Forensic chemist Niina Viitala and Director of the NBI Forensics Laboratory Kimmo Himberg are familiar with the science of crime.
Photos: Tomas Whitehouse

Forensic science has been in vogue in crime fiction since the turn of the century and continues to fascinate the public. Inside Finland’s largest crime lab, the real-life forensics experts match fingerprints and identify DNA samples in service of the justice system.

IT WAS not the most typical Finnish crime, although the setting was all too familiar: an alcoholic, found badly burnt outside a dormitory, died months later of his injuries. His drinking buddy professed an account of the events: the victim, having enjoyed ethanol solvent with his fellows, passed out. His partner then flicked a lit cigarette stub on him as a joke, inadvertently setting his ethanol-soaked clothes ablaze.

A recreation of the circumstances in the crime lab, however, revealed that the story did not check out. Placing a lit cigarette on the ethanol-soaked clothes itself did nothing, but after keeping the flame of a cigarette lighter on them for a few moments, they eventually ignited. The eyewitness/suspect was convicted of manslaughter, since he had had enough time to contemplate the consequences of his actions as he was setting his friend alight.

This recreation of events that cracked the case was completed at the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) crime lab, the only forensics institute in Finland. Located in a massive white marble box in the middle of a field in Vantaa, deep inside the bureau’s labyrinthine headquarters, the forensics laboratories serve the entire country, tackling some 30,000 cases annually.

Inside the puzzle palace might seem a far cry from the glitzy Hollywood versions seen on TV, but the work is the same: using the latest scientific methods to help investigators deduce the Who’s, the What’s and the Why’s.

Chemical samples being automatically fed into a gas chromatograph

CSI Finland

For decades now, from Columbo to Law and Order, TV policing usually relied on either intellectual dexterity or physical brawn, while the “lab guys” remained mere bespectacled sideshows. In the 80s detectives were quirky and laid-back like Matlock, whereas in the 90s they were hard-edged and tough like the cops on NYPD Blue.

But ever since the late 90s the public’s knowledge and interest in forensics has been excited by a plethora of programmes where scientists have taken centre stage. Riding the tide in 2000, American network CBS launched CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, a series that would give rise to two spinoffs and an entire industry of forensics-themed entertainment.

Coroners, scientists, chemists, physicians and profilers now share the screen with the traditional hard-knuckled thugs and shrewd interrogators. Science, it seems, can answer any question.

The CSI effect

IN THE USA the wildly popular CSI franchise has been starkly criticised by law enforcement professionals for its lack of realism. Along with a slew of other police procedural dramas, it is said to provide an overly positive view of forensic science.

Some even claim that the immense success of the shows has largely left the general public with a skewed perception of what real-life forensic science is capable of. Such unrealistic expectations put pressure on prosecutors to produce more forensic evidence, whether it’s relevant to the case or not.

Despite the widespread popularity of forensics dramas in Finland, the shows are not yet affecting the work of the justice system. “I wouldn’t say there are any signs of such a ‘CSI effect’ in Finland – at least not in the sense of overblown expectations,” says NBI crime lab director Kimmo Himberg. “But in general the public’s interest in the field has certainly increased.”

It is impossible to know what the actual significance of forensic evidence is in the Finnish justice system. The courts make no distinction between how different cases are solved. Their rulings are always based on all the evidence presented as a whole.

“Realistically speaking, forensic science is not employed in very many cases. That’s around five per cent of cases that come to the authorities’ attention,” says Himberg. “Surprisingly many crimes come to the police already solved, and a large portion of the rest remain uninvestigated because of limited time and resources,” he continues.

“But all in all, the more serious the case, the more likely it will come to us.”

Though not quite as omnipotent as TV would have us believe, forensic science is an important part of criminal investigation everywhere. Forensics experts analyse physical evidence secured from the crime scene obtained either from the victim or from suspects, with scientific methods to aid the legal process providing vital information to criminal investigators. Fingerprints, blood and secretions, hair and textile fibres, paint, glass and chemical traces, weapons, tools and footprints are daily stuff for the crime lab.

“This is a small country, so we’re the only institution providing these services,” says Director of the NBI Forensics Laboratory Kimmo Himberg. “On television the investigators always get results immediately; the tech people are basically just sitting there, waiting for samples to be delivered. In reality our labs are extremely busy. We get about 100 new assignments every day.”

The vast laboratory covers some 20 fields of research, from arson investigations to chemical analysis of narcotics, document forgeries and counterfeit money. Downstairs, underground, is the ballistics lab and firing range.

“The ballistics division receive some 300 cases per year, mostly technical studies, estimating weapons for permit requests, or recreating the conditions of alleged stray shots,” Himberg reveals. Actual shootings where the perpetrator is unknown – so-called dark cases in police lingo – are rare in Finland.

Control substances are used to match flammable agents with commercial products

Prints and traces

One of the key functions of the forensics lab is to identify suspects. The dual tools for this are fingerprints and DNA. The NBI crime lab maintains national databases of fingerprints and DNA of convicted criminals and suspects. “Our AFIS fingerprint database contains some 250,000 sets of prints. They have been collected since the 1970s,” Himberg explains.

Prints extracted from the scene or from the victim are commonly sent to the crime lab as digital photographs, along with a set of prints from possible suspects. The images can be compared to one another, or they are run through a computer that compares them to the database and narrows down the possible matches.

“In the end the actual identification is always done by a human fingerprint analyst. If a matching print exists in the system, it is found with 100 per cent certainty.”

While fingerprints are still the cheapest way to identify a person, DNA identification is fast taking its place. Thanks to something called PCR analysis (Polymerase Chain Reaction), an extremely tiny amount of fluid or tissue – even a highly degraded sample – is all that is needed. The trick is in extracting the DNA from the sample and then multiplying it. Using heat cycles and enzymes the scientists simulate cell division, which repeats the DNA sequence until a sufficient amount for analysis is reached.

The bill on establishing a DNA registry was passed in 1997, and since 1999 some 100,000 suspects have had the inside of their mouth swabbed for a sample. The DNA lab is now the largest section of the organisation – and one of the busiest, which means prioritising is a necessity.

“With a small sample it takes a minimum of seven hours to run the tests. In a rush the DNA test results could be delivered in 12 hours, but in most cases it can take weeks.”

There are hundreds of varieties of glass, which allows investigators to trace the origin of glass shards collected on the scene.

Job for a scientist

For dramatic impact TV’s crime scene investigators often represent the entire police organisation. They collect the evidence on the scene, analyse it in the lab and finally interrogate and arrest the suspects, wrapping the dramatic arc of a criminal investigation into a neat 45-minute package. Reality, in Finland at least, is very different. While the forensics laboratory is officially part of the NBI police organisation, a majority of its staff are civilians.

“Out of our staff of 130 only a handful are police authorities,” Himberg notes. The vast majority are chemists, molecular biologists, engineers and research scientists. Since there is no teaching in forensic science in any Finnish university, most of the personnel have a colourful background in various academic professions.

Forensic chemist Niina Viitala came to the forensics lab 23 years ago as a recent graduate. At the time it was a much smaller outfit, with a staff of around 40, and its operations were shrouded in mystery.

“I came for the interview partly just to see what goes on in here,” Viitala remembers. “When I got to the place I saw all this brand new high-tech equipment, far more advanced than what we had at the university. I figured I had to get this job.”

With a deadpan sense of humour and a grave countenance, Viitala is not that far off from the Hollywood stereotype of a forensic scientist. Sitting at her desk, surrounded by liquid chromatographs, mass spectrographs, heating ovens and other equipment, she talks about her work, which involves arson and environmental crimes.

Arson investigations are one of the most difficult fields of forensic science, as it is sometimes near impossible to prove conclusively if a fire was set on purpose or resulted from faulty electronics, leaky gas lines or some other method of spontaneous combustion. Viitala’s job as a forensic chemist is to find out whether flammable substances were in place.

“I get samples, sometimes burnt clothes, remains of electrical components – sometimes little more than a bag of cinder,” she explains. “First of all I check to see if the bag is intact. Then the bag is heated in the oven at 100 degrees. We take a sample of the fumes that are produced and analyse it with a gas chromatograph.”

Viitala looks for signs of flammable substances and tries to match them to available commercial compounds in order to distinguish them from natural combustion products. “If we find traces of gasoline in the middle of the living room, you can be pretty sure they’ve been doing something other than fixing their Harley in there,” she quips.

Personal effects

Arson cases usually involve some form of insurance fraud. Especially in times of economic turbulence such cases tend to increase apace with bankruptcies. “I sometimes say, when the economy goes downhill, to stay away from forestry machines. Those things will start bursting into flames spontaneously,” Viitala remarks.

Bags of evidence from every fatal fire also end up in the NBI forensics lab. Annually around 90 people die in fires in Finland and each one is investigated, whether or not there is immediate cause to suspect arson.

“These contain remains from a site where a man burnt to death,” says Viitala, gesturing at evidence bags. “There is suspicion that he was drizzled with gasoline and set on fire, so we’ll have to find that out.”

In her line of work Viitala encounters the darker side of life, much more so than her fellow chemists. “When I started working here I got my first fire alarm. Now I have seven,” she says. Reading crime mysteries for a living and dealing with sick minds and savage individuals can be taxing.

“The hardest ones are cases where small children have been burnt to death.”

Still, after 23 years she still enjoys the challenges her work provides. “After working here for five years I started thinking I should move on, but I didn’t have the time to look for something else. After seven years I figured it was now or never,” Viitala recalls. “I went in for an interview at a pharmaceutical company, and it turned out I would be working with four robots for colleagues. At that point I though to myself, ‘Tomorrow I’m heading out to Oulu on a hovercraft to investigate a major fire. That sounds about a million times more interesting than this.’”

On-site investigations

Unlike CSI’s Gil Grissom and co, Finnish forensic scientists actually rarely venture outside their laboratories, but have the evidence sent to them by local police stations. In fact, most often the on-site investigation is done by the first patrol or officer to arrive on the scene. In the case of a more severe crime a specifically trained crime scene investigator is brought in to collect the evidence.

“There are roughly 200 crime scene investigators in Finland and aside from a few exceptions they all work under local police stations. Our staff are sent out only on rare occasions, such as major fires, large illegal drug labs or very difficult-to-solve homicides,” director Himberg reveals.

However, the Forensics Laboratory does provide most of the training for crime scene investigators around the country. In a large, vaguely delineated crime scene, investigators must use their imagination and instinct to assess the most probable places where evidence could be found. In an ordinary homicide it is not uncommon for the lab to receive hundreds of samples.

“In a ‘dark’ case you just have to try and figure out what is essential to the case: like the victim’s clothes and the surroundings and so on,” says forensic chemist Sani Marttila, who specialises in particle analysis: examining paint chips and glass shards. Her background is similar to Viitala’s. After graduating from organic chemistry she worked at a glue factory before coming to the crime lab some 10 years ago.

“You have to take a lot of samples and you might find out much later if any of them were relevant. Things are much easier if there is a known suspect and you have some idea of what you’re looking for.”

Marttila remembers one case particularly well. She had just started work at the crime lab when the case of Eveliina Lappalainen broke. 14-year-old Lappalainen was found killed in a ditch in the town of Imatra in 2000. With a teenage victim, a brutal murder and no suspects, the case soon attracted massive media attention. Ultimately the perpetrator, a teenage boy only a year older than his victim, turned himself in voluntarily.

“In a case like that it’s incredibly taxing to collect evidence from the scene. We received a terrifying number of samples to analyse,” Marttila remembers. “On the one hand it was very frustrating, but on the other hand it was a really interesting case and a great learning experience.”

Fact vs. fiction

Wondering what is fact and what is fiction in TV’s police procedural dramas? NBI Crime Lab’s Kimmo Himberg tells it how it is.

The CSIs arrive on the scene in the middle of the night in high heels, hair down and in perfect make-up.

“I suppose this tells you about how committed the profession is – always prepared, like cub scouts. But seriously, the fact that investigators on TV always look good is likely due to cinematic requirements. At least in Finland most CSI investigators are regular rough-looking policemen, and they dress the part. There are women as well of course, and they are all very attractive...”

The forensic scientists have all the necessary equipment to study all the evidence, and every sample they pick up leads to a result that is vital to solving the case.

“In serious crimes where a large amount of physical evidence is collected, it is quite usual that a majority of the samples turn out completely irrelevant to the investigation. A good set of instruments is naturally pretty much the first item on any researcher’s wish list, but in reality the kind of magician who could work them all alone like you see on TV just doesn’t exist.”

The investigators have a computer system where all the relevant databases, from fingerprints to the department of motor vehicles, are integrated.

“This is not the case – not even in America. In reality they are all separate computer systems.”

The investigators take a grainy security camera image and enhance it to show the suspect’s face.

“There are some digital image-enhancement software which could be used to reduce noise in the picture, but a video image is what it is. It doesn’t contain any ‘hidden’ information that could be dug out.”

Forensic chemist Sani Marttila examines a crowbar for traces of paint from the site of a break-in.

Crime-busting progress

The development of forensic science has allowed criminal investigators to solve cases that would have been much tougher, if not impossible, to crack without the technology. On rare occasions they can help crack old cases as well, although with the laboratory’s hectic schedule there’s little time to concentrate on past investigations.

“We did recently close a homicide that took place in Muurala at the end of the 1980s,” recounts director Himberg. “That case was re-opened because of a rumour that the perpetrator had bragged about the killing to his prison mates. The case was solved partly on forensic, partly on psychological evidence.”

The problem with older cases is a lack of physical evidence for analysis. At the time of active investigation the future possibilities of forensics were not yet known, and thus key pieces of the puzzle were perhaps never picked up.

For the most part the advancement of forensic science has been a slow process of refining techniques and procedures. Smaller and smaller samples can be analysed, processes become faster and more accurate, but at its foundation the technology remains basically the same.

“Things don’t usually move forward in great leaps. There have basically been two great quantum leaps in forensic science. Some 120 years ago fingerprint identification revolutionised criminal investigation procedures, and in the late 1980s and early 90s DNA did the same.”

Himberg foresees the next great push forward might be brought on by digitalisation. There’s a whole new breed of criminals preying on people on the internet, and the NBI has its own division for cybercrime. On the other hand, in the digital realm everything leaves a trace. These can be used in tracking down the actions and whereabouts of suspects.

“Forensic science can also benefit greatly from advances in digital technology. For example, automatic voice recognition is currently developing fast. Soon, perhaps next year already, we will have a voice registry much like the fingerprint and DNA registries,” Himberg states. “But even that is not a revolution, just another new possibility.”

Described like this, forensic science hardly sounds like the unstoppable juggernaut that it is on TV, spelling doom for criminals no matter how clever they may be. Nevertheless, the idea of science in the service of justice continues to captivate the public. There’s certainty and reliability in science that people have grown accustomed to, at least in the realm of fiction.

And in reality, advances in forensic science have made a significant contribution to the criminal investigation process. As Himberg concludes, “If the Lake Bodom murders took place today, I have no doubt in my mind that they would’ve been solved.”

What of the man who set his fellow boozer ablaze? He never saw the end of his sentence, Niina Viitala remembers. He was killed on his first leave out of jail.