Criminal and forensic laboratory services


What does it take to become a forensic pathologist? What program of study should I take in college?

You must have a solid education in the basic sciences of chemistry, biology, physics and mathematics. All applicants are subject to background inquiries, including a polygraph exam. Additional information is available on the Washington State Human Resources website:

A Bachelor of Science degree in natural sciences (biology, chemistry, etc.), forensic sciences or a closely related field is usually required.

Required courses (DNA, material analysis):

• 20 semesters / 30 quarters of an hour of chemistry

• 5 semesters / 8 quarters of an hour in physics (desirable for DNA)

• DNA requires additional courses not listed here

Educational requirements vary depending on the forensic discipline. To further explore the field, please visit the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS): for additional resources and information.

How is CSI different? How long does it take to complete a case?

“CSI” and many other television series can be a wonderful source of entertainment for many people, but they are not a reliable source on how forensic science works. TV shows with analytical results and a crime solved in less than an hour; in the real world, a review can take up to a week or more. Results (sometimes multiple) are provided from computerized comparisons which must be investigated and verified by a trained and experienced scientist. Ultimately, the scientist determines the match, not the computer program. Analytical results, conclusions and reports are technically reviewed before the results are forwarded to the law enforcement detective or investigator.

An analysis can only begin after the evidence has been collected and submitted to the laboratory in a secure state by a law enforcement agency. Scientists do not question suspects, do not “pound the pavement” investigating crimes, and do not carry firearms. We are not involved in any raids or arrests. Scientists usually stay in the lab and review evidence provided by law enforcement agencies. Much of a forensic pathologist’s time is spent at a computer or looking through paperwork, analyzing and interpreting data, writing reports, and reviewing records.

A forensic pathologist may not always get a conclusive result from his or her tests, or a result that involves the suspect. Forensic analysis does not always provide the solution to a crime. Forensic findings can add corroborating evidence to the whole case, or potentially exonerate innocent suspects.

Completion of the file can take from an hour to several weeks; it depends on a number of factors.

A simple case of a one-component controlled substance, such as a suspected cocaine, can take about an hour. A DNA case can take a week or more depending on the number of items that require analysis, the state of the evidence and whether the necessary reference samples are submitted in a timely manner. Urgent cases, such as those with upcoming court dates, take priority and scientists always try to meet deadlines.

Can I visit one of the crime labs? Can my high school student do a shadow job?

Visits are limited due to concerns about the integrity, security and confidentiality of evidence, and to eliminate foreign sources of contamination, especially DNA. Authorized general public tours are generally limited to groups of no more than 8-10 people who are at least college age or older and are subject to the availability of laboratory staff. Contact your local laboratory manager for availability.

Observation placements, like laboratory visits, are limited due to concerns about the integrity, security and confidentiality of evidence, and to eliminate foreign sources of contamination, especially DNA. Contact your local laboratory manager for availability.

Who can submit evidence to the laboratory?

Law enforcement or other authorized bodies (federal, state, medical examiners, etc.) may submit evidence of a criminal case for review. Typically these are city and county police, sheriff’s departments, and fire departments. We also receive cases from state agencies (Dept of Corrections, Dept of Fish & Wildlife, etc.). Each lab has assigned areas of responsibility statewide to provide forensic services.

What can you tell from someone’s DNA profile?

While about 99.9% of human DNA sequences are the same in every person, there is enough DNA variation to distinguish one individual from another, unless they are twins. identical. While much of DNA contains information for a specific function, DNA used in forensic applications does not code for a particular protein but is still useful for human identification. Specific locations (called loci) in an individual’s DNA are used by forensic scientists to obtain DNA profiles.

Some DNA profiles are entered into a criminal DNA database (CODIS); this profile is compared to other DNA profiles for potential matches. A hit occurs when two or more profiles in the database match and provide a lead for investigating a case. All CODIS hits are confirmed by qualified DNA analysts.

Is there a fingerprint / palm database?

Yes. The Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS) is a computerized database of millions of images of fingerprints and palm prints. The print is scanned and the identifying characteristics are plotted in the image. The computer algorithm returns a list of candidate images based on the plotted features. The analyst reviews the candidates and when a candidate matches the latent fingerprint, he obtains copies of the candidate. The results are verified by two other analysts qualified as latent fingerprints.

Do you react to crime scenes?

Yes. Law enforcement agencies can call the Washington State Crime Scene Patrol Response Team (CSRT) to assist with their investigation of major crimes or crime scenes . The CSRT is made up of forensic pathologists and is a free service available for a 24-hour response. During a call, a CSRT member can:

• Take plenty of photos of the scene and anything of interest

• Take very detailed field notes

• Document blood stains carefully

• Record bullet trajectories and bullet faults

• Perform presumptive chemical tests

• Perform chemical techniques for improving blood and / or fingerprints

• Recognition and collection of evidence

After the scene, CSRT members provide the requesting organization with a written report and testimony as needed.

How often do you testify?

The frequency with which a medical examiner testifies varies widely and depends on the type of work they do and the number of cases they treat. Not all settled cases go to court, and not all court cases require the testimony of a scientist. A materials analyst can testify up to once a month. Due to the much longer time it takes to complete a DNA case, DNA scientists can only testify a few times a year.

Does the Crime Lab examine computer evidence?

No. The Crime Lab does not investigate computer crimes, but another section of the Washington State Patrol does. The Special Investigations Section of the Investigative Support Division includes the High Tech Crimes Unit (HTCU), the Missing and Exploited Children Working Group (MECTF), the Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit (MUPU), Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT). The HTCU provides technical assistance and training in computer forensics, as well as the recovery of relevant evidence that may exist on computer hard drives and other storage media for use in criminal and related internal investigations.

For more information on the Special Investigations Section, call (360) 704-4242.

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