Recently, the Des Moines police became the first Iowa police department to install an in-house machine that can analyze shell casings and access a federal ballistic imaging network to identify potential matches with firearms. Now, that system has been used to match a particular handgun to shell casings found at a robbery scene. As a result, an 18-year-old Ankeny man is facing criminal charges.
Police say that without the new machine it would probably have taken between 10 and 12 months to obtain results from the state crime lab. The fast turnaround is impressive, but it doesn’t change the fact that ballistics evidence has been under fire recently.
In order for scientific or technical evidence to be admitted in federal court, it must be arrived at via the scientific method; it must assist the judge or jury in determining a fact at issue in the case; and the judge must assess whether the method is scientifically valid and whether it can be properly applied to the facts at issue. Unfortunately, several courts around the nation have found that the scientific validity of ballistics evidence has not yet been fully demonstrated.
Moreover, in 2008 and 2009 the National Academy of Sciences reviewed the underlying science of ballistics and urged caution. Additional studies are needed before ballistics analysts should be allowed to testify about their degree of scientific certainty that a set of shell casings matches a particular handgun.
According to the Des Moines register, the 18-year-old defendant was merely a bystander at a call about a self-inflicted gunshot wound when they arrested him. Officers noticed a gun in his pocket and claim it had been stolen from a metro area gun store that was burglarized in November. Two Des Moines men have already been convicted and sentenced for federal crimes in regard to the burglary.
The gun found on the young defendant allegedly matched casings found at a Casey’s gas station on the city’s south side that was robbed on Sept. 29. The Casey’s robbery may be one in a series, police said.
The 18-year-old now faces robbery charges and is being held in the Polk County jail on $100,000 bond.
The new ballistics machine was set up in Des Moines using a grant from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Since it was put into service, investigators have continuously been entering digital images of shell case markings and matching them to firearms entered into the AFT’s National Integrated Ballistic Information Network.