Valdosta Daily Times

May 8, 2013

Crime Lab takes aim at ballistics

Quinten Plummer
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — The Valdosta-Lowndes Regional Crime Laboratory now has the ability to fully analyze firearms in-house.

Announced Tuesday morning, it is the latest laboratory upgrade, coming roughly two weeks after unveiling the facility's chemical isolation capabilities.

No longer will the lab require an outside consultant to conduct parallel cartridge and bullet casing analysis, said Lt. Shannon Salter, who's been with the lab for several years and earned her ballistics training from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearm and Explosives academy in 2001.

“Not only do we work city and county cases, but we work cases from pretty much any agency that submits a case to us,” said Salter. “Now, we can do firearms analysis completely in-house and work double the cases.”

Like Salter, Criminalist Stephen Chammoun has completed his training with the ATF's National Firearms Examiner's Academy and now the two criminal scientists can peer-review each other's work.

“I was pretty excited,” said Chammoun. “I don't know how many applicants they had. But the National Firearms Examiner's Academy only select 12 applicants a year, and that's if they have the funding that year to do it because the ATF invests a lot of money and effort into this program to make sure they're training their firearms examiners and tool-mark experts properly.”

The ballistics results are recorded into the ATF’s National Integrated Ballistics Info Network after testing is completed, said Crime Lab Director Barry Funck. To ensure the accuracy of the lab’s NIBIN entries, Salter and Chammoun peer-review each other's work by conducting separate studies, Chammoun said.

“We do the work independently, then another examiner looks at it – and that doesn't rule out another examiner looking at it after that,” said Chammoun. “In school, we're taught that these guns are individual and we learn how they're constructed. We learn how they start with a block of metal and make a firearm, with all of the machining processes filled in between. Basically, you follow the scientific process to reach a conclusion.”

With two experts in gun ballistics in-house, Valdosta Police Chief Brian Childress said the lab has fulfilled analysis requests well under the three to six months normally expected of the backlogged Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

“If we say we've arrested a guy and we believe this gun was used, they may come back and say no it wasn't,” said Childress. “But we still win, because at the end of the day you want to be fair to everybody. That's fair to the judicial system - it speeds up the process. It's fair to the taxpayers, and it's certainly fair to the  defendants. And more importantly than anything, it's fair to the victims.”

Childress described the lab as being “two deep” on all of its abilities including ballistics, fingerprinting and chemical analysis. But he and other crime lab officials would like to be reinforced with three of everything, the chief said.

“At some point, if we can get some financial assistance form other agencies, (Crime Lab Director Barry Funck), the sheriff and I would like to go three deep on everything here,” said Childress. “I had this conversation with the city manager a week ago. We have no backlog on fingerprints, none, and I think we're caught up on NIBEN entries. A lot of labs can't say that. That's a credit to Barry and his folks. The proof's in the pudding.”