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October 2001
Vol. 10, No. 10,
pp 17–18, 20.
 
 
 
Computers in Chemistry
LIMS flies like an eagle

The U.S. Post Office implements LIMS to handle forensic investigations and analysis.

technician examining wood fragments and other debris in a U.S. Postal Service forensics lab
At a U.S. Postal Service forensics lab, a technician examines wood fragments and other debris. Parts of a pipe bomb and twine are in the foreground.
When the Unabomber sent mail bombs via the United States Postal Service (USPS), the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), the law enforcement arm of the USPS, was called into action and eventually helped crack the case.

Between 1978 and 1995, the USPIS maintained central files to track evidence and information about each possible Unabomber bomb—from wiring and postage stamps to crime scene details.

Jim Upton, manager of the USPIS Chemistry Section at the National Forensic Laboratory in Dulles, VA, was involved in five of the numerous bomb analysis teams. “We went to some of the crime scenes, and the laboratory data files we created were dwarfed by the information generated in the field,” he recalls. “The photographs alone were almost an insurmountable challenge to search and organize. Trying to keep everything organized that related to the evidence which accompanied each separate incident was a formidable task.” In addition, much of the Unabomber evidence was examined, sent to storage, and then reexamined with newer technology and then stored again over the 17-year investigation. Laboratory records of this process had to be meticulously maintained.

To make matters worse, the federal prosecuting attorney for the case asked that a sheet with the chain of custody be prepared for each piece of evidence. “Putting together the case for court was mind-boggling,” Upton emphasizes. “This effort was also a problem for the investigator because of all the jurisdictions it crossed, from local police to the federal level. To testify in court, I had to put together a historical record that documented the evidence chain of custody for each item of evidence which was recovered.”

At the time, all case files were handled manually; nothing was available in a computerized system. Because of the prodigious amount of work involved in preparing the case for court, the Unabomber case became a key driver in the need to develop electronic case files.

Investigating Evidence
Although solving mail bombings is given the highest priority by the USPIS, such crimes are rare. More than 200 federal laws apply to crimes that may adversely affect or make fraudulent use of U.S. mail, the postal system, or postal employees. USPIS postal inspectors investigate crimes such as assaults, bombs, burglary, child exploitation and pornography, controlled substances, embezzlement, identity fraud, mail fraud, money laundering, and robbery. In fact, any crime that involves the mail involves the USPIS. In 1972, for example, the USPIS proved that a handwritten note giving Clifford Irving exclusive rights to write a Howard Hughes biography was a fraud. In 1991, the USPIS broke up a worldwide art fraud ring that marketed bogus paintings purported to be the work of such renowned artists as Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, and Pablo Picasso. In both cases, use of the mail was a contributing factor to the crime.

Case File Management
When a postal crime occurs, a postal inspector is assigned to investigate the case and collect and manage all evidence related to the crime. The inspector sends evidence to the National Forensic Laboratory with a letter requesting that forensic examinations be performed. An evidence control technician assigns a unique number and attaches information forms to each piece of evidence; this information stays with the evidence wherever it goes through the laboratory. The evidence is then sent to the appropriate area for analysis, with areas for documents, fingerprints, photographs, physical evidence, digital evidence, and chemistry. For example, a seized plastic bag of white powder may be sent to the chemistry section for analysis. However, the bag may have fingerprints on it that should be evaluated by the fingerprint laboratory. If the postal inspector requests both analyses, the powder is separated from the plastic bag and only sent to chemistry so the fingerprint staff aren’t exposed to a controlled substance. Evidence can thus be examined simultaneously. After the fingerprint analysis is completed, the plastic bag is sent to the chemistry section where it is reassembled with the powder. When all analyses are complete, the evidence is returned to the postal inspector. Chain-of-custody procedures ensure that all evidence is tracked and accounted for at all times.

As the analyses are completed, results are sent directly to the postal inspector, who writes a final report. Currently, laboratory reports of findings are sent in the mail. “At the Dulles lab, because we have such a massive number of folders, we use an automated mechanical filing system that has pulleys and rollers. This works, but the storage of case files and the size of the total records have become unmanageable,” Upton explains.

LIMS Search
In 1995, the USPIS implemented a chemical inventory system that allows the National Forensic Laboratory to use bar codes to record, document, and track chemicals. The system tracks chemicals from the time they are received by the lab to the time they are consumed or disposed of. This system got Upton thinking of using a similar solution for lab data.

“At the time, a commercially available LIMS could capture statistics, monitor information about samples, and produce reports, but I wanted a LIMS that would also provide evidence tracking and imaging,” he explains. “Essentially, I wanted an electronic case file that would have all of the documentation, letters, mail receipts, and anything associated with this stored and retrievable in the system electronically. This would involve imaging capability not only from the standpoint of document scanning but also digital photography. No one in the country had such a system.”

The USPIS started searching for a system that could create an electronic case file that would contain an image of the original request letter, photographs, information from analytical instruments, lab notes, and bar code records as well as track different types of evidence and create reports for managers. “This is not a LIMS in a standard sense,” he continues, “so we needed to find a contractor to design and develop the system that could incorporate IS [information system], bar coding, and imaging technologies.” The USPIS finally selected Management Systems Designers (MSD), which had an extensive background in imaging and was willing to work with the USPIS to develop a custom solution.

Unique Requirements
The initial study, begun in 1997, resulted in a requirements document that was completed in February 1998. Not only did the USPIS require a single electronic report of the entire case history, it also wanted some very specific capabilities. These included a cross-referencing capability that would allow text and image searches of all the case records, an audit trail of who accessed the file or the physical contents of each case, and the ability to take notes in a notepad environment. In addition, the LIMS needed to be built using commercial off-the-shelf hardware and software components so that, for example, bar code scanners could be purchased from a variety of vendors. Finally, the agency wanted a “write once, read many” image file (that could be added to but not changed) that would be accepted in court as an original document.

One of the USPIS’s unique requirements was that the system be compatible with the existing information technology (IT) infrastructure. This was no mean feat. Furthermore, such new systems must meet certain testing requirements. An off-the-shelf LIMS would have had to go through a very stringent testing system. In addition, many LIMS vendors have proprietary software and do not release the source code. Without such information, testing could not be performed.

The solution MSD developed is Web-based and includes components for case management, evidence tracking, and examination processing. Through the use of standard bar codes, all evidence is tracked from the moment it enters the laboratory until it either leaves the lab or is destroyed. This provides an auditable chain of custody for all evidence items. The custom-built system being tested by USPIS is the prototype for the forensic LIMS that MSD now markets.

Phased Implementation
Since the completion of the requirements document, MSD has designed and developed the USPIS system in several stages. Since January 2001, final testing of the system has been under way and is expected to be completed before 2002.

The next phase of the LIMS implementation will address imaging. The imaging component will allow fingerprints, photographs, text documents, or digital photos to be scanned or imported into the electronic case file. The functional specifications are currently being defined. The vision scope will subsequently be developed, and production of the final product is expected to start this year.

Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) from each regional lab have been a part of the team performing customer acceptance testing of the LIMS. Not only has this ensured participation by all the labs in the LIMS implementation, but the other labs will already be familiar with the LIMS before it is implemented in their location.

“We’ll be putting the LIMS into all the labs, not just the headquarters one,” Upton summarizes. “The Dulles location is being implemented first because it is the largest lab and the most complex, but it is intended to be an integral part of a whole.”

For additional information, visit www.usps.com/postalinspectors, www.msdinc.com, or www.LIMSource.com.


Helen Gillespie is an industry analyst and editor/publisher of the LIMS/Letter. Send your comments or questions regarding this article to tcaw@acs.org or the Editorial Office 1155 16th St N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

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