Waterhouse Gives Voice to Crime Scene Evidence
Christine Waterhouse, who majored in biology, now works as a forensic DNA analyst at the Maine State Police Crime Lab in Augusta—the very same place where she completed an internship during her senior year at UMF.
Based on the nature and condition of the evidence brought to her by state police investigators, game wardens, marine patrol officers, fire marshals and medical examiners, she determines what chemical procedures will be used to separate environmental impurities from the sample. Then she begins a multi-step process of what she calls “releasing the DNA from the cell” by “washing out other proteins,” which allows examination of 13 different locations in the DNA critical for forensic analysis. And the scientific stakes couldn’t be higher.
“If you have one swab of something, there’s little to no margin of error,” Waterhouse says. “Once the initial piece of evidence is consumed by the analysis, that’s it. There’s no more to use. You have to be perfect.”
And objective. For example, even when the nature of the residue seems obvious—like a red stain on a Band-Aid—Waterhouse and her colleagues suspend judgment by referring to the evidence as a “red-brown stain.” Only after the stain tests “presumptively positive” will they refer to it as blood. Further analysis is required to determine what kind of blood it is, and even then they are careful about making the call. (The final assessment to determine whether blood is of human origin, she explains, also tests positive for blood from higher primates and ferrets.)
“A detective might be convinced he or she has a good suspect based on evidence brought to me,” she says, “but the evidence is what it is, and I give voice to the evidence. I’m a civilian working for the state police, but the work I do can also exclude people from prosecution.”
Waterhouse cannot discuss the specifics of ongoing cases involving her DNA analysis. Given the condition and nature of the evidence she examines, it’s clear the crimes sometimes involve unimaginable acts of violence. (Waterhouse doesn’t specialize in any one type of crime, but among her colleagues she’s on a roll with arson as of late, having successfully extracted DNA from unlikely crime-scene sources.)
“Sometimes, I catch myself wondering, ‘What were these people thinking? Why did they think they could get away with this?’” she says of her thought process while examining evidence. But she knows her scientific analysis has the power to convict—or exonerate. “I focus on taking the utmost care to be respectful and do the best work possible. I’m in it for the science. I’m in it for the truth.”