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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Forensic science gives edge to warfighters

11 Jun 07
by Sgt. Jess Kent

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Since opening its doors seven months ago, the Multinational Corps - Iraq Law Enforcement Forensics Laboratory has been enabling warfighters to track down criminals and insurgents throughout Iraq.

"We're fully nested in the corps and are here to support every unit in the country," said Maj. Joseph Heffernan, coordinator for the MNC-I Law Enforcement Forensics Laboratory.

This forensics initiative taken on by the Army leads to a myriad of evidence routinely being brought into the laboratory, where specialists work with the motto "Defeat Sniper through Science."

"When the evidence is submitted for processing, I make sure that it's processed with the proper documentation," said Staff Sgt. Stephen Hall, evidence custodian NCOIC, MNC-I Law Enforcement Forensics Laboratory.

Evidence is not in the receiving area for long. The four forensics staff members work hard to get results and ensure that evidence gets to the right examiners.

"My job is to process evidence for the presence of latent prints to identify who was holding the weapon," said Stephen Greene, chief forensic latent print examiner, MNC-I Law Enforcement Forensics Laboratory. "I may perform up to a dozen processes on each item of evidence."

Those processes are designed to find latent prints to be compared to record prints of subjects or searched through the Automated Fingerprint Identifications System. Many AFIS assets are available to search, including Iraq's system. Although the Iraqis had a limited fingerprint database in the past, it is now being expanded.

"The end result we're hoping for on every piece of evidence we examine here in the laboratory is to identify the person associated with the evidence," said Staff Sgt. Hall. "When we're able to identify the person using the weapon and take him off the streets and out of play, we help make a safer environment for our Soldiers and the people of Iraq."

In an average day, forensics staff members work 14 to 18 hours to turn evidence around and enable law enforcement officers to track down criminals. Their biggest challenge is not having enough hours in each day.

"With the small number of workers we're pretty strapped right now, but that's our mission and that's what we do," Maj. Heffernan said. "I think the laboratory will continue to grow based on the amount of evidence we receive for processing. Last month we had a 112 percent increase in cases."

Some of the tools specialists use to exploit evidence range from lasers, forensic light sources, cameras and microscopes to a firing range.

"We work as a team to make identifications on tool marks, bullets, cartridge cases and guns," said Michael Kelley, chief forensic firearms examiner, MNC-I Law Enforcement Forensics Laboratory. "For example, if they grind out the serial number on a rifle, we bring it back."

Mr. Kelley, a former Army Criminal Investigation Division agent and chief warrant officer, is known for the shooting reconstruction case of Cpl. Patrick Tillman, a professional football player who enlisted in the Army and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.

In one rewarding case, Mr. Kelley was tasked to identify the owner of a Purple Heart stolen and then found in 1990. After he brought back the medal's inscription, Mr. Kelley discovered that it belonged to Maj. Audie Leon Murphy, the military's most highly decorated Soldier.

Currently, Mr. Kelley routinely examines fired bullets and cartridge cases and links them to Dragunov sniper rifles used in attacks against U.S. Soldiers and Coalition Forces.

"I think we're giving the Soldiers a tremendous edge," he said. "What we do provides support for the warfighter's mission, and the science of forensics impacts what the warfighter does."

Photo - Michael Kelley, chief forensics firearms examiner, MNC-I Provost Marshals Office Law Enforcement Forensics Lab, fires a Dragunob sniper rifle into a machine designed to catch the round. Once the test round is caught and inspected, identifying marks can be compared with previous rounds fired from the same weapon. This method is essential in determining if the weapon was used in a certain crime. Photo by Sgt. Jess Kent.

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