Inside the Rhode Island State Crime Lab
The lab has analyzed evidence in many of the state's biggest cases.
The clues to some of Rhode Island’s most notorious crimes arrive at a second-floor office in a nondescript gray building in plastic baggies, boxes, even paint cans.
Police officers drive to the Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory at the University of Rhode Island with torn clothing, Glocks, paint chips, shell casings, lighters and myriad other pieces of evidence, where each item is meticulously assigned a bar code in a tracking system known as the BEAST.
If the staff at the lab sees on the news that it’s been a busy weekend for police, they know to be ready Monday morning.
“Any time you see a gun was used somewhere, we’ll probably get that case,” says Dennis Hilliard, the longtime director of the lab.
His desk resides a few steps across the room from where the evidence is brought in. The top of his shelf is lined with baseball hats from law enforcement agencies. Copies of the Handbook of Analytical Toxicology and the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics share space with family photos and a bobble head doll of Abby Sciuto, the whip-smart young forensic scientist from the TV crime series “NCIS.”
Hilliard, who is sixty-one, is a genial man sometimes prone to speaking in acronyms who wears a pin of Sherlock Holmes on his lapel. He and his staff of firearms, fingerprint and trace examiners analyze about 800 cases a year. That translates into about 4,000 pieces of evidence from police departments around the state, the Providence fire department, the state fire marshal’s office and occasionally the FBI and the ATF. Providence police are the largest supplier, submitting 314 cases in 2014.
Examiners analyze evidence for anything from breaking and entering to murder and they send it back to the departments once they’re done. They testify in about twelve trials per year.
The lab also teaches police officers how to properly process and document crime scenes for scientific analysis, using furniture and mannequins to set up a simulated barroom and living room and teaching them the fine points of using powder and tape to lift fingerprints.
During Hilliard’s thirty-five years at the lab, he has expanded its operations and expertise as forensic science has developed, despite budget woes and some back logs over the years. And at a time when a handful of state crime labs around the United States have come under scrutiny for the fabrication of evidence, Hilliard has maintained the Rhode Island lab’s independence and reputation.
“Dennis has a very transparent lab, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” says Michael DiLauro, director of training and legislative liaison for the Rhode Island Department of the Public Defender. “They’re not supposed to be working for the government or the police or us. They’re supposed to be science. So they call it as they see it. In order to do that, you’ve got to be very transparent, and they are. That’s why — maybe, maybe — we haven’t had any scandals here in Rhode Island.”
Hilliard in the evidence lab’s vault.
Hilliard has also helped establish an international reputation for URI in forensic science research, with a public lecture series he started with fellow URI professors Jimmie Oxley, an explosives expert, and Everett Crisman, a chemical engineer.
Forensic science has changed dramatically since Hilliard began working at the lab in 1980. The advent of DNA testing and fingerprint analysis have changed how crime scenes are investigated, evidence is analyzed and how cases are prosecuted and defended. And the explosion of TV shows like “CSI” and “NCIS” has led the public — and by extension, jurors — to erroneously expect that fingerprints and cartridge casings can lead to a suspect with just a few clicks of a mouse.
Hilliard, who is one of most popular speakers in the state, is the first to emphasize that TV is fiction. As he told a group of seniors at an assisted living facility in East Greenwich in May, Abby Sciuto is his favorite TV forensic scientist because she can do it all: firearms, toxicology, computers, fingerprints, drug analysis, you name it.
“There’s no one person I know that’s like her in the real world,” Hilliard told the group. “And the people in my laboratory don’t look anywhere near as good as these people. The girls don’t wear leather skirts and high heels. The guys don’t have six-pack abs, and they don’t carry a gun.”
In Rhode Island, the state crime lab is staffed by scientists and former police officers who specialize in firearms and fingerprint identification, the analysis of trace evidence like paint, hair, fibers, soil and gunshot residue, while the Department of Health handles toxicology, drug chemistry and DNA testing. Hilliard’s examiners generally don’t go out to crime scenes and collect evidence. That’s law enforcement’s job.
But it’s Hilliard and his eight analysts’ role to arrive at a scientific conclusion that potential jurors can understand from the evidence they receive. So he tries to instill a rule cribbed from “NCIS” in the officers the lab trains each year: Treat everything like it’s a homicide until it’s proven otherwise.
“There’s a lot more dependence on the science in some cases, especially with the DNA,” Hilliard says. “But it always comes back to the police work.”
The lab’s firearms examiners, Dennis Lyons and Neil Clapperton, test fire weapons and compare bullets to others in a national database.
Decades before the analysis of genetic material was common in major criminal investigations, a chemistry professor at URI offered to help the South Kingstown police on a breaking and entering case.
Dr. Harold Harrison was very interested in applying science to the investigation of crime. He helped the police match glass from a broken storefront window to a shard found in the cuff of the suspect’s pants and a professional relationship began.
Soon after, Harrison established the Laboratories for Scientific Criminal Investigation at the university and was sought after around New England for his scientific expertise. He also began training officers how to process crime scenes and preserve evidence. In 1958, Attorney General William E. Powers wrote a letter commending the lab for its services.
The lab moved to the College of Pharmacy and in 1971, Dr. David DeFanti, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the university, was appointed director. In 1978, the General Assembly passed legislation to make it the state’s official crime lab.
Hilliard joined the lab in 1980. Growing up in Connecticut, he was always interested in science and admired the fictional Sherlock Holmes.
“What was his major piece of equipment he brought to every crime scene with him besides his magnifying glass?” Hilliard asks. “His mind. Deductive logic. Observation. We still do that today. We may have a few more pieces of equipment to analyze but we still have to put it all together for the purposes of presenting it to a jury.”
He studied biochemistry as an undergrad at the University of New Hampshire, but his grades weren’t good enough for med school. Then he came to URI, where he earned a master’s in pharmacology and toxicology and met DeFanti, who became a mentor.
“When I finished graduate work in January 1980, he said he’d have a job coming up in a few months if I wanted to hang around,” Hilliard says. “I said, okay, I’ll hang around. I’ve hung around thirty-five years.”
He was hired to specialize in arson cases, which at the time were the majority of what the lab handled, but he’s also an expert in hair and fiber examination and serology.
There are some cases he will never forget.
In 1984, four-month-old Jerri Ann Richard vanished from her parents’ apartment in Pawtucket. At first, her parents went on television and pleaded for the kidnapper to return their daughter.
Investigators working on the case submitted “a ton of evidence” from the parents’ home to the crime lab to analyze, including clothing, bed sheets, even diapers.
“They brought everything in from that apartment, but nothing to indicate who might have done something to the child,” says Hilliard, who has two daughters.
One item they didn’t submit that examiners spotted in a black-and-white photograph was the rug from the bathroom, which appeared to be stained.
“But for whatever reason, they didn’t collect it, because at the time, they weren’t looking at it as a homicide, they were looking at it as a kidnapping,” Hilliard says.
One of Hilliard’s examiners at the time went to the apartment to see if there was any sign of forced entry and didn’t find any. And all the evidence they had at the lab didn’t indicate anyone else was involved.
When the infant’s body was later found, wrapped up very carefully, suspicion fell upon her parents. Hilliard and his examiners questioned what happened to the rug. From the black-and-white photograph, they couldn’t tell if the stain on it was blood. They considered possibilities. Maybe the infant had been killed in the bathroom and the evidence was washed down the drain. But the rug was never submitted.
“I wish we had that rug,” Hilliard says. Her parents were eventually charged, but no one was ever convicted in the case.
Then in the late 1980s, the lab worked on the case of Janice Pinelli, a mother of three who was killed in the North Kingstown shoe store where she was working. She was found strangled with electrical cords, was stabbed twenty-three times and robbed. Gene Edward Travis was charged with her murder and that of a woman in Fall River the next day.
When the evidence came in, examiners noticed the ends of electrical cords had been cut off. When Travis was captured, police found the male and female parts of extension cords in the trunk of his car and the examiner was able to connect it to the crime scene. And Hilliard microscopically matched red fibers found on the heel of Pinelli’s shoe with a sweater Travis was wearing when he was arrested the day after her murder. Travis was eventually convicted in connection with her death, sentenced to life and has since died.
Bob Hathaway had just started full-time as a firearms examiner in the lab when evidence from the Robert Sabetta case came in.
Sabetta was a suspended Foster police officer accused of shooting three teenagers and wounding a fourth in 1993. The police had an eyewitness but no gun. One cartridge case was left at the scene and from that and the bullets in the bodies, Hathaway already had an idea of what the weapon might be.
The state police sent out a bulletin about it. A fisherman found a revolver along the banks of a river in Groton, Connecticut, and turned it in to the police department. It looked like it might be a match. The serial number had been cut off the weapon, but Hathaway went to Connecticut, test fired the recovered gun to have a bullet to compare with the evidence he had and determined that it was the same gun, a .357-caliber Magnum revolver.
But investigators still had to put the gun in Sabetta’s hands. A friend of Sabetta’s testified that they used to shoot target practice in Sabetta’s backyard in Cranston. The state police cut down the target tree from his yard and got more than 129 projectiles from it. Hathaway compared the bullets from the crime scene to the ones from the tree, and from that, they were able to link Sabetta to the gun.
“We say the tree died of lead poisoning,” Hilliard says. Sabetta was convicted in the slayings and sentenced to three life terms. He later died in prison.
But in other instances, the lab’s analysis has helped the defense. In the case of Jeremy Motyka, who stood trial in 2001 for the rape and murder of a Little Compton woman, DiLauro from the public defender’s office recalls that trace examiner Amy Duhaime’s analysis of hair and fiber was helpful to his case.
“She came in and said what she had to say and that was it,” DiLauro says. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be, the truth is the truth.” (The case also had significant DNA evidence and Motyka was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.)
The examiners strive to treat the evidence the same way, whether it comes from a child who was killed or someone accused of killing a child.
“We really don’t look at the victim or the suspect,” says Jane Northup, the lab’s quality assurance officer. “You can’t put a face to it, you just can’t. We do the best we can that to the best of our ability, things are done properly. Dennis has instilled that in us.”
Lab fingerprint examiner Mark Zabinski compares patterns and ridges to match prints.
The 1990s were a time of many advances in — and questions about — the field of forensic science. After Hilliard took over the lab in 1992, he wanted to expand beyond analysis of trace evidence, serology and firearms into more fingerprint analysis.
A new technology called cyanoacrylate enabled law enforcement officials and examiners to develop prints on solid objects by essentially heating Super Glue and using its vapors to make latent fingerprints visible.
Some departments around the state were also doing fingerprint analysis, but they weren’t handling the chemicals correctly, Hilliard says. So the lab hired a full-time fingerprint examiner in 1999.
Being located on a university campus made it possible for the lab to call on experts in fields like textiles and chemistry and in some cases have access to equipment like more powerful microscopes than the lab could afford.
But in the wake of the acquittal of O.J. Simpson in the slaying of his ex-wife and friend in California, police work and forensic analysis came under new scrutiny.
“What was most of the problem?” Hilliard says. “The way the evidence was handled and presented in court. There were issues with the way the L.A. police department picked the evidence up. You had issues with blood stains, you had issues with contamination.”
What the Los Angeles police department did to restore its reputation was seek accreditation, Hilliard says. They brought in an expert from the outside to review their laboratory, and tell them what they needed to fix to bring it up to a certain standard.
Hilliard decided to seek accreditation for his lab as well, as he anticipated his lab’s analyses might be more open to challenge in the wake of the Simpson case. One of the requirements was that examiners from each area of expertise are required to review and sign off on their reports as a second set of eyes. After four years of applying for grants, the lab earned the accreditation in 2007.
Other major advances included NIBIN, a national ballistics database that enables examiners to compare shell casings and bullets to others from around the country, and AFIS, from which analysts can find potential matches for fingerprints and palm prints investigators find at crime scenes. It searches a database of about three-and-a-half million fingerprint cards from Rhode Island and Connecticut.
“It’s an amazing tool and we make a lot of identifications,” says Mark Zabinski, a fingerprint examiner for the lab. “The unfortunate situation is that in our state, the only people in the database are those who have been fingerprinted as the result of an arrest. So we’re identifying recidivists.”
Both systems generate a list of possible matches, and it’s up to the examiners to compare the prints and cartridge casings to make a potential identification.
And because of the lab’s access to new technology — specifically a scanning electron microscope a company in Pennsylvania let them use — it was also selected in 1997 to test the bullet that killed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
King’s family had always thought that James Earl Ray had not acted alone in the assassination. Testing by the FBI in 1968 and a House committee in 1976 did not definitively link the bullet to the Remington rifle Ray had bought prior to the killing, which was found at the scene in Memphis.
A judge allowed the bullet to be reexamined on the basis of the new technology in an old case. Despite the advances, however, the testing was still inconclusive and the examiners could not say whether the bullet had been fired from the Remington rifle. The case went up on appeal, but Ray died soon after.
The crime lab has experienced challenges over the years as well. A plan to move the facility to a new state police building fell apart because of funding issues. There was also discussion of consolidating the lab with the Health Department and during fiscal years 2010 and 2011, the crime lab’s budget was moved from the Attorney General’s office to the Health Department.
In 2011, staffing shortages because of budget cuts led to significant backlog of about 400 firearms cases.
Police waited months for a gun to be examined after two young boys were shot in Providence, the Providence Journal reported. And the guns and bullets linked to a man charged with shooting three Providence police officers in December 2009 had not been examined by February 2011.
Hilliard, who was down two firearms examiners, asked police departments to stop sending those cases to the lab for a time. At one point, he referred to the crime lab as the “red-headed stepchild of state agencies.”
“Dennis fought tooth and nail to keep us going and be able to get extra stuff once in a while,” says Hathaway, who has since retired. “He’s not above everybody, he works right with his people. If you want to excel in your field, he’s going to help you.”
When Hilliard was able to hire trained examiners and said the lab could take cases again, hundreds came in from Providence. That same year, the General Assembly moved the lab’s budget, which is just more than $1 million, under URI’s.
Providence Police Major David Lapatin says that the backlog had been a concern.
“We want our evidence back as soon as we can get it,” Lapatin says. “But we have to realize that it takes time. At that point, anything that was extremely significant, we would push forward and tell them to get that back quick. Now, it’s a lot quicker. We’re happy about that.”
To reduce the backlog, Hilliard agreed with Providence police that the lab did not have to examine cases that came in before December 1, 2014. The lab returned nearly 300 cases for review and the police would send back any where they had developed leads or additional information.
Now high-priority cases are turned around in two weeks or less, Hilliard says. The backlog for fingerprint analysis is now thirty to sixty days and for trace and firearms work, up to nine months.
The lab also hasn’t been implicated in controversies that have dogged a few state crime labs. In Massachusetts, for example, Annie Dookhan, a chemist who worked for the state Drug Lab, was convicted in 2013 of fabricating evidence, which called into question thousands of cases. She was sentenced to three to five years and Rhode Island’s chief medical examiner was placed on administrative leave in July after the office’s accreditation was downgraded because of a backlog of cases.
Hilliard maintains that his lab’s independence is crucial to its integrity, citing a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences, which recommended that state crime labs not be tied to law enforcement.
“People under that kind of pressure sometimes skew the evidence,” he surmises, referring to Dookhan. “She was attached to Health laboratories, but she wanted to please the law enforcement people. So she provided them with positive results even though she never did the tests.”
When Hilliard speaks to groups, he shares a quote from a nineteenth-century French scientist named Dr. P.C.H. Brouardel:
“If the law has made you a witness, remain a man of science. You have no victim to avenge, no guilty or innocent person to convict or save — you must bear testimony within the limits of science.”
Because as Hilliard has seen, some cases have a way of returning. The lab was subpoenaed for the file in the case of Doreen Picard, who was bludgeoned to death in Woonsocket in 1982.
Lawyers from the New England Innocence Project representing the man convicted and sentenced to prison in her slaying, Raymond “Beaver” Tempest, argued that hair found in Picard’s hand and blood droplets from the scene did not match his genetic profile. In July, a Superior Court judge vacated his murder conviction on the basis of the DNA.
As always, Hilliard looks at the science.
“The Innocence Project has been pretty good at getting more than 300 people out of jail,” Hilliard says. “Does that mean they’re all innocent? I don’t know. It just means that the evidence they used to convince a jury had issues with it. The DNA said it wasn’t their blood, it wasn’t their seminal fluid, it wasn’t their biological material there. And I suspect after so many years, there’s no bringing back eyewitnesses, there’s no bringing back physical evidence that may have been destroyed over time. But that’s something the judges have to deal with.”