Fingerprints and DNA are what helps law enforcement put the bad guys (and women) away.
Without these elements, it can be difficult for the courts to convict a suspect of a crime.
When the position of an evidence technician at the Cass County Sheriff’s Office became open in 2004, LaDonna Barnhart became interested in pursuing the work.
“It was about the time when the CSI television show came out,” she said. “I think it really intrigued everybody about this (field).”
Barnhart decided to check it out herself.
The Investigation Division of the Sheriff’s Office actively uses a structured Property and Evidence Management System to maintain the care, custody and control of any property received by the county law enforcement and preserves any evidence needed for prosecution.
Barnhart had been working as a records clerk in the county’s old jail for the Sheriff’s Office before she was hired to start collecting evidence.
She received training from the Kansas City Crime Scene Unit after she was hired, and continues to take ongoing field training.
As an evidence technician, Barnhart uses a coding system to utilize and manage more than 10,000 pieces of property and evidence to eliminate the possibility of property or evidence becoming lost or misplaced.
For almost 10 years, Barnhart has stayed fascinated by her work, although she has come to realize her work is not much like what people watch on TV.
“When we go to a burglary, we can tell which (victims) watch CSI. They’re like, ‘Oh, they touch this,’ or ‘that,’ and ‘they picked up this,’ and that we got to ‘get DNA off this,’” Barnhart said.
In her opinion, real-life crime scene investigation is so much more than what is played out on television, but it does give the bad guys ideas.
“Nowadays, the suspects also watch TV, so they also know now to wear gloves,” she said. “(At a burglary), it’s very hard to find a good fingerprint that the suspect left behind, especially in someone’s home when they are also touching everything.
Unfortunately, as much as these CSI shows tell you how they find killers, it also show how the killers do it – they wear gloves, masks and hats,” Barnhart said.
But when the perpetrators are at work, they don’t always leave the scene without a trace.
“They do make mistakes,” Barnhart said. “They’re not the smartest people in the world.”
In one investigation, Barnhart said, the criminal left their keys in the house so they couldn’t leave the scene.
Burglaries and recovered stolen vehicles are typical calls Barnhart works, but as they occur, she will also investigate suspicious deaths.
“I like the dead body calls,” Barnhart said. “When there is a homicide, there is not much we can do except that I can gather the evidence to put their killer away.”
Going to the scene of a gruesome crime isn’t easy though for anyone in law enforcement, she said.
“All of us have families of our own and whenever you go to scene, especially if it’s a young child, your emotions hit you upfront but then you have to be able to push them back and do your job,” Barnhart said. “It can be hard.”
Using extreme caution to not cross-contaminate a scene, Barnhart uses a variety of tools to protect the evidence she finds.
“We’ll bring it in, do our report, and then we have to seal it into some kind of package,” she said.
A sense of satisfaction from her job comes when her work helps lead detectives solve a case.
And that comes through the form of a CODIS hit after an item has been sent to the Missouri State Highway Patrol office in Jefferson City for analysis.
The Codis Combined DNA Index System is used throughout federal, state, and local crime laboratories in the United States and selected international law enforcement crime laboratories to foster the exchange and comparison of forensic DNA evidence from violent crime investigations.
When a piece of evidence gets a CODIS hit, investigators are able to link an individual to a crime.
Last summer, Barnhart found a cigarette butt at a scene that she knew did not belong to the property owner.
A lab detracted the DNA from cigarette and matched DNA and name already in the CODIS system.
“If they don’t leave everything else behind, that one cigarette butt is what’s going to nail them,” Barnhart said. “It makes me feel like we did our job.”
Like her peers in law enforcement, no day, or week, are the same.
“Every week is really different. In one week, I could be busy and go on a call once a day, and some weeks I’ll just be in the office taking care of my evidence,” Barnhart said. “It can be a lot of fun. It can be aggravating. It can be rewarding. It can be very sad.”
The first factor Barnhart must make about an item received into the Evidence Room is whether it’s evidence-worthy.
Then, deputies will package the evidence securely.
If it’s a sharp object, like a syringe, knife or glass, all of those items have to go into tubes or a box of some kind.
Other items can go into paper sacks, manilla envelopes, depending on the size, then sealed with evidence tape.
Barnhart spends a lot of her time in the office dusting for prints using a dual-use fingerprint powder.
On a light-colored object, fingerprints will be shown through a dark color, and on a dark-colored object, the fingerprints will appear through a silverish color.
She also frequently uses a method of super glue fuming to detract fingerprints.
Using a wand and heated cartridges, the super glue released from the mechanism will adhere to the moisture and the oils on your fingers and the print will stay permanently.
Once prosecutors use collected evidence in court, the Cass County Sheriff’s Office will typically hold onto evidence for five years, or longer, depending on the crime, appeal process, or while the bad guy still has the chance parole.
Barnhart then has to go through a disposal process through the courts.
If the evidence is deemed no longer necessary, a judge will sign off on the disposal of an item.