The Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time Crime Lab

You’ve seen the pristine, up-to-the-minute forensic labs where TV crimes are solved. Now set the scene in an overcrowded, understaffed building with outdated technology and wonky electricity. Welcome to CSI Hamilton County.

There are times when the crime lab at the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office functions like an episode of CSI: NY. Take, for instance, the case of the Hilton Netherland Plaza security guard who was stabbed to death December 7 in a stairwell of the hotel.

About a week after the slaying, video surveillance led investigators to a suspect. The prosecutor called coroner Lakshmi Kode Sammarco late on a Friday night wanting to know how quickly the suspect’s DNA could be tested. The crime lab received the sample on Monday morning, and 72 hours later their results showed a match between the suspect’s DNA and evidence at the crime scene. The suspect, Joseph Tucker Jr., was quickly indicted—he’s now awaiting trial for the murder of guard Richard Campbell—and Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters publicly thanked the crime lab for their work. Made-for-TV stuff.

But there are other scenes at the crime lab that are decidedly at odds with the way the public imagines the high-tech world of forensic science. Investigators on television don’t have to dry marijuana on the floor of a boiler room the way Hamilton County analysts do; their hallways aren’t lined with desks because they’ve outgrown the office space; they don’t have to worry about where to plug in a new piece of equipment; they’re not traveling two floors away to perform basic lab tests.

Hamilton County’s crime lab is that rare issue that unites Republicans and Democrats, defense attorneys and prosecutors: Everyone agrees that in its current state, the lab is insufficient for the important work it does every day. The building opened in 1973, when computers were still a novelty and DNA identification was the stuff of science fiction. It hasn’t been updated much in the four decades since, even as the science it is based on has advanced. An analysis of the building done last year by an outside firm found it to be antiquated, unsafe, improperly secured, and inadequate to meet the needs of a region this size. The current lab creates unnecessary delays that can slow arrests or lead to the release of suspected criminals; it could also lead to the contamination of evidence and jeopardize the health of its employees.

But a renovated building, or a new one, would cost money—a lot of money. And the same Republicans and Democrats, prosecutors and defense attorneys agree: At a time when the county is shedding employees and facing budget woes, $56 million for a new crime lab simply isn’t available. Sammarco has become a relentless advocate, talking to corporations, universities, elected officials, and ordinary citizens in an attempt to make them understand the gravity of the situation.

“Every single person who lives or does business in this county has a stake in making sure this lab functions as it’s supposed to,” says Sammarco, who was appointed to the position just over a year ago and then won election last November. “The work the criminalists do in the crime lab enables criminals to be prosecuted and locked up.”

No one disagrees, but no one has a magic solution either. So the crime lab limps along with a patchwork of fixes to its aging structure, trying to find a balance between the need for public safety and the realities of a difficult economy. The place has worked out a lot of whodunits over the decades. But its own how-to-do-it is a mystery where no one seems to have a clue.


On a blustery Tuesday in January, I met Sammarco and crime lab director Mike Trimpe at the coroner’s office, a boxy three-story brown brick building at the corner of Goodman and Eden avenues. The office sits on the western edge of Pill Hill, adjacent to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center and UC’s College of Medicine. Sammarco, a petite woman with an informal manner, took over after the unexpected death of then-coroner Anant Bhati, who also advocated for upgrading the office’s facilities.

Sammarco is a neuro-radiologist and a Democrat who is married to V. James Sammarco, an orthopaedic surgeon. They are a quintessential Cincinnati story, natives who moved back to the area after the birth of their first child following training and medical appointments in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Los Angeles. Trimpe, who became director of the crime lab earlier this year, is a Cincinnati native too. Demand for forensic scientists is high and the office has lost about a dozen people in the past six years. “It’s only because this is Cincinnati that we’ve kept so many people,” Sammarco says. “People who were born here like to stay here or move back.”

The windowless coroner’s office fairly pulsates with a circa-1973 vibe: cinderblock walls in some wings and brown brick in others; cabinet doors in avocado and burnt orange. But the problems in the crime lab are more than aesthetic. The building’s mechanical systems are so old that when something breaks, replacement parts can be impossible to find. The crime laboratory itself is spread out across the entire third floor, with different rooms to examine different kinds of evidence, from drugs and blood to gunshot residue, brain tissue, and DNA. The lab was built for 12 employees and now houses 24.

On our tour we stop first in the trace evidence office, where analysts look for hair, fibers, paint chips, and other material left at a crime scene. The firearms office, which has a backlog of about 350 cases, has outgrown its own room and its machines have spilled into the trace evidence room; as a result, whenever trace evidence analysts have to look for gunshot residue—say, when they’re scouring a suspect’s garment to see if there’s any indication he fired a weapon—they must move the material two floors away to another office, to avoid contamination during testing or examination of the gunshot residue. The hallway outside is lined with microscopes and printers, and a folding ping-pong table nearby is pulled out whenever a large item needs to be spread out and examined.

Toward the back of the floor sits the drug lab, where three chemists work on more than 8,000 cases a year, many of them involving the testing of street drugs. The room is locked and tightly sealed to prevent the dust from cocaine and other illicit narcotics from contaminating tests run elsewhere in the lab. The ventilation hoods in the sealed room, I’m told, are antiquated. In an adjacent office a histologist takes samples from brains, livers, and other organs to prepare slides for the coroner’s pathologists to examine. Nearby, another machine analyzes blood and stomach contents for drugs, poisons, and alcohol, and a side room full of freezers store blood and DNA samples.

The machinery used for this work is expensive, and the technology evolves fast. The lab’s new scanning electron microscope, for instance, which looks for particles too small to see with standard microscopes, cost $200,000. The rapid pace of change in forensic science is part of the problem, says Ralph Keaton, executive director of the Missouri-based American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board. The FBI didn’t start using DNA evidence until 1998; now the Hamilton County crime lab uses DNA to solve about 50 cases a month.

“With DNA you need isolation rooms, and most labs built 25 or 30 years ago don’t have that,” Keaton says. “Labs need to be designed so evidence can flow through with minimal chance of cross-contamination. They need piped-in gases used in instrumentation”—design details that weren’t on the radar when Hamilton County’s lab was built.

Overcoming the barriers of an outdated facility takes extra effort, says lab director Trimpe. “We’ve got to be careful. There aren’t problems with contamination, but we have to be more careful and take more time. We can’t have multiple cases open at one time.”


 

Trimpe is a lean man with angular features framed by silver hair. He has worked at the Hamilton County crime lab for 33 years, beginning back in the days when blood typing and fingerprinting were the bread and butter of forensic science. “Technicians do documentation and computer work and lab work right next to each other, which isn’t ideal,” he says. “We’d like clean rooms to open evidence and process it.”

Even problems that might seem trivial have a big impact. “Our counters aren’t big enough to fold out a sheet or blanket to look for blood or DNA,” he says. When the lab needs to add an instrument, there’s no place to put it—and plugging it in is a problem because the grid that supplies electricity to the immediate area is already taxed by the surrounding medical buildings.

At the same time, years of police procedural shows on television have raised the expectations of what crime labs are capable of. Juries now expect forensic backup in the most routine cases and are suspicious when there aren’t DNA matches or microscopic evidence in cases that are otherwise ironclad. “Because of the popularity of shows like CSI, the public expects we can do certain things and turn cases around in an hour,” Trimpe says. “Nowadays when I testify, the first thing I’m asked is, ‘How does your job differ from CSI?’ ”

In 2011, the last year for which statistics are available, drugs made up two-thirds of the more than 12,000 cases handled by the Hamilton County Crime lab. (There were nearly 50,000 items examined in the 12,000 cases, since many investigations have more than one item associated with them.) The drug analysts are under extra pressure because, under the county’s rapid indictment program, cases must be presented to a grand jury within 10 days. The program is designed to eliminate preliminary hearings and avoid letting cases languish for months or even years. Prosecutors and defense attorneys both appreciate its benefits, but it puts extra pressure on the crime lab: If results aren’t available in time, suspects are released and, for obvious reasons, can be hard to find later.

But as Cincinnati defense attorney Carl Lewis points out, it can be hard on suspects too. “The worst thing for me is when the case is dismissed, then three or four months later they are indicted” when the lab results are finally in, Lewis says. “They don’t know about it, and they get picked up on something else and find out they’re under indictment.” Lewis, who’s been practicing law here for more than 20 years, says he remembers when lab reports were available in seven to 10 days; now it can take 30 days or longer.

Blood testing was the second largest category handled by the crime lab in 2011, followed by toxicology. About 3,500 deaths are referred to the coroner’s office every year, but the office performs between 900 and 1,000 autopsies—a number they’d like to increase if the resources were available. While Cincinnati and Hamilton County accounted for more than 10,000 cases in the crime lab, more than a dozen jurisdictions use it, from Kenton County in Kentucky and Dearborn County in Indiana to Pike, Lake, and Franklin counties in Ohio. The state has ultimate responsibility for providing help with investigations when an investigating agency needs assistance, and if Cincinnati police or the Hamilton County Sheriff’s office needed a lab test or a piece of evidence examined, they have the option of enlisting the Bureau of Criminal Investigations labs in London, Bowling Green, and Richfield. But those labs are so backed up that the state’s dozen-plus city and county forensic labs are considered an essential part of Ohio’s criminal justice system.

Two years ago the coroner’s office hired the firm Crime Lab Design to do a complete assessment of the coroner’s office and crime lab. The report, submitted in February 2012, found the current building is less than half the size it needs to be and would need 14 more full-time employees to handle the current case load. The study also found that the building endangers staff health and safety through code violations, inadequate access to safety showers, and outdated fume hoods; it jeopardizes the integrity of evidence by allowing drop-off in an open corridor and giving officers access to lab areas; and it compromises respect for grieving families by not providing private areas for discussion of sensitive information.

“The service level provided by the crime laboratory is restricted because of limited money, staffing, and space,” the report concluded. “Consequently, the laboratory primarily focuses on processing evidence for cases scheduled for trial. One goal of the laboratory is to be able to provide timely support to more investigations, not just prosecutions.”

The report recommends a building of 80,000 square feet (the current space is only 35,000 square feet), and says the need by 2030 will be around 94,000 square feet. It also places the ideal staff size at 63.5, up from about 50 today. And apparently the consultants aren’t counting on crime reduction to ease the strain. By 2030, the report says, the lab will require a staff of 82.


 

Sammarco and her predecessors have given tours to public officials, testified at budget meetings, and spoken privately about the need to do something about the building. Hamilton County Commission Vice President Greg Hartmann is a Republican and a fiscal hawk, but he also says public safety is government’s top priority, and he readily agrees that the coroner’s office is inadequate. “There are some serious deficiencies there from a space perspective,” he says. “It’s outdated, it’s cramped, and they’re doing a critical job helping the prosecutor’s office.”

Hartmann and other county officials, though, look at the coroner’s office and crime lab as part of a larger set of county needs. As county administrator Christian Sigman explains, the office is one of 40 major facilities the county runs that range from sports stadiums to the jail, from the 911 call center to the Board of Elections down to antenna radio sites. Their buildings include former department stores, an old newspaper building, and dozens of other specific sites that require constant maintenance. The county even employs full-time plasterers tasked with staying ahead of the Hamilton County Courthouse’s crumbling walls.

Given the cuts in recent years to the county’s budget—which has shrunk the size of the county workforce from about 6,500 to about 4,500—many of those buildings contain significant chunks of unused space. Earlier this year the county launched a six-month review of all its properties to see how they could be run more efficiently. Sigman places the need for a new coroner’s office within the context of other county needs, like a new or renovated jail and a new voting system, as well as capital improvements like new roofs and boilers that could quickly add up to $100 million.

“Two jail initiatives failed. How do you get policy support for something like [a new coroner’s office]?” Sigman asks. “How do I do all that without raising taxes? That’s our challenge in all this.

“We all agree they’re not going to be in that office in five to 10, or 15 to 20 years,” he adds. But that’s where the agreements end, and where the disagreements about details and timelines begin.


 

Although the Crime Lab Design report explored the idea of renovating and expanding the current coroner’s office, it’s no one’s first choice. It is unlikely that bumping the building out to the parking lot behind it would result in enough space, and since the building shares the electrical grid of the University Hospital complex, there is a limit to how much new machinery they can safely run on the site. Indeed, a renovation could cost as much as a new building. “We’d be taking already inefficient space and adding onto it, creating more inefficient space,” Sammarco points out. “Using that many millions of dollars to create space that continues to be inefficient doesn’t allow us to process evidence any better.” And while the county owns the building that houses the crime lab and coroner’s office, UC owns the land it’s built on, so reclaiming the site would give the university the option of using the land in other ways.

The push for a new building comes from a coroner’s office whose current reputation is tainted in some people’s eyes by old scandals, including the case of an employee who abused corpses and another one who allowed photography of corpses without permission—cases that cost the county $20 million in lawsuit settlements. A contentious election last fall took the focus off the office’s lack of space (Sammarco’s opponent, Pete Kambelos, did not support building a new facility). But Sammarco is now back to selling the idea. She’s advocating for a solution that would bring the county together with UC and perhaps Xavier University, sharing the cost of construction and allowing students to intern and learn at the office. UC officials have expressed an interest, but the talks haven’t produced any detailed plans yet.

Cincinnati Police Chief James Craig has seen how such a partnership works in other cities. Craig was police chief in Portland, Maine, before moving here and also worked on the police forces of Detroit and Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, he says, the sheriff’s office and crime lab work with California State University, Los Angeles, which benefits the school and also provides classrooms and student-work programs. The Los Angeles crime lab, with its small army of pathologists and investigators, is one that Trimpe and Sammarco speak of almost reverently.

Craig points out, too, that a larger building could bring in revenue, since it could take on more work from surrounding jurisdictions and continue to help the state clear the backlog in its lab. Craig admits that he wasn’t impressed with the condition of the lab when he arrived almost two years ago, although he praises the work of its scientists. The lab he used in Maine, though located in a smaller region, was state-of-the-art compared to Hamilton County’s. Like Sammarco, he wants to see the crime lab’s needs addressed.

“Things move a little slower here than I’m accustomed to, but why wait until it’s too late?” Craig asks. “How about we get creative and, instead of relying on voters for a tax increase, let’s look at potential partners. We have one of the top criminal-justice programs in the country [at UC] here. We just need to market it and bring the local municipalities to the table and say, this is going to benefit you.”

The benefits, of course, are one thing, and the $56 million price tag for a new building is quite another. The scientists in the crime lab seem sometimes to be victims of their own success; everyone agrees they need a new space, but also that the lab does a terrific job with the space it has, every day churning out evidence that helps resolve crimes. Sammarco and Trimpe acknowledge the nuances in their argument—that as bad as the facility is, the lab is still functioning the way it’s supposed to. Perhaps it would be easier if evidence was regularly contaminated or lost, if the public understood the threat instead of trusting the work would be done. But maybe we just don’t understand the risk. After all, Trimpe says, “You never know when your loved one is going to need us.”

 

Originally published in the April 2013 issue.

Photography by Jonathan Willis

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