Dennis Hilliard has been asked to tackle some tough forensic investigations in the past, but Red Sox fans and other baseball lovers will be interested to know that the same techniques can provide answers to some sports questions as well.
According to a first-rate press release from Caitlin Musselman, a marketing and communications intern at URI, Musselman was assigned to highlight Hilliard’s achievements of over 30 years of teaching forensic science to students of pharmacology and law enforcement at URI. Hilliard took the opportunity to remind people that real forensic science is different from the glamorous stuff presented on television programs and movies.
“In my crime lab, the women do not wear high heels and leather skirts; and the men do not have six-pack abs,” he said. “Forensic analysts hardly ever go out into the field to collect evidence. I don’t see those guys drawing a gun.”
But Hilliard allows that his field can be entertaining, as when he was asked to find out why so many Major League records were being broken.
“In the summer of 2000, Hilliard and his colleagues from the textiles, chemistry and engineering programs involved with the Forensic Science Partnership at URI analyzed five Major League baseballs from 1963, 1970, 1989, 1995 and 2000,” according to Musselman, just two days before the World Series victory at Fenway. Hilliard was asked by a former Rhode Island sports radio station to test Major League baseballs and study the relationship between changing materials and increasing home run production.
“We only tested five baseballs, so there may be more work to do, but we had a lot of fun working on that project,” said Hilliard.
The 1963 and 1970 balls were most likely made by Spalding, he said, which manufactured MLB baseballs for 100 years, while the 1989, 1995 and 2000 balls were made by Rawlings.
“The more recent balls are livelier, for sure, and will go a lot further when hit,” said Hilliard.
More recently, Hilliard was asked if he knew why so many bats were breaking during Major League games. He hasn’t done the research but is aware of it being done.
“My understanding is that the new bats are made of Maple instead of Ash,” said Hilliard. “Maple is a fairly strong wood and denser than Ash, but, being denser, it is more subject to fracture when hit in the right spot along the wood’s grain. There was supposed to have been a study done on MLB bats by Jim Sherwood [at the University of Massachusetts] but I have not seen any publication or news of that study.”
Hilliard said it was rumored that the Major Leagues fixed the problem in 2009 “but I think it has resurged this year.”
He said the cutter, a type of fastball pitch that “cuts” to the right or left as it approaches the batter, may have something to do with it.
“When the batter swings the bat, it hits the ball closer to his hand, which is closer to the weakest part,” said Hilliard.
Hilliard said he believes that is one reason high schools and colleges prefer aluminum bats to wood. In any event, the image of a sharp broken bat flying into a crowd is enough to give anyone willies. Forensic scientists have a daily problem of keeping their feelings under control.
“It is important to try not to get involved emotionally with any case, especially when it has to do with children and the elderly,” he said. “You don’t want to be biased over a certain case … It is not the police or firefighter’s job to determine guilt or innocence. It is up to the judge and the jury to determine. My job is to present my work in a scientific way.”
As the director of the Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory, Hilliard’s job is to prepare URI students for working in crime labs and testifying in court. He has been doing it since 1980, before he was appointed director of the Crime Lab in 1995. He also has been teaching biomedical science in the University’s College of Pharmacy since 1994; not exactly the glamorous adventure depicted by television series.
Hilliard said they rely on police officers to bring good evidence to analyze and, unlike television; the results don’t come back in one day. “Scanning and comparing fingerprints do not work like that,” he said.
“On occasion, we will ‘respond’ to a scene,” he said, using the vernacular of cops and firefighters. “One case that I worked on was very similar to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. A mother and father had reported that their baby was kidnapped from their apartment. The parents pleaded for the kidnapper to bring their child home. As the investigation went on, there was no sign of a break-in or a ransom note.”
Hilliard said the sad end of the story was anticipated before
the baby was found in an alley near her home, wrapped in a blanket. Hilliard said detectives couldn’t connect a suspect to the death. He guessed that the baby died by accident and the parents got scared and covered it up. That case is still unsolved.
Having recently been awarded a new, five-year contract, Hilliard talked about how they have expanded and improved the lab.
“When I was the interim director of the crime lab, we started with three analysts, and various labs set up in three buildings,” he said. They needed more analysts and more space for people and equipment. In 2003, the Crime Lab applied for and was awarded a federal grant that allowed it to purchase state-of-the-art instruments. At the same time, it expanded into additional space at Fogarty Hall. Some of the funds were used to expand the trace and latent print sections.
“Over the past 10 years, we used a combination of state funding and small grants to hire additional analysts and purchase new lab equipment,” said Hilliard. “There are now nine full-time analysts working in the laboratory today, all located in one building, Fogarty Hall.”
For the past two years, the laboratory staged a program at the Union Fire District training center in South Kingstown.
“The training is extremely beneficial to the criminal justice system,” said Hilliard. “This is a rare opportunity for students and law enforcement officers to conduct investigations at realistic crime scenes. We get to construct crime scenes the way we want them to be, while providing a learning experience that not a lot of people can get.”
A major event in the operation of forensic laboratories occurred during the infamous O.J. Simpson case in 1995.
“The O.J. Simpson case greatly affected the field,” said Hilliard. “The case introduced doubt in the investigation process used by law enforcement and the way in which evidence is handled in the laboratory.”
Hilliard said the case prompted better standards for evidence collection and processing. In 2007, Rhode Island’s Laboratory was granted accreditation under the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) for latent prints, firearms and trace analysis.
But long before that, alumni from his classes have distinguished themselves. He can provide a list of former students whose names are on department rosters around the state and beyond. A partial list would include Daniel Lapati of Warwick, who works for Brown University’s police; Mark Bairos with the Johnston Police; Michael Patnaud in Cranston; Theodore Bulis in Warwick; and Richard Swanson with the Rhode Island State Police.
“I’m particularly proud of Linda Fontaine, a graduate of my class who works for the FBI,” said Hilliard. “She testified at the Casey Anthony trial in Florida, which goes to show that cases don’t always work out the way you think they will.”
In other words, real life is different, and often more disappointing, than anything forensic scientists see on TV. But Hilliard will stay at it, at least for a while longer.
“I just signed a contract for five more years,” he said. “After that, I will be 63 and I’ll have to think about what I want to do.”