Breakthrough ballistics database helping link gun crimes
Posted March 25, 2010 5:54 p.m. EDT
Updated March 26, 2010 6:27 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — Currently being tried in a Wake County courtroom, the Samuel James Cooper murder case centers around a handgun that prosecutors say link him to five homicides and a string of armed robberies.
Before Cooper, 33, was named a suspect in the Raleigh crime spree that spanned from May 2006 to October 2007, police knew a common type of pistol was used in the murders.
Ballistics experts, however, tell there is no such thing as a "common gun."
In a recorded confession played for jurors at trial this week, Cooper calmly tells investigators how he killed cleaning contractor LeRoy Jernigan, 41, in the early hours of June 3, 2006, at Circus Family Restaurant on Wake Forest Road, near downtown Raleigh.
“You shot the guy at the Circus Restaurant with a 9 mm?” homicide detective George Passley asks Cooper in the recording.
“Right,” Cooper says.
“Did you pick up those shell casings?” Passley asks.
“My cases never have prints on them,” Cooper responds. “I clean the oil and, you know, keep the gun pretty clean.”
Although Cooper said in the interview that he covered his tracks at crime scenes, authorities were still able to identify his Ruger 9 mm semi-automatic pistol.
Peter Ware, special agent in charge, heads the State Bureau of Investigation's Firearms Section – the state’s clearinghouse for guns recovered at crime scenes.
He says the agency has a breakthrough database called Integrated Ballistics Identification System, or IBIS, that can match bullets and shell casings to crimes throughout the Southeast.
North Carolina's SBI was the first state agency in the country to acquire IBIS, which now integrates with a national database, the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network, making it possible to link local crimes to crimes throughout the U.S.
“We currently have about 350 confirmed hits that we have made in this system. Just yesterday, we had three cases linked in the database," Ware said. "It definitely has helped to solve crimes investigators did not know were linked to each other.”
Over the last decade, firearm forensics has made significant advances in its microscopic technology, allowing agents to examine the microscopic markings a firearm makes on a shell casing.
These markings are caused by unique imperfections in the gun’s barrel that imprint onto the ammunition, almost like a fingerprint.
“Each firearm has a unique and individual set of microscopic characteristics that are then transferred onto ammunition components,” SBI firearms examiner Jessie Pappas said.
Advances in technology mean efficiency. An increase in gun-related crime along with more automatic and semi-automatic weapons, however, means more cases, more evidence to examine and more pressure to speed up the process.
North Carolina ranks among the top 10 states for the most gun-related crimes, and Ware says he is seeing an increase in brazen crimes in which suspects seem to be more willing to pull the trigger – perhaps to kill potential witnesses or to engage in gun battles with law enforcement.
“We want to be able to get (the ballistics tests) done as quickly as possible in case we do have crimes that are linked,” Ware said. “We want to get (violent criminals) off the street as quickly as possible.”