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Forensic technology and seeking the truth

August 19, 2013 • Features, Top Stories

On August 19 2013, in a remarkable twist of fate, South African paralympic champion Oscar Pistorius arrived back in Pretoria Magistrate’s Court on the day his late girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp would have turned 30. Murder accused Pistorius was expected to receive an indictment for premeditated murder of Steenkamp and hear confirmation of a trial date.

Murder-accused Oscar Pistorius. (Image source: Google/people.com)

Murder-accused Oscar Pistorius. (Image source: Google/people.com)

The case has gripped the nation since events unfolded on 14 February this year.

In addition to continuous local and international news coverage, the case has stirred up widespread speculation as to what could have happened on the night in question.

Given that the trial is reported to only begin on 03 March 2014, any discussion in the public domain – until the trial starts and details are proven or disgarded – will simply remain speculation.

It will be up to prosecutors and defense teams to scrutinise every piece of evidence to build their cases. The relevance of what role crime scene investigation technology and the gathering of evidence could play is yet another facet of this ongoing story.

The experts

Detective Sergeant Joseph Blozis during his visit to South Africa (image: eNCA)

Detective Sergeant Joseph Blozis during his visit to South Africa (Image source: eNCA)

It is a scenario that experts in CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) are all too familiar with. People like Detective Sergeant Joseph Blozis have global experience in the extent to which technology is impacting law enforcement.

In July 2013 global biotechnology company Life Technologies brought world-renowned retired NYPD (New York Police Department) Detective Sergeant Blozis over to attend the 1st National Forensics Services Conference hosted at the CSIR in Pretoria.

Detective Sergeant Blozis was employed by the New York Police Department (NYPD) from 1979 to 2008. For 13 years as a senior sergeant in the Crime Scene Unit and designated as Supervisor of Detective Squad, he responded to scenes of serious crimes and incidents within the confines of New York City.

His duties included the supervision of the search, collection, preservation, and documentation of all types of physical and trace evidence. He performed crime scene reconstructions and conferred with the numerous District Attorneys throughout New York City.

Detective Sergeant Blozis conducted forensic investigations of major crime scenes, including those in which law enforcement officers were killed and/or injured, and managed in excess of 2,500 crime scenes, including more than 1,000 homicide investigations.

Detective Sergeant Joe Blozis and his Crime Scene Unit team headed straight to the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks (image: Crime Scene Investigators)

Detective Sergeant Joe Blozis and his Crime Scene Unit team headed straight to the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks (Image source: Crime Scene Investigators)

In 1993 and 2001 he oversaw both crime scene investigations involving the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. On September 11, 2001, he was on scene as both towers collapsed and was immediately assigned to what is known as “Ground Zero” until its completion in May 2002. For a three-month period following the events of September 11, 2001, he was Acting Commanding Officer of the Crime Scene Unit.

For five years, prior to his assignment to the Crime Scene Unit, he supervised the criminalistics, narcotics, questioned documents, serology, and polygraph units for NYPD’s Police Crime Laboratory. In 2005, he was reassigned to the Police Crime Laboratory as coordinator of the Biotracks DNA Program. Prior to assuming those positions, Detective Sergeant Blozis worked as a patrol sergeant, squad detective, and both as a patrol and plainclothes police officer.

As coordinator for the NYPD’s Biotracks DNA program, Detective Sergeant Blozis utilized his crime scene expertise to train field personnel in the recognition, detection, documentation, and recovery of DNA evidence at crime scenes. Through federal and state grants, funds were obtained to apply DNA technology to solve property crimes. The Biotracks program was comprised of teamwork: Crime scene DNA recovery, laboratory DNA analysis, stringent follow-up procedures to ensure that identified offenders are arrested, and aggressive prosecution ensuring offenders will be incarcerated for lengthy prison sentences.

To call him an experienced law enforcement official would be a significant understatement.

Technology in CSI

According to Detective Sergeant Blozis, based on his experience and interaction with South African police executives, the country has first-rate technology and its crime scene unit, laboratories and services are impressive.

“We have a lot of the same issues, worldwide, as far as protecting the crime scene from its onset to safeguard it to the best of our ability… to prevent contamination, to prevent unauthorised personnel to enter the scenes, and here in South Africa, they are doing their best to do just that. Here is South Africa, I know that sexual assaults are a priority, they are working diligently to reduce overall crime, especially within sexual assaults,” he said.

As far as technology advancements from a crime scene perspective is concerned, Detective Sergeant Blozis emphasises the integrity of the crime scene.

“No matter what equipment or latest technology you have in a laboratory, no matter what training, no matter how intelligent the forensic scientists may be who operate the instruments…it all comes back to the crime scene. If a crime scene is compromised, whether the evidence is not detected… maybe the evidence was contaminated, maybe the evidence was not collected properly. It all begins with the crime scene. A forensic scientist cannot analyse something that he or she does not have. So the proper detection and recognition of a crime scene is paramount,” he says.

Ongoing training is designed to reinforce the value of a crime scene, of what it is, and safeguarding and preserving the scene is paramount.

Technology used to analyse evidence has advanced, so too has that which is used to collect evidence.

Technology has given up new products to work with says Detective Sergeant Blozis. “So far, examples for that, for DNA collection, you have the conventional standard cotton-tip swab. Today, we have a copan swab made of fibres and not of cotton threads. Therefore DNA can be extracted more easily and in its entirety… there are innovations in alternate light sources that enables the investigators to detect fingerprints, biological evidence and trace evidence through the use of very powerful alternate light sources, this is available in South Africa, which is a great thing,” he comments.

To put the role of technology in this specialised field in some perspective, Detective Sergeant Blozis explains that in previous years, investigators would require a very small amount of blood, approximately a  centimetre of blood, to get a DNA profile. Today,  all that is required is eight or ten skin cells, which are invisible to the naked eye. So it is not even biological DNA evidence, but touch DNA adds Detective Sergeant Blozis.

South African laboratories are using the latest equipment that would provide DNA samples in a short space of time.

“Technology is ever-changing and a good thing,” says Detective Sergeant Blozis. “New products, that are tested and certified as being accurate, help to identify the offender and exonerate the innocent. That is what forensics is all about… to seek the truth.”

Chris Tredger – Online Editor

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