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Real-life CSIs: From the laboratory to the courtroom: criminalists can make or break a case

The popularity of crime shows like "Law & Order" and "CSI" has triggered fierce competition for jobs in the forensic science field and drawn attention to those who work with fragile and crucial crime-scene evidence.

Criminalist Laura Hall, who specializes in DNA profiles, spoke at the Los Altos Library June 20 to a small crowd of parents and teens. She offered practical advice on how to make a career in the field, but she left out most of the gory crime-scene details.

At the Santa Clara County Crime Laboratory in San Jose, where Hall works, a host of specialists work for the district attorney's office, combing through crime-scene evidence from drug, sexual assault and homicide cases. Evidence arrives daily from on-scene investigators and is processed, on average, in about one to two months - not a tidy 45 minutes as on shows like "CSI."

The county crime lab looks gray and institutional, and it houses about 40 criminalists - scientists who process evidence gathered at a crime scene by police.

But the work is stimulating, Hall said, and the scientists all appear passionate about their jobs - even if they are a far cry from the action-packed TV dramas. Most of the legwork is done through careful lab analysis that involves DNA found in or on hair, saliva, semen, stray bullets, gun cartridges and other material, most too minute to see.

Stress levels can run high in the field, Hall said. Criminalists called to testify in court before juries often endure grueling interrogations and must remain unbiased at all times.

Unlike on TV, the job does not involve the quick, merciful breaks that allow criminalists to make that slam-dunk leap of logic and solve the case.

"All we're doing is giving a voice to evidence in court. It's going to tell a story of some kind. But the burden of proof lies with the district attorney," said Brian Karp, a criminalist in the county lab's firearms division.

But the responsibility of crime analysis is gratifying. Often the evidence Hall and her cohorts present before a jury is strong enough to convict a criminal or to exonerate an innocent person. That pressure can be tough, she said.

"No other profession is held to as high a standard of perfection as forensic science. We're under a lot of pressure from the media. People's lives are at stake. Just one mistake and your career is over," Hall said.

A morbid sense of humor and a thick skin can help in a job like this, said Hall, who added, "You spend 40 to 60 hours a week seeing the evil people commit to each other. It can be hard to deal with."

Today's techniques for DNA analysis are sophisticated and can be incredibly effective in unraveling a story. Modern DNA testing is so sensitive that criminalists can extract a useful sample from a tiny pinpoint of blood, Hall said.

Experts use chemical compounds that cause bloodstains to fluoresce in photos. Through this method, criminalists can illuminate evidence long after crimes are committed.

After a man claimed that his wife had fallen down the stairs, Hall said, investigators used a chemical to uncover bloodstains along the staircase, suggesting someone had been dragged. The same chemical treatment revealed bloodstains ingrained in a wooden chair, further strengthening the prosecutor's case. The man was later convicted of murdering his wife.

Criminalists can specialize in biology-based DNA analysis, chemistry-based drug and substance analysis, computer forensics or firearms. Other professions in the field include forensic nurses who treat rape victims and forensic psychologists who work with prisoners to determine if they are eligible for parole and safe release back into society. Mass disaster response teams rush to the scenes of catastrophes like Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina to sort through the carnage.

Medical death investigators, who work in the coroner's office and determine cause of death, are perhaps the most highly trained and paid positions, Hall said.

Government work, however, is neither particularly glamorous nor luxurious. Instead of a Hummer or tinted SUV, county criminalists called to look at evidence typically arrive on the scene in a compact, albeit more fuel-efficient, "crime-scene Ford Focus," Hall said.

Perhaps one of the most difficult fields in forensic science, according to Hall, is firearms and ballistics examination, wherein investigators use their knowledge and equipment to compare bullets from the crime scene, look at bullet patterns and attempt to match a gun registered in their vast database.

It is painstaking work that involves a solid knowledge of physics and occasionally shooting off rounds for analysis in a sound-proof room. An interest in history helps as well. In the county lab, the gun vault boasts approximately 2,000 weapons, with manufacturing dates ranging as far back as 1860.

For college students who want to pursue careers in the field, Hall encouraged seeking internships at government agencies in local counties, such as the postal service or police departments, or at private firms.

To be competitive, a four-year degree in a science field is mandatory, and master's programs in forensic science are ubiquitous these days, she said.

Job satisfaction at the county crime lab doesn't stem from the salary. "You have to like detailed lab work and being methodical. A dark sense of humor helps. If you want to be rich, strike oil or go to medical school. We're government employees," Hall said.

For more information about careers in forensic science, visit www.aafs.org.

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