Not as seen on TV - how CSIs and a crime lab really work

They're the real life CSIs, the criminalists who process DNA, trace and fingerprints to solve cases and find justice for victims.

From firearms to drug identification to toxicology, the lab technicians of the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation are skilled artists in their craft, and play an important role in the delivery of justice.

The Iowa DCI lab processes around 15,000 cases a year. Right now, two of those cases are from Southeast Iowa -- the body found in the Cinema X theater in downtown Ottumwa and the human remains discovered in Henry County.

The lab is divided into sections, where criminalists in each specialty (DNA, questioned documents, impression evidence and more) have stations to process and analyze evidence.

Paul Bush is the Criminalist Supervisor for the lab's DNA unit and is also the state's CODIS Administrator. The Iowa lab began doing DNA processing in the late 1980's and usually deal with blood, seminal fluid or saliva.

"Typically, the type of casework we do in the DNA unit is burglaries, sexual assaults, homicides and other assorted type small cases," Bush said.

To be qualified as a DNA analyst, one must have a Bachelor of Science degree in either biology or chemistry, and complete four other classes required by the state; genetics, bio chemistry, molecular and cellular biology and statistics.

Victor Murillo is one of the lab's criminalists in the firearms and tool marks division. Murillo originally wanted to be a police officer, but eventually got into criminalistics because of how much they do on a day-to-day basis.

"We're test-firing guns, looking at the safety, making sure everything functions correctly, eventually test-firing the guns, producing test-fired bullets, test-fired cartridge cases, those tests will eventually be compared to unknown bullets, unknown cartridge cases that are usually found at a crime scene," Murillo said.

Criminalists in the firearms division also look for gunshot residue, or GSR, patterns on either a suspect's or victim's shirt to identify how far away a gun may have been fired. They can also identify tool marks, such as crow bars or pliers.

"Any kind of tool is going to leave its own mark," Murillo said.

The lab in Ankeny is the only crime lab in Iowa, so the criminalists are always working. Though technology has come leaps and bounds in the last ten to 20 years, the work is not as simple as it looks like on TV.

"There's a little more to it than what you see on TV, there's a lot more information that we're going to gather from the bullet or the cartridge casing, even if it's just one fired bullet, there's a lot of information that's gathered off of that bullet," Murillo said.

Officer-involved shootings or cases with multiple bullets and casings can take up to a week to process. In DNA, sometimes that process is even longer, and running a sample through the CODIS system does not always result in a name, picture and address.

"Every case you see on CSI", they get some sort of match, they get a perfect full profile and that's just not the case in real evidence that comes in," Bush said. "Many times we'll just get partial results or we may get no results."

Results or no results, the 161 sworn officers and 104 civilian employees at the DCI understand the importance of their jobs.

"It's kinda satisfying for us knowing that we did something to help put the bad guys in jail sometimes," Murillo said. "We go to court a lot, and we get to see the end product of what we do."

The vast developments in DNA in the last decade have helped to solve many cold cases that were seemingly unsolvable before you could extract DNA off of something as tiny as a needle head.

"I find it very personally rewarding to do this type of work," added Bush. "The cases that we solve... unsolved homicide cases, unsolved sexual abuse cases, or even burglary cases that we would have never solved in the past, so I find it very personally rewarding and I think it's good for the people of the state of Iowa that we have this laboratory to do this kind of work."