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The garage you don’t want to clean

The large garage bay is served by two roll-up doors. It is the garage you don’t want to turn up in or clean, for that matter. It is filed with aluminum autopsy gurneys. Each has a graduated series of plates to elevate a body’s head and a drain near the feet for fluids. Next door is a similar garage where badly decomposed bodies are accepted. Sometimes vehicles with bodies still inside are wheeled in and processed onsite. Beyond an interior door lies the autopsy room. When we were there Friday, the body of an infant lay on just such a gurney with the classic ‘Y’ incision medical examiners use already opening its chest. None of us could look on for long. The visit took a contingent of reporters and publishers to GBI headquarters and the state crime lab it operates. It is quite an impressive facility. We were welcomed by GBI director Vernon Keenan and public affairs officer John Bankhead – a man I have spoken to many times but had never met. Vernon Keenan has been with the GBI for 37 years. He has seen it all and then some. I asked him how crime and criminals have changed over his career. His answer spoke to increased levels of violence. ’It used to be a man would get mad at his wife and shoot her. Now he shoots everybody in the house. We used to see people shot once. Now they shoot them eight times and then set the body on fire. The level of violence is greatly increased and often it is tied to drugs,’ Keenan said. The GBI works in myriad ways to cut into crime and the violence that often attends it. It operates regional offices and drug task forces around the state. It also staffs regional crime labs though some are being mothballed due to budget constraints. The lab tests drug samples for cops and district attorneys. It does fingerprint and DNA analysis. It takes in and examines evidence of all sorts from crime scenes of every milieu. Crime lab director Dr. George Herrin toured us through his facility. It is full of labs flush with electron microscopes, gas chromatographs and all sorts of other gadgets. We met Dr. Kris Sperry, the state medical examiner. His lab does an average of seven autopsies per day. It takes an offbeat sort to do autopsies all day and Sperry certainly fits the bill. ’Working here, his patients never complain,’ Bankhead quipped. The lab is serious business, however. It is staffed by 136 scientists, 12 managing scientists, 14 medical examiners, 15 managers and 97 technician investigators. Those who run it bristle at the many times court delays are blamed on ‘˜waiting for the crime lab.’ ‘If they ask us to expedite a case, we do it. We turn them around. Many times they don’t even ask,’ Keenan said. The director says his operation is an open book. It responds promptly to open records requests though many come from inmates who want to see the crime scene photos of their victims. Legend has it that Keenan told one death row inmate requesting such a file that it would be waiting for him at the front desk at GBI headquarters. All those we met were blessed with a sort of gallows humor. They need it. Their smiles disappeared, however, when pending cuts to the crime lab budget entered the discussion. ’Damn it. Public safety ought to be a priority,’ Keenan said. It is hard to argue with that.

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