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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory chief recounts 30 years of scientific crime fighting

Media Contact: Dave Lavallee, 401-874-5862

KINGSTON, R.I. – Oct. 28, 2013 – Sorry, CSI fans but what you see on television does not depict what really goes on inside a forensic crime laboratory.

“In my crime lab the women do not wear high heels and leather skirts; and the men do not have six pack abs. Forensic analysts hardly ever go out into the field to collect evidence. I don’t see those guys drawing a gun. We rely on law enforcement officers to bring us good evidence to analyze. Our results don’t come back in one day; scanning and comparing fingerprints do not work like that,” said Dennis Hilliard, director of the Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory at the University of Rhode Island.

The Wakefield resident has more than 30 years of experience in the lab and as an administrator. He specializes in providing analysis of evidence and court testimony about fire debris analysis, hair and fiber analysis, DNA analysis, and breath and blood alcohol analysis.

In 1992, Hilliard stepped in as the interim director of the crime lab and adjunct assistant professor. Three years later he was appointed director. Hilliard’s role as director enables him to prepare, organize, implement and lecture in educational programs for the law enforcement community and the undergraduate and graduate students at URI. Since 1980, Hilliard has testified more than 100 times in the state and federal courts of Rhode Island and provided deposition testimony in several civil cases as an expert witness.

“Most of the time the evidence is brought to us by the police or fire investigators,” said Hilliard, who earned his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the University of New Hampshire and master’s degree in pharmacology and toxicology from URI.

“On occasion we will respond to a scene. One case that I worked on was very similar to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. A mother and father had reported that their baby was kidnapped from their apartment. The parents pleaded for the kidnapper to bring their child home. As the investigation went on there was no sign of a break-in or a ransom note.”
The baby was eventually found in an alleyway near the apartment. The baby had died and was wrapped in a blanket.

Hilliard said the police detectives collected 50 to 60 pieces of evidence like clothes, blankets, and diapers that were sent to the Crime Lab. Some items that appeared in black and white photographs of the scene that may have been stained with blood were not collected.

“We had evidence but we couldn’t connect it all together to a suspect. The baby may have died by accidental means and the parents could have been scared and covered it up. It was never determined who killed the child, but the parents became the prime suspects. This is still an unsolved case.”

The Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory has the authority to investigate any and all evidence relating to state or local crimes when requested by the appropriate agencies. The state crime laboratory trains students and law enforcement officers throughout the state on how to conduct criminal investigations. The laboratory provides analysis in three different areas of forensic science: firearms, latent fingerprints, and trace evidence.

“It is important to try not to get involved emotionally with any case, especially when it has to do with children and the elderly. You don’t want to be biased over a certain case,” the director said. “However, when you are able to testify on a case, say what you wanted to say, present your findings, and overcome any barriers from lawyers, it is the most rewarding part of the job. It is not my job to determine guilt or innocence. It is not the police or firefighter’s job to determine guilt or innocence. It is up to the judge and the jury to determine that. My job is to present my work in a scientific way.”

Having recently been awarded a new, five-year contract, Hilliard talked about expanding and improving the lab.

“When I was the interim director of the crime lab, we started with three analysts, and various labs set up in three buildings. The problem was that we needed more analysts, and enough space to accommodate our people and equipment. If we had a single location to house everyone it would be a lot easier.

In 2003, the Crime Lab was awarded a federal grant that allowed it to purchase several state-of-the-art instruments. At the same time it expanded into additional space in the basement of Fogarty Hall. Some of the grant funds were used to renovate the space for expanding the trace and latent print sections of the laboratory.

“Over the past ten years we used a combination of state funding and small grants to hire additional analysts and purchase new lab equipment. There are now nine full-time analysts working in the Laboratory today, all located in one building, Fogarty Hall.”

Hilliard is always finding new ways to train students, and law enforcement officers. For the past two years, the state laboratory staged a program at the Union Fire District training center in South Kingstown that involved eight different crime scenes.

“The training is extremely beneficial to the criminal justice system,” said Hilliard, who umpires local softball games in his spare time. “This is a rare opportunity for students and law enforcement officers to conduct investigations at realistic crime scenes. We get to construct crime scenes the way we want them to be, while providing a learning experience that not a lot of people can get.”

A major recent event in the operation of forensic laboratories occurred during the infamous O.J. Simpson case in 1995. “The O.J. Simpson case greatly affected the field, and for the first time we saw DNA, a relatively new form of evidence in trials at that time, come into play. The case introduced doubt in the investigation process used by law enforcement and the way in which evidence is handled in the laboratory. This has led to many forensic laboratories seeking to become accredited by an outside agency for the work they do.”

In 2007, Rhode Island’s Laboratory was granted accreditation under the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 17025 standard for latent prints, firearms, and trace analysis.

But for Hilliard, the job isn’t always serious. In the summer of 2000, Hilliard and his colleagues from the textiles, chemistry, and engineering programs involved with the Forensic Science Partnership at URI analyzed five Major League baseballs from 1963, 1970, 1989, 1995, and 2000. Hilliard was asked by a former Rhode Island sports radio station to test major league baseballs and study the relationship between changing materials and increasing home run production.

“We only tested five baseballs, so there may be more work to do, but we had a lot of fun working on that project. The 1963 and 1970 balls were most likely made by Spalding, which manufactured MLB baseballs for 100 years, while the 1989, 1995, and 2000 balls were made by Rawlings. The more recent balls are livelier, for sure, and it will go a lot further when hit,” said Hilliard.

Hilliard tells students who are interested in studying forensic science at the undergraduate level to pursue a bachelor’s degree in a natural science first. “I caution students who want to major in forensic science during their undergraduate years because many programs do not focus on the science portion. What you have to decide is what you want to do in forensics: do you want to investigate scenes, do you want to work on evidence at the bench, or do you want to work on criminal profiling. If you want to work your way up in the field you need to have an understanding of science. Whether it’s chemistry, or biology, it is important to concentrate on the science section before pursuing a degree in forensic science. If you want to continue your studies, then go for your master’s degree in forensic science. For the students who really want to challenge themselves then they should seek a doctorate in molecular biology to work in the forensic DNA field.”

This press release was written by Caitlin Musselman, a URI Marketing and Communications intern and a public relations and political science major.

Communications & Marketing photo by Michael Salerno Photography.