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Small Forensics Lab Finds Niche in Analyzing Tiniest Bits of Evidence

In the show Making a Murderer on Netflix, a forensics lab was tasked with figuring out if microscopic particles on a bullet were bone, as the prosecutor claimed. Turns out it was wood, not bone, lending a hand to the defense’s theory that it was not the bullet that killed the victim.

That lab was Microtrace out of Elgin, Illinois. The father-son team of Skip and Chris Palenik head up the 14-person lab, which thrives on analyzing the tiniest bits of evidence. They do this by using what’s called a field emission scanning electron microscope (“FE SEM”), a high-resolution scope that allows imaging at extreme magnifications.

“Crime labs typically look at particles on the order of 10 to 100 microns,” says Chris Palenik, a multiple-degree holder in chemistry and geology with a Ph.D. in the latter. “We’ve applied SEM analysis to look at particles smaller than one micron.” Most crime labs use tungsten SM, a cheaper option that answers most of the basic questions in forensics.

The lab also has more than 35,000 specimens, ranging from sand, soil, and glass to hair, pigments, dyes, and foods. It helped crack the case of a stolen shipment of cellphones that was replaced with boxes of sand. By breaking down the composition of the sand and cross-referencing with its collection of sand, Microtrace figured out where the sand came from. That’s right: They can tell what beach you went to for spring break by the sand between your toes.

But that’s easy stuff. What about determining whether a hole in a shirt was made by a bullet? In a case where the prosecution established gunshot residue near a hole in a shirt, it looked likely the hole was made by the bullet.

But Microtrace’s FE SEM analysis showed that the hole had severed ends, not burnt ends like a bullet would make. And there were no traces of lead around the hole.

The shirt was cut with scissors, they found, and then a surprise witness came forward and testified that he watched the defendant cut a hole in the shirt.

Chris Palenik said Microtrace is working on a grant developing nanotrace evidence for forensic science, and they’re looking at scaling forensic analyses down even further. “We believe that with each scientific challenge we meet, we become still better prepared to solve the next problem that comes to us,” he said. 


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