Rudy Eugene attacked Ronald Poppo on May 26 in Florida. He chewed Poppos face.
Eugene was shot and killed by Miami police at the scene. Eugenes body tested negative for alcohol, other street drugs, prescription drugs, and even bath salts, a new strain of stimulants. Toxicologists did find marijuana in his system, but marijuana generally doesnt produce extreme chemical imbalance and its hard to believe such extreme chemical imbalance wasnt involved.
Stories like this dont surprise Peter Stout, a forensic scientist at RTI International, a nonprofit based in Research Triangle Park.
RTI has been involved in forensic issues from research to accreditation for about 30 years. About 30 researchers at RTI are involved in forensics. Stout, 42, originally from Denver, Colo., has been at RTI seven years. He holds a masters degree in environmental engineering and a Ph.D. in toxicology. He is board-certified by the American Board of Forensic Toxicologists.
For many years, we only had a few hundred documented substances to watch out for, Stout said. More recently, some chemists have figured out how to create designer drugs that are structurally different but act like the old stuff.
Some of these drugs go by the nickname bath salts. The name is a gimmick so sellers can claim the products are not for human consumption. This qualifies them as non-controlled substances that can be retailed in places like gas stations.
Some of these designer compounds have been outlawed, but outlaw chemists can tweak the formula to elude detection.
Labs need to be able to test for it, said Stout. We dont know what the (chemical composition) is yet, and sometimes we dont know what were looking for.
Breaking apart mixtures
The Center for Forensic Sciences at RTI is creating designer drug samples, testing them, and distributing information to labs across the country.
Labs use different techniques to identify chemicals. But unknown substances are often mixtures, and tests need to separate component chemicals.
For liquid chromatography, an unknown chemical is pushed through a pipe. The pipe is filled with tiny silica particles 1 to 10 micrometers in size that attract some molecules and repel others. Each chemical has a different attraction, and so some, attracted to the grains, go slower than others. The separated components come out one at a time.
Each chemical can then be identified.
Another identification technique used in Stouts lab is mass spectrometry. Once a chemical is isolated, individual molecules are then shot through a sealed high-vacuum container. One kind of mass spectrometer measures the time it takes the molecule to hit a fixed-distance target, an indirect measure of its mass. Testers might then break apart the molecule, and analyze the mass of its fragments.
By taking many, many measurements of the same chemical, they build up statistics, and can deduce the chemical formula of the molecule.
Other methods yield complementary information. Ion mobility measurements, for instance, get the shape of the molecule. Its like throwing a crumpled piece of paper versus a spread out piece of paper towards a fan, said Stout of the process.
Stout said these are cutting-edge techniques that dont represent commonly used technologies in his field. A forensics lab will often have a liquid chromatograph-mass spectrometry, but not ion mobility mass spectrometry or time-of-flight mass spectrometry. Today a lot of these techniques are often used with pharmaceutical research and manufacturing more than for forensics analysis. But eventually these newer macro-molecule drugs from pharmaceutical research will be used by individuals, and forensic investigations will need to be able to detect them, Stout said.
A 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences detailed a fragmented forensic community. There are labs at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as private labs. There are no universally established protocols for many methods they employ, even within jurisdictions.
Labs are not required to be accredited in most jurisdictions, nor are many practitioners required to be certified. .
The labs themselves lack resources. There are large case backlogs. They are understaffed, and staff retention is poor. These stresses on the system increase the chances of errors.
And the stresses arent going away. Demands for physical evidence are increasing, exacerbating the backlogs.
The designation of science was also called into question in the NAS report. Some forensic evidence is interpretive, and there are little to no scientific studies to prove validity.
DNA is considered the gold standard of physical evidence. But if the technician processing it is undertrained or overworked, the results can be untrustworthy.
In more than half of DNA exonerations, unvalidated or improper forensic science brought about the conviction, according to the Innocence Project.
The CSI effect named after the popular TV show holds that media portrayals influence public perception of forensic science, creating juries with stronger expectations.
Juries expect all the physical evidence to be there; sometimes its just not, Stout said.
In drug-seizure cases, the packaging is often fingerprinted. But fingerprints can disappear or degrade for many reasons; a hot day can evaporate them. People think there should be fingerprints and have an expectation, even when theres a video of the cop taking it out of the (suspects) pocket, Stout said.
The onus is on forensic science itself to improve.
RTI is trying to improve forensic science through several initiatives. RTI has a lab-accreditation program, and a professional development program for forensic scientists with more than 23,000 users worldwide.
The lab-accreditation program is operated under contract from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The professional development program is funded by the National Institute of Justice.
As noted, RTI is preparing proficiency-testing samples for labs to use as benchmarks. RTI produces more than 40,000 sample materials per year.
The government may be stepping up its game. A bill in Congress sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, The Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act, is a response to the recommendations within the NAS report. If passed, the legislation would establish rules for federal laboratories and for labs accepting federal funds. It would require accreditation of labs and certification of personnel. It would also increase research dollars going into forensic science.
If passed, neither the funding nor the requirements would automatically trickle down to the state and local level, where action is most needed.
Our justice system is frail, because we have not taken care of it, Stout said. And its easy to forget, when we have other issues like droughts to worry about.