After an evidence tampering scandal came to a head last year at the Douglas County Sheriff's Department, the crime scene investigation unit with has been struggling to rebuild its reputation.
Today, the most tangible and symbolic change at the Sheriff's office is a single, electronically-locked door. It separates the offices of the crime scene investigators and the laboratory facilities of the specialists who analyze it. By putting their offices on opposite sides of that door the new director of the Forensic Science Unit hopes there will be little chance of CSI's intentionally or inadvertently slanting the results of an investigation.
"The person analyzing it doesn't necessarily care about the scene they don't care about the suspect," new director Tracy Ray explained to NET News. With one group collecting the evidence and turning it over to specialists in chemistry, fingerprints, or electronics "they are analyzing the evidence and the evidence is speaking to them" instead of looking to match a conclusion they might have reached at the scene.
Ray was hired earlier this year. The search committee selected her, in part, because her experience with crime labs, including her last posting in Charlotte, North Carolina, emphasized creating systems to reduce the potential for and even the appearance of field investigators influencing the outcome of evidence analysis. "We wanted to make sure there is no bias," she explained, "so we have really gone above and beyond to make sure everything is separate and secure."
Today not only have has the system changed, the unit has been named and even its logo has been updated to make a clean break from the scandal that rocked the unit.
The man who ran the unit previously is now in jail. Five years after the murder of a farm couple near Murdock, Nebraska an investigation revealed former CSI commander, David Kofoed, manufactured a key piece of evidence. He made it appear one of the victim's blood had been found in a suspect's car. At the time it was used to bolster a confession given by Matt Livers. It was eventually determined Liver's had confessed under coercion and the charges were thrown out. Two other people were eventually linked to the murder scene and are now serving life in prison.
Even though all evidence showed Kofoed was the only investigator in the unit involved in planting the evidence, Sheriff Tim Dunning saw the damage done to the staff's morale. "We had a lot of people walking around with their chins on their chest, feeling down and feeling very betrayed," Dunning told NET News. After Kofoed was sent to prison his first priority was to "get that spirit back up."
It was a challenge for the out-of-stater, Tracey Ray, who was not even aware of the scandal when she first applied for the job. "I know they were worried that somebody was going to come in and say they were broken. And they were not broken," she shared during an interview in her new office. "Something happened with one individual and unfortunately they were being held accountable for that. I wasn't going to look at it and hold them responsible."
Ray's previous crime lab in Charlotte was nationally accredited by The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors. For over 30 years the organization has been accrediting crime laboratories in the United States in the hopes of setting minimum standards and best practices in the field of crime scene investigation and evidence processing.
As of summer of 2011, there are 386 accredited crime labs around the world, including 191 state and 130 local agency laboratories in the U.S, according to the ASCLD.
The Douglas County Sheriff has made adding his facility to that list a top priority. By getting that stamp of approval from an independent third party the Sheriff hopes to stave off any challenges from criminal defense attorneys who might use the unit's past scandal as a way to question evidence brought into trials. They hope to complete the accreditation process no later than 2013.
Conversations with the crime scene investigators who worked with Kofoed reveal a new optimism about their job and their organization. All we spoke with agree that accreditation and new procedures are positive developments.
The most exciting development for the staff is the new, four million dollar facility they moved into over the summer. Offices and labs now fill the vintage veteran's home building on Omaha's far west side. It was paid for entirely from money seized in drug raids and arrests. Spotless rooms with plenty of space to work give the lab specialists the flexibility to work with most any type and size of evidence brought back from a crime scene.
"You used to do everything," crime scene investigator C.L. Retelsdorf told a tour group during a recent Open House. Under the new system "if someone collects a pop can from a burglary they come back and someone else is going to process that can for latent (finger) prints. That's just kind of the way it's happening around the country."
He was repeating the message that his new boss shares at every opportunity.
"If you are processing a scene you have a vested interest in that scene because it is human nature to want to catch the bad guy," explained Tracey Ray. "You are going to the best of your ability to collect the proper evidence and process it but it can be disheartening if you don't find anything." She believes leaving the scientific analysis to someone distant from the emotion and personal involvement of a crime scene improves the impartiality of their work.
Everyone at the Douglas County Sheriff's Department is aware of the irony that David Kofoed, the ousted former commander, was taken to jail just as construction wrapped-up on the new facility. He helped oversee its creation and design.
Meanwhile, early in September, Kofoed had another day in court. In a last attempt to get his guilty verdict from Cass County overturned he appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court.
The justices will decide whether Kofoed deserves a new trial. His attorney, Steve Lefler, argued evidence that hinted Kofoed planted evidence in a second homicide case should never have been allowed into court. James Smith of the Nebraska Attorney General's office argued a fair hearing about whether that evidence should be admitted was held prior to Kofoed's trial, leaving no reason to overturn the guilty verdict. The Supreme Court will likely issue its opinion this fall. (Click here to listen or watch the appeal of the Kofoed case before the court.)
For Sheriff Dunning, what unfolds in the courts now is almost irrelevant, stating in an emphatic, flat voice: "We erased that individual from our organization and are completely moving forward."