New crime lab safer for investigators

The Richmond County Sheriff’s Crime Scene Unit has moved into its new lab, which investigators say has many tools that will help with efficiency and safety.


“It makes a huge difference for us,” said Crime Scene Unit investigator Tom Johnson. “It is a safety issue for us, and it makes things so much quicker.”

Since moving into the lab in the new sheriff’s office building in September, the Crime Scene Unit has gotten access to some new equipment, including a cyanoacrylate (super glue) fuming chamber, a down-flow print dusting workstation and a chemical fume hood.

The technology has made the unit’s work much safer, Johnson said. The chemical fume hood has an updraft, which sucks up all the fumes from the chemicals they use to find prints.

The example Johnson used was a bank robbery. If the robber hands over a note, it can be hard to dust. Instead, the investigator will use a chemical mixture to bring out the print on the page. The chemicals can be highly toxic, however, and the fume hood allows investigators to work with the chemicals without the risk of inhaling fumes.

In the old lab, they had to open the hood and walk away until the fumes had dispersed, Johnson said. Sometimes they would want to look for a print right away and would get hit by the fumes.

The new print dusting workstation pulls the extra dust down into the area below the surface, instead of up, as the previous workstation did. Johnson said the new machine makes it much easier for them to lean over the object without inhaling print dust. The light suction also keeps fragile objects in place.

The super glue fuming chamber is for working with more fragile prints. The machine, which takes 15 to 20 minutes to cycle, shows a more stable print. If there is only one good print, and the technician does not want to risk smearing it, the super glue chamber will make the print more permanent, Johnson said.

The super glue tactic is something the crime scene unit uses regularly. Johnson said it is one of the in-field techniques they can use just about anywhere. As an example he cited the trash can in the Corey Smith case. Smith was sentenced to life in prison without parole in March for the rape and killing of Patricia Burley, a 54-year-old woman with Down syndrome. Johnson and his team lifted fingerprints off a trash can used to transport Burley by make-shifting a glue chamber around the trash can.

“It’s a readily used technique,” he said. “This chamber makes it so much faster and easier than making them ourselves.”

On the other side of the lab is a new garage with pneumatic hoses that pull down from the ceiling. The garage is temperature controlled, which Johnson said makes a huge difference in collecting evidence.

“The temperature changes cause dew, which can mess up evidence,” he said.

Since last weekend, there have been four cars to process, Johnson said. The garage will be used readily.

“DNA and fingerprints are the most fragile evidence,” he said. “Our new lab is equipped with the technology to ensure we get the best results we can.”