hollywood affected his job?

"I've actually been forbidden from watching the TV show at home," Jorgenson said.

Crime fighting TV shows like CSI have more people, mainly students, pursuing a profession in forensics. Jorgenson considers the publicity a double-edge sword.

"The awareness is helping us get the equipment, get the technology we need.  However, the preconceived part of it, of what we're able to do as to what the show portrays us capable of doing, that gets a little frustrating," Jorgenson said.

Even though it often takes a lot longer than an hour, solving a case is still the best part of being a CSI.

"My goal, my challenge is to let the evidence answer the questions.  You have evidence that leads you to a point where it's absolutely 100 percent clear of what happened.  That's a good feeling," Jorgenson said.

Once a case is closed, Jorgenson says the evidence is either returned or thrown away. Many of the firearms are dismantled and destroyed.  Even the alcohol from local liquor stings is dumped down the drain.

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