After nearly 20 years of processing hundreds of crime scenes across Oklahoma and in parts of Texas, Alumnus Jim Stokes and his former colleague wondered if there were more efficient and effective ways to collect evidence at a crime scene and to document the process for the criminal justice system.
Stokes, who serves as the Criminalist Administrator for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, and his partner, Forensic Specialist Eric Richardson of the League City Police Department, turned these musings into two mobile apps – CSI Connect, a checklist for officers for collecting all types of evidence at the scene, and SmartScene, a device to document all actions at a crime scene, right down to notes and reports.
“The idea was we wanted to see what we could do to make crime scene investigations more efficient and more standard, while producing a thorough document that can be used by law enforcement, prosecutors and the defense,” said Stokes.
Stokes and Richardson had plenty of experience in the field. After graduating from Sam Houston State University in 1991, Stokes began his career as a fingerprint examiner at the Houston Police Department, where he worked in classification at the jail, identifying suspects coming into the system. In 1995, he joined the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, where he was assigned to the Latent Evidence Unit, which processed crime scenes for fingerprints as well as shoe and tire impressions. After a short stint in Missouri City, Texas, Stokes returned to Oklahoma and, in 2002, he became supervisor of the Latent Evidence Unit. In 2010, he was named the criminalist administrator, overseeing latent evidence, firearms and tool marks, DNA, and the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).
The state police system in Oklahoma is quite different from that in Texas. Separate from the Department of Public Safety, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation is a request agency, and only has original jurisdiction in a handful of crimes. The agency provides investigative and laboratory services for agencies that don’t have resources to perform their own work. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation covers the state and may be requested by any law enforcement agency for assistance in processing crime scenes or conducting investigations. Over the last 20 years, Stokes has assisted in processing many crime scenes, serving as a lynchpin in several high profile cases.
One involved an elder Native American couple who were brutally stabbed to death in their home, leaving behind a very gruesome scene. It was the first time that the bureau was able to bring a chemical blood reagent out of the lab and onto a scene, and Stokes tested a bloody area on the wall above the victim. While invisible to the naked eye, Stokes was able to develop a fingerprint, which led to two potential suspects, with the prime suspect identified after Stokes studied the prints in the lab.
In the second case, which occurred years before he joined the bureau, a peeping Tom broke into a home to sexually assault the woman inside, but was confronted by a man in the home, who was stabbed to death. After the murder, the suspect repeatedly sexually assaulted the woman, who was legally blind without her glasses and could not provide a description of the suspect, stating only that the suspect was naked when he came in the house. However, the suspect stepped in the victim’s blood, and a bloody footprint was retrieved from the linoleum floor.
Eighteen years later, a homeowner in the same neighborhood reported a peeping Tom to police. After an initial report by his children, the homeowner set up a surveillance camera and caught the man in the act. He chased him down and turned him over to an officer, who happened to be the first responder in the previous murder case. After the officer relayed the similarities with the previous crime and the fact that the suspect was barefoot, Stokes decided to compare the footprints and got a match. The suspect is now serving time in prison for the murder of the first victim 18 years ago.
In addition to his job with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations, Stokes serves an assessor for the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, where he analyzes labs across the country for the organization. He frequently noted a lack of standardization in the field and different ways of documenting cases in these audits, even with the same agency.
He and Richardson founded Prime Forensics. Richardson is a forensic specialist with the League City Police Department and a retired Master Sergeant from the Oklahoma City Police Department, with more than 16 years as a crime scene investigator. After teaming up with programmer Brian Abston, they developed two phone applications to provide a uniform procedure for crime scene investigations.
“It is solving the problem by bringing more efficiency to the process,” said Stokes. “In the past, an investigator had to take down all the information and put it into a report. Now you fill out a form and record everything, including mixing of chemicals, controls and presumptive tests, so it provides more information to law enforcement, prosecutors and defense attorneys.”
SmartScene also can be adapted to train the next generation of criminal justice professional and stress the importance of documentation. It is also being marketed to high schools and colleges for use in forensic science programs. In addition to SmartScene, the trio developed CSI Connect, a mobile field guide for collecting evidence in the field. Both products can be found at http://primeforensics.com/.
“When I was working crime scenes, I would love to have had it,” said Stokes. “It helps teach students to document. We teach them how to collect the evidence, but we don’t teach how to document it properly. These days, it all about documentation.”
Stokes credits the College of Criminal Justice with lighting his passion for forensic work and for providing a foundation for analyzing information.
“During my last semester in the CJ program, I took a Criminal Investigation class,” said Stokes. “It was taught by a professor that was new to the program and had just retired from the Dallas Police Department. The materials he presented in our coursework on print evidence, blood pattern interpretation, etc. is what got me interested in technical investigations and forensic work."
“I also took a legal class with Dr. del Carmen in which we performed a lot of legal reading and briefing cases. This class taught me how to read things in an analytical manner and be able to quickly identify pertinent information. That has stayed with me and has served me well in my career in law enforcement/forensic science writing and reviewing technical reports.”