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Building Better Crime Labs

Valley crime labs are growing to keep pace with the ever-increasing demand for forensic evidence. Mesa opens a state-of-the art lab next month, Chandler is planning a new one, Phoenix opened a new lab in June 2007, and Scottsdale plans to open a new lab next September.

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 Valley crime labs are growing to keep pace with the ever-increasing demand for forensic evidence.  Mesa opens a state-of-the art lab next month, Chandler is planning a new one, Phoenix opened a new lab in June 2007, and Scottsdale plans to open a new lab next September.

"Success breeds more work," said Todd Griffith, scientific-analysis superintendent for the state Department of Public Safety. "There's more we can do with the evidence."

He said 11 new technicians recently finished training at the DPS lab and the additional personnel would help cut into a backlog of DNA cases.

Steve Garrett, Scottsdale's forensic-services division manager, said detectives used to be more selective by requesting analysis for only major violent crimes such as homicides and sexual assaults.  But now forensic work is performed on more routine crimes that affect more people, such as burglaries and auto thefts.

"Even though crime goes down, our work goes up," Garrett said. "They're giving us more evidence."

Mesa started moving into a new $22 million, 46,000-square-foot lab last week.  Instead of conducting ballistics tests in a converted closet in the basement of Mesa's municipal courthouse, technicians can use the new facility's bullet recovery tank. A firing range sits next door with cases to store sample guns of various types and models.  Criminologists won't have to wait in line to perform tests at the new facility.  Mesa residents will get a rare glimpse at the workings of their new crime lab at a grand opening Oct. 23.  The lab plans to assemble a crime scene complete with guns and bullet casings outside the building then show residents how they would analyze evidence.

"That's what forensics does," Mesa Commander Bill Peters said. "It allows you to re-enact the crime."

Mesa police are willing to help other cities with DNA analysis on a case-by-case basis, but Mesa cases take priority, Peters said.

Mesa's crime lab helped Tempe police make an arrest in the July 20 sexual assault of a 73-year-old woman, matching DNA found at the scene to suspect Graham Buzzi Gravely in about 30 hours, Peters said.

Gravely, 51, subsequently confessed to the killing of Linda Dorsey, 28, in Yuma. Her body was found in a canal July 10, 1998.

"We were able to get a match," Rector said. "We were able to get the name of the individual."

When crime-lab scientists get a match, "people are excited," she said. "The individual who did the analysis, you think, 'That could have been my grandmother.' "

Gascón, who puts a premium on regional cooperation, said, "If there's a major crime occurring in a neighboring city, we're going to help." Even when cities have their own labs, they often refer specialized testing to the DPS lab in Phoenix, Griffith said.

Mesa, for instance, refers blood-toxicology testing to DPS to learn what drugs were in a suspect's system.

Rector said Mesa hoped to start performing those tests about a year after the new lab opens.

Phoenix refers trace evidence tests to DPS, which might include analysis of paint smears from a victim's clothes in a hit-and-run traffic fatality, Griffith said.

Cases that require such testing are infrequent and the cost of equipment is high, so it isn't considered cost effective to duplicate testing capabilities, Griffith said.

Griffith said he understood why a city the size of Mesa, with about 450,000 residents, would operate its own crime lab. But he also said it didn't make sense for many smaller cities because of the expense.

Rita Dyas, Chandler's forensic-services manager, said she appreciated the DPS lab's assistance on big cases. For instance, the DPS lab analyzed 400 DNA samples before it obtained a match in January to "Chandler Rapist" suspect Santana Batiz Aceves.

But "because of the backlogs, we know they can't do everything we'd like," she said. "It's first come, first served unless you have a high priority."

Chandler is working on a five-year plan to build a full-service lab, Dyas said. The present lab is running out of room and performs blood-alcohol testing, drug analysis and latent fingerprint analysis, Dyas said.

aSource:  The Arizona Republic