Updated: March 3, 2014 5:35PM
Devel Newell allegedly fired repeatedly into a group standing outside a strip mall last summer on the North Side.
Chicago Police officers arrested the 30-year-old repeat felon, but he insisted he wasn’t involved in the June 10 shooting, which left two men with bullet wounds to the legs.
Police found 9mm bullet cartridge casings at the scene and recovered a 9mm Smith & Wesson pistol, which they brought to a new police lab in a West Side warehouse. After less than two weeks of testing, forensic investigators had some intriguing results. Fingerprint tests confirmed Newell used the gun in the shooting, prosecutors said. But investigators also learned the pistol was used in a December shooting almost 18 miles away on the South Side.
Newell is facing charges in the June 10 shooting, including being an armed habitual criminal. He isn’t charged in connection with the unsolved 2012 shooting, but the confirmation that the gun was used in that crime gave detectives a new lead to follow.
“The whole point is to chop down the processing time and get out actionable intelligence to the troops,” said Chicago Police Cmdr. Joseph Murphy, who runs the department’s recently updated forensics lab.
At the direction of police Supt. Garry McCarthy, the city opened a ballistics lab in April 2013 as part of a new centralized forensics testing center that also processes crime-scene photos for detectives and prosecutors, tests evidence for fingerprints and prepares evidence for DNA testing.
At his second meeting with his commanders in June 2011, a month into his new job, McCarthy stressed the importance of speeding up the testing of firearms. He was told that Illinois State Police processed spent bullet cartridges for the Chicago Police Department and the turnaround for testing was lengthy.
The superintendent asked his staff to look into having the Chicago Police Department do the work in-house. In Newark, N.J., where McCarthy was previously the top cop, the lab usually took about a day to get ballistics results, he said.
Chicago Police forensics experts traveled to Newark and New York to learn how they set up their labs. They came back to Chicago recommending the department combine evidence labs across the city into a central location.
Police spent more than $1.6 million in city funding and grants to open the ballistics lab with state-of-the-art equipment that’s up to the standards of TV’s “CSI,” although CPD’s cinder-block testing facility isn’t Hollywood-slick.
In the past, Chicago Police would test-fire weapons in a leaky water tank and send the bullet cartridge to the state police crime lab for testing. Now CPD has a new tank and advanced computer systems that allow investigators to make their own images of the unique markings left on bullets and cartridges.
They enter the images into a national database operated by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Potential “hits” to guns used in other crimes, like the December 2012 shooting on the South Side, are ranked and investigators then do their own comparisons to confirm them. Investigators also lift fingerprints from guns and even swab them for DNA.
Chicago Police tested 6,631 guns last year and linked 96 violent crimes through firearms evidence. Guns are now typically tested in two or three days, Murphy said.
“It could have been a year if not longer sometimes,” he said of the past testing by Illinois State Police. “They were just overwhelmed.”
A state police spokeswoman confirmed the agency’s average turnaround on gun testing is about 350 days statewide.
The Chicago Police Department lab has eliminated a backlog of about 2,500 firearms that required testing, Murphy said.
The state police still conduct comparison tests for the Chicago Police Department, but much fewer, Murphy said. “They can concentrate more on helping other agencies.”
New technology in the Chicago Police Department’s lab also allows investigators to create three-dimensional computer images of crime scenes that later can be played for a jury. Lasers are allowing investigators to obtain sharper images of fingerprints. And evidence photos are being processed faster than ever, said Herbert Keeler, a Chicago Police forensic investigator.
Keeler said the new technology is helping detectives process evidence more quickly and solve cases to obtain some closure for the families of victims, especially those who have been murdered.
“We’re the mouth, the eyes and the ears of the victim,” he said.