S.C. Crime Scientists Crack Cases in New, Modern $62M Lab Facility

Feb. 20, 2024
Officially called the Forensic Services Laboratory, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division's new office and lab facility is the home for over 150 staffers, who work with nearly 300 agencies in the state.

In the beginning, in 1947, tools for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division’s one-man crime lab could fit in the trunk of agent Millard Cate’s state-issued brown Oldsmobile — instruments for fingerprints and firearms, and a trusty box camera for crime scene photos.

In 1988, with Cate long retired, SLED built a $9.6-million, 67,587-square-foot, four-story crime lab. It had 47 employees and five departments: chemistry, firearms, polygraph, documents and death investigations.

It was almost outdated when built, as DNA and computers were emerging technologies.

Today, 36 years later, SLED has a new crime lab, a gleaming glass, brick and concrete structure longer than a football field that cost $62.8 million. Its official name is Forensic Services Laboratory.

With 117,672 square feet of office and lab space, the new lab is 21st century all the way. Its 152 staffers work with the nearly 300 law enforcement agencies in the state, helping solve crimes in all 46 counties. Each year, SLED receives 25,000-plus pieces of all kinds of evidence to be analyzed.

“This lab is one of the greatest assets that law enforcement has in South Carolina, without any question,” said SLED chief Mark Keel, 66, who worked years to secure funding for the lab. “We operate it, we run it — but it is the state’s lab, and it belongs to the citizens.”

Like the old lab, the new one is located on Broad River Road in Columbia near SLED headquarters. SLED used two architects, including Virginia-based MWL, one of just a few architectural firms in the nation that specialize in major crime labs. A South Carolina firm with out-of-state offices, LS3P designed much of the building and many of the non-laboratory spaces. In all, SLED spent $4.3 million on architectural services.

Keel and SLED scientists also visited a new crime lab in Kansas to see a modern lab.

Construction started in 2020 and finished two years later. Then it took four months and cost $800,000 to pack, move, unpack and test more than $5 million worth of sensitive scientific equipment.

The new building is spacious and well-lit by design, said lab director Major Todd Hughey. That’s for the well-being of those who work there, often long hours and on weekends, he said.

The new lab has wide, 100-yard-long hallways on each floor. Visitors walk past various laboratories and see scientists at work through large glass observation windows — both a safety feature and to allow visitors to observe scientists.

“We wanted people to see what was going on, but we didn’t want to disrupt work,” Hughey said.

Scientists can be seen examining guns and bullets; analyzing findings from $500,000 electron microscopes and equally expensive drug-detecting mass spectrometers.

Unlike the old lab, employees can congregate and eat lunch in a large, well-lit break room (“Not a cafeteria with servers and cooks,” notes Hughey) with microwaves, refrigerators and tables. There are conference rooms and a state-of-the-art indoor firing range encased in concrete for ballistics testing. Two garage-type enclosures make it possible to examine vehicles for evidence contained in mud, blood or whatever.

“It all makes for a nice recruitment tool. We are hiring people from all over the U.S.,” Hughey said, adding peoples’ “eyes pop” when they see the building.

The building’s sprawling fourth floor is filled with long ducts and mechanical systems that help regulate temperature and special ventilation systems with filters to make sure no hazardous chemicals from the testing are expelled into the community, Hughey said. “A lot of work went into this to make sure it’s safe and secure.”

With technologies that SLED’s first crime lab agent Cate could never have imagined, the new building is what SLED calls “a full-service crime laboratory” with 12 major departments, each with numerous subspecialties.

Departments include computer crimes, toxicology, DNA, fingerprint and ballistics analysis, evidence control, latent prints and questioned documents. The crime lab also oversees the management of rape test kits (formally called sexual assault kits) and alcohol breath testing equipment. The crime lab also processes evidence from nearly all officer-involved shootings around the state.

SLED conducts all evidence-testing free of charge to submitting agencies. An added bonus of the new building is its 90-seat training room, where law enforcement officers from different agencies visit and learn about various law enforcement topics. A DNA conference slated for March will bring law enforcement experts from around the state.

Once, SLED scientists were generalists and could do a lot of different things.

“Now, each discipline has its own unique hiring and education requirements.” Hughey said. “You don’t have the ability to concentrate outside of one discipline anymore.”

Today’s SLED experts need a college degree, likely with a science background; many have master’s or other advanced degrees. They should also be detail-oriented and problem-solvers, Hughey said. After joining SLED, analysts or technicians will spend up to two years or more in an apprenticeship status, honing their skills. Every finding is verified by a colleague.

Traveling Experts

Almost every week, SLED scientists are in courtrooms across the state in criminal trials, explaining findings to jurors on everything from blood to bullets — about 250 appearances a year, Hughey said.

“We are just not robots here, with instruments,” Hughey said. “A lot of what we do is going to court.”

Experts are taught how to testify about complex findings in simple language and to look directly at jurors, Hughey said.

Evidence has to be accounted for every step of the way, from crime scene to courtroom. SLED’s experts also must certify that there has been no mishandling or tampering with evidence.

SLED’s experts have testified in South Carolina’s major criminal trials of the modern era, from Dylann Roof’s 2016 mass murder trial in the Mother Emanuel AME Church massacre in Charleston to the 2019 abduction and murder of University of South Carolina student Samantha Josephson in Columbia.

In last year’s nationally televised trial of now-convicted killer Alex Murdaugh, numerous SLED agents and lab experts testified for the prosecution on technical matters from DNA to blood spatter to cell phone data to crime scene photos.

Particularly compelling testimony involved overlapping timelines of Alex Murdaugh’s movements, text messages and cellphone calls before, during and right after his wife, Maggie, and son Paul were killed.

To show the jury Murdaugh was at the scene of the killings, SLED Special Agent Peter Rudofski used geolocation cellphone and other digital data, some of which was curated by SLED’s crime lab computer crimes unit.

Although Murdaugh’s defense attorneys raised questions about some of SLED’s scientific methods and findings, jurors took less than three hours to find Murdaugh guilty after a six-week trial.

The Murdaugh, Roof and Josephson trials resulted in convictions, but Hughey said crime lab findings serve another purpose.

“We exonerate a lot more suspects than we convict,” Hughey said.

Rick Hubbard, one of the state’s 16 elected solicitors, or prosecutors, said SLED’s new crime lab was sorely needed.

“Like all solicitors, we’ve been waiting for this day because there’s so much evidence we look to SLED to process and review,” said Hubbard, who oversees criminal prosecutions in Lexington, Saluda, McCormick and Edgefield counties.

A long time coming

When Keel became SLED chief in 2011, one of his goals was to bring SLED’s crime lab into “cutting edge” technology, he said at the time.

Over the years, the old crime lab – which had looked so modern in 1988 – had become a cramped, dark space. Some scientists had to do their work in closets or hallways. The roof leaked. The electric grid was outdated. Temperatures and humidity could fluctuate, potentially affecting results in sensitive instruments. The agency was running out of places to store evidence.

Hughey said work would be paused whenever the equipment might be affected by temperatures or humidity. “We weren’t going to compromise the integrity of the work.”

In any case, overcrowded conditions meant backlogs building up and delays in getting findings back to prosecutors and law enforcement agencies. Prosecutors around the state got used to calling Keel to intervene with lab officials to prioritize evidence processing for upcoming trials.

Keel lived through years of setbacks before finally convincing a majority of the 170 lawmakers to approve $54 million for a new crime lab.

“It is the biggest thing I ever asked for,” Keel says. “The key to justifying building the lab was to try to reduce backlogs.”

In 2015, then-Gov. Nikki Haley had vetoed a $500 million bond bill that contained funding for a crime lab.

Some lawmakers opposed giving SLED $54 million. Rep. Todd Rutherford, D- Richland, wanted more state money for smaller, local crime labs around the state, as well as funding for other law enforcement needs.

“We would have been better served by taking that money and giving it to different sheriffs’ departments who currently do what SLED does in many areas,” Rutherford said.

Finally, in July 2018, over Rutherford’s and others’ objections, the Legislature approved $54 million to build a crime lab. Playing crucial roles in helping SLED get the money were former House Ways and Means Committee chairman Rep. Brian White, R- Anderson, now retired, and current Gov. Henry McMaster.

By then, backlogs were such that normal turnaround times of 15 days to process suspected opioids had risen to 98 days, Hughey told a WIS reporter in 2018.

House Speaker Pro Tem Rep. Tommy Pope, R- York, said in a recent interview the reason it took years to secure the $54 million was that it is hard to get a majority of lawmakers to agree to spend so much money on one project when there are so many other competing needs.

“It probably took that amount of time for individual stories of why a new crime lab was needed, to show the advantages of having a lab, having the people, moving cases faster to the courtroom for crime victims, to show why ‘justice delayed is justice denied’,’’ Pope said. Lobbying by crime victims and law enforcement was crucial in getting the $54 million, said Pope, a former 16th Circuit solicitor for York and Union counties.

SLED kicked in another $8 million, bringing the total spent on the building to $64.2 million.

Today, SLED backlogs are sharply down, officials said. For example, in July 2022, the agency had a backlog of 1,949 arrestee and convicted offender samples to be entered into SLED’s DNA database. Today, there’s a total of 43 samples.

Other crime labs

Over the years, smaller crime labs have popped up all over the state.

Some law enforcement agencies – such as the city of Charleston Police Department and the Richland County Sheriff’s Department — for years have had their own crime labs that provide a robust range of specialties. Charleston’s lab, with 23 employees, opened in 1985. Richland’s, with 44 employees, opened in 2002.

In recent years other crime labs have emerged in City of Orangeburg, Beaufort County, York County, Anderson County and elsewhere.

Hughey said he welcomes the other labs.

“We are blessed to have wonderful working relationships with them,” Hughey said. A lot of former SLED crime lab employees work at the other labs, he said.

“It was a wonderful opportunity for them, for career advancement, and it also gave us the assurances that they have been properly trained.”

In a lot of cases, local crime labs will ask SLED to train their scientists, he said.

SLED’s new crime lab, with its large training room, makes it possible for crime lab and law enforcement officers from around the state to come to the new building and share information.

“It helps us to build those relationships,” Hughey said. “We all know each other. It’s obviously a very limited field. You need to bounce things off others in the same disciplines as you.”

Ready for the future

The new lab has about 2,500 square feet of unused space that can be converted into whatever is needed without interrupting ongoing work, Hughey said.

And the new lab can easily expand to 180 employees if needed, Hughey said.

In the old lab, SLED saw new technologies come into play such as DNA.

“We adapted, we reallocated space and so we learned from that,” Hughey said.

Laura Hudson, an activist who works with crime victims and law enforcement agencies, said state money was well spent on the new lab.

The faster evidence processing times and new personnel hired by SLED will make a big difference in justice around the state, Hudson said.

“If we want to be on top of everything, and we want to be sure the state is able to do what they have to do, then we have to pay for it, it’s that simple,” Hudson said.

Keel still can’t believe SLED’s new lab.

“Did I ever think we would have a lab that looked like this lab and be able to walk the halls that are 100 yards long? Could I have imagined that? I couldn’t have. But I knew what we needed,” Keel says.

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