Crime lab must choose which tests to do without
HEBER CITY - A hush fell over the courtroom as an investigator testified that state forensic scientists refused to perform a gunshot residue test on the hands of two men arrested near a homicide scene.
"I requested it," testified Utah Department of Public Safety agent Doug Miller, "but they said they weren't trained for GSR [gunshot residue analysis] and could not do it."
The startling testimony highlights the Legislature's tight-fisted approach to funding the state Crime Lab, which often provides crucial evidence in rape and murder cases.
Miller's testimony this week in a Wasatch County murder case also puts in stark contrast the difference between sexy TV crime fighters - like those on the blockbuster "CSI: Miami" who solve crimes in 60 minutes - and the real life forensics scientists in Utah who toil for weeks at wages that are the lowest in the nation.
The dearth of funding has led to painful decisions at the state Crime Lab, including elimination of GSR and handwriting analysis, among other things.
In the Heber case, Cunny Pelaez, 19, and his father Antonio Pelaez-Vasquez, 55, will stand trial for the Sept. 25 shooting death of 42-year-old Aniceto Armendariz.
Miller testified in a preliminary hearing that evidence his team gathered shows both men were in a blue GMC van that pulled alongside Armendariz's red Nissan pickup on U.S. 40 near Jordanelle Reservoir. Two shotgun blasts killed Armendariz as he drove south.
Armendariz's wife, Alma, a passenger, somehow was not hit and survived the ensuing rollover and crash with minor injuries.
Pelaez and Pelaez-Vasquez were apprehended shortly after the 8:30 p.m. incident at the nearby Stillwater Lodge. Neither has admitted to the shooting.
The younger man is charged with capital homicide. For him, prosecutors are seeking a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
His father is charged with first-degree felony murder, which carries a penalty of five years to life in prison.
"The guys who showed up from the crime lab weren't trained in GSR," Bruce Savage, attorney for Pelaez, said in an interview. "It's amazing. It's unbelievable. What if one guy has a lot of GSR and the other guy is clean?"
The evidence could have shown that Pelaez was not the trigger man, and, therefore, not guilty of capital murder, Savage said.
"If you are the non-shooter, how do you go back and get the evidence? You can't," he said.
Provo-based attorney Dana Facemyer, who represents Pelaez's father, said it's important to know who pulled the trigger because prison sentences could vary drastically for the shooter compared to the accomplice.
"They have no forensic evidence as to who the shooter was. In 2006, you'd think these things would be standard," Facemyer said. "It's a joke. It makes us look like country bumpkins. Imagine this case going to the U.S. Supreme Court."
Wasatch County Attorney Thomas Low, who is prosecuting the case, would not comment on the lack of a GSR analysis.
But Stu Smith, director of the State Crime Lab, said a GSR analysis might or might not have helped identify the trigger man.
"It's a presumptive test, not a scientific test. It only shows the presence or lack of nitrates," he explained. "It's a quantum leap from saying nitrates were present to saying this person fired the gun."
In a perfect world, Smith said, the State Crime Lab would have some scientists trained in GSR. But with present funding levels, the crime lab must focus on more useful forensics, like DNA analysis, blood testing, fingerprint analysis and ballistics, he said.
''If people want gunshot residue [analysis], then we'll have to cut back on DNA. And then they'll say, 'Why are you doing GSR instead of DNA?' ''
The State Crime Lab has been suffering from brain drain for years. Once trained in Utah, forensic scientists often take similar positions in other states or in the private sector. The Utah Department of Human Resources Management estimates that Utah's forensic scientists' salaries are 28 percent below average for the western United States.
"It takes years to train someone," Smith said. The turnover "is really depressing. We have to pay our people more or this is our life."
The Legislature ought to increase funding for the crime lab, said state Sen. Chris Buttars, who has chaired the Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee for the past five years.
"It's a crying shame," Buttars said. "I've been through this so many times and it's terrible. Every year it comes up for a fight. Maybe this year they'll get more funding."
That the State Crime Lab has no specialists in some disciplines is troubling, said Sen. Dave Thomas, chairman of the Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee.
"My understanding was that they had expertise at all levels," he said. "We're scheduled to add appropriations this year."