Q&A: R.I. State Crime Lab Director Dennis Hilliard

By: - April 24, 2023 5:01 am
Crime Lab Director Dennis Hilliard opens the door to the lab.

Dennis Hilliard has directed the state’s crime lab at the University of Rhode Island since 1992. (Photo by Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

On any given day, a team of 12 people inside Fogarty Hall at the University of Rhode Island is analyzing fingerprints, arson cases, trace evidence, and gunshot residue. They work at the Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory. The lab has been in operation since 1949, when a chemistry professor named Harold Harrison used science to help the South Kingstown Police Department investigate a crime. In the 1970s, the lab moved into the College of Pharmacy building. Dennis Hilliard started working in the lab in 1977 as a graduate student helping officers learn how to operate electronic breathalyzers. He has been directing the lab since 1992.

How much does it cost to operate a facility like this?

$1.3 million. We crossed the million dollar threshold maybe two years ago. I remember fighting for every dollar we’ve had. When I took over as director in ’92, there were just two of us. Initially, the lab was funded by a seed grant, but we had to charge each police department. That didn’t go over so well with local PDs. Something they’ve been getting free all this time, now they have to pay. So the seed money was used up within a couple years and there was no income. Attorney General Arlene Violet made it so we receive state funds.

How many cases does the lab look into in a given year?

Pre-pandemic, we were taking in around 700 cases — with 3,000 to 4,000 items coming through the laboratory. 2021 was our biggest case year — almost 1,000 cases came in. We came down a bit in 2022, with 860 cases. Most of it was firearms cases, around 60%.

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Why do you think that’s happened?

Well, there were a couple of things. Number one, Biden was gonna get elected and restrict gun ownership — not that he did. And number two, anyone staying home, they want to be protected. There’s a lot of gun purchases in the pandemic. And the prices of ammunition would skyrocket. I don’t know why, but there was a shortage of ammunition. So there’s probably a couple of factors going on. But I really don’t know that — I don’t do the social aspect of it. 

You find out the how, not the why.

We give as much information as we can. We’re just a small piece of the puzzle. 

Bullet casings under examination at the crime lab.
Bullet casings under examination. (Photo by Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

How are guns examined then? When you think of it like in this era of mass production, everything is very uniform.

No two weapons will have the exact same markings. Think about the manufacturing process, the tool that makes the last cut on that surface is actually changed by the process of making a cut. I worked at Winchester Western, and I can tell you that we cut things and then we change the cutters. The tool makes the cut. It’s actually changed when that cut is made, and then when it goes to cut the next barrel there’s gonna be some differences between the two barrels. So the idea is that no two barrels have the same markings. 

How are fingerprints tested?

Say there’s a bank robbery and the suspect touches a piece of paper — you can use magnetic power to develop that fingerprint right away. If they touch a solid object and you have the ability to fume that object with super glue, do it. Basically, you get an aquarium, put a hot plate in there and then put a cover on top of it. Some larger departments like Cranston, Providence, State Police, and Pawtucket bought their own chambers to do superglue fuming.

When is the ideal time to test?

The sooner you do it, the better results you’re going to get. Fingerprints are mostly water and there are some residues from amino acids, salts and fatty oils. Each of those can be used to develop fingerprints. These are unique to you. The one thing finger prints have over DNA is identical twins may have the same DNA patterns, but not the same fingerprints — palm prints too.

And arson?

Samples are contained in a clean, unused paint can because we’re dealing with volatile substances like gasoline. If you put it into a plastic bag it will dissolve and dissipate. We will then sample it by placing a charcoal strip in the container, heat the container up in an oven, extract the strip with a solvent, and then inject the extract into a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer. We have a bunch of known accelerants that will run through our system, if the unknown has this pattern it’s identified as gasoline, kerosine, or lighter fluid.

How have things changed over the decades?

It cycles through. There was a big increase in drug cases in the middle of the ‘90s and then we saw DNA become big in the 2000s. And DNA is still big because of the changes. It used to be with DNA you’d need a blood stain the size of a dime, now you need a blood stain the size of a pinhead. It’s amazing.

It used to be with DNA you’d need a blood stain the size of a dime, now you need a blood stain the size of a pinhead. It’s amazing.

There’s been some controversy surrounding the state drug lab over cross contamination. How do things work here?

That was something that was caught through accreditation. We’re accredited too and the process is you try to catch stuff before it goes out the door. People are going to make mistakes — we’re all human. What happened up there, I don’t know, but cases went out the door unfortunately. That’s why we have two examiners in each section, in addition to a quality manager and a quality officer.

Boxes containing files and evidence to be tested at the crime lab.
Nearly 900 cases were submitted to the crime lab. The majority of cases — 60% — involved firearms. (Photo by Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

Did COVID cause any backlogs?

Initially, we stopped taking evidence because we worried about transmission of COVID. The only cases that were priority were homicides. They’d come down and we’d actually have to take cases to the parking lot. It wasn’t so bad. We’re talking around May, June, and July. Come September, we had to change that.

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Christopher Shea
Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea covers politics, the criminal justice system and transportation for the Rhode Island Current.

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