The 15th witness of the trial was David Joseph Blea. Blea explained how the Border Patrol sector evidence team – the Border Patrol’s limited version of CSI – secures and analyzes evidence from the scene of an incident.
This testimony wasn’t a critical part of the trial but I thought the fingerprint testimony was interesting: At the end of his testimony, Blea stated that fingerprint searches on Aldrete-Davila’s van were run through the El Paso Police Department’s fingerprint system but there were no hits because they were not usable prints.
Based on my internet search, it appears the El Paso Police Department uses a fingerprint system from a private vendor known as AFIS. I’m not sure whether the El Paso Police Department was using AFIS when these fingerprints were run but perhaps there was a good economic or timing reason to use the AFIS system rather than the Border Patrol’s system, or perhaps the prints weren’t usable in any system.
However, the FBI uses IAFIS, “the world’s largest repository of fingerprint records.” The Customs and Border Protection had deployed the IDENT/IAFIS system at every Border Patrol station since October/November 2004:
“In September 2004, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Border Patrol’s IDENT, short for Automated Biometric Identification system, linked up with the FBI’s IAFIS system to provide an electronic web of enforcement that covers the entire perimeter of the United States. Available at all 136 Border Patrol stations around the country, these two systems offer complete, complementary coverage to identify, accurately and irrefutably, anyone apprehended by a Border Patrol agent.”
By contrast, the El Paso Police Department’s AFIS system apparently has a much smaller database than IDENT/IAFIS. If this information is correct, I think it’s interesting that the El Paso Border Patrol bypassed its larger database fingerprint system to run the van prints through the El Paso Police Department system.
Any thoughts on this?
In any event, here is the testimony of David Joseph Blea:
From Transcript XI:
Witness #15 – David Joseph Blea:
197 – [Brief bench conference regarding scheduling matters.]
Government direct examination (by Debra Kanof):
197-198 – David Joseph Blea has been a BP agent since 1994 – 12 years. He is a supervisor at the Santa Teresa NM BP station in the El Paso sector, and the El Paso sector evidence team commander. The fact that his station is in New Mexico does not limit his responsibilities within the El Paso sector.
199 – The sector evidence team is comprised of supervisory Border Patrol agents and senior Border Patrol agents selected from stations throughout sector. Any agent with 3 years on the BP can ask to join the team by writing a memo to the chief asking to be considered when an opening comes up.
199-200 – Each sector evidence team member is trained in a one-week basic evidence technology class given at the Mattox training facility at the BP headquarters, where agents “learn everything from how to handle a scene to basic fingerprinting, things like that.” In addition, agents within commuting distance “ride along with the El Paso Police Department’s crime scene unit for one month.”
200 – The sector evidence team responds to and investigates critical incidents in the sector like reportable shootings, vehicle accidents, etc., to look for any evidence and to compile an administrative investigation and submit it to the chief patrol agent.
200 – The chief patrol agent in the El Paso sector in February 2005 was Luis Barker.
200-201 – The sector evidence team does not draw any conclusions based on its investigation. “Just the facts.”
201 – Currently Blea has around 40 members on the team. Blea decides how many agents go out on a call. It could be anywhere from 2 to 5 or 6. He bases the decision [on how many agents to send] on “Number one, what type incident, whether it’s a shooting, whether it’s the type of vehicle accident, whether there’s deaths involved.”
202-202 – Blea decides who to send based on who answers their telephone. It’s more likely they can come out if they are on duty. They currently have a one-month rotation system but Blea can’t recall if that was in effect in February 2005.
202-203 – In February 2005, Ramos was a member of the sector evidence team and had participated in training. Ramos had not responded to any scenes since Blea had been in charge of the team, but Blea believes Ramos had responded once before Blea became commander.
203 – Blea and Ramos joined the sector evidence team at the same time and were trained together. Blea was not sure but he believes that was in 1999.
203 – The sector evidence team is usually called out in response to a report from a station to sector radio, who in turn notifies the assistant chief patrol agent in charge of the evidence team. The assistant chief patrol agent decides whether to call in the sector evidence team and, if so, calls Blea and he goes.
203-204 – An agent who discharges a weapon other than during qualifications has to notify a supervisor. Blea noted that it would be nice if the agent would “try to preserve the scene” but he isn’t sure if that’s in the policy.
204 – “Crime scene protection” means to preserve evidence at the scene and not allow unnecessary people to enter and contaminate the scene. The importance of crime scene protection is taught at the 1-week course.
204-205 – An “original scene” is a scene in which no outside forces have entered the scene after an incident occurred, including Mother Nature. For example, if there is blood at a scene, it would not be the agent’s responsibility to cover blood and protect it from rain. It would be the supervisor’s responsibility after notification from the agent and until the sector evidence team can take over.
205-206 – The location of evidence can be an indicator of what happened. For example, when there are shell casings at a scene, they may determine the general area where someone may have fired a weapon if they haven’t been moved. When Blea gets to a scene, he asks the scene supervisor if anything has been touched or moved.
206 – It substantially impedes the sector evidence team investigation if shell casings have been touched or moved because the shell casings may prove if a shooting occurred. The lack of shell casings may or may not prove there was a shooting.
206-207 – In cases involving a fleeing suspect who may have been shot, the sector evidence team is taught in the 1-week course to look for footprints in any dirt (if it hasn’t been contaminated) and evidence of blood on the ground.
207-208 – Agents at stations along the border are “taught sign,” that is, how to follow footprints in the sand, mud and wet grass. Blea believes that agents that aren’t on the sector evidence team are taught to follow footprints. Blea was an agent in the El Paso sector patrolling the border, and he frequently followed sign to apprehend aliens.
208-209 – Footprints can tell the agent what direction someone is headed and the length of the stride can determine if they are running or walking. Also, the toe of someone who is running digs in deeper than someone who is walking. Blea cannot tell if someone is limping from footprints unless it was an exaggerated limp where he’s dragging his foot.
209 – To do an investigation and to decide whether to look for blood, Blea would need all the circumstances of the shooting: “How many shots were fired. Whether there were suspects, not suspects. Whether they’re in custody, not in custody. Direction, where he was standing. Location of the agents. Location of the suspect.”
209-210 – Blea might not be able to find blood depending on the amount and conditions at the scene. They could borrow Luminol from the El Paso Police Department but they’ve never done that:
“Q. Well, have you ever — you haven’t had a need to. Is that what —
A. No, we have never used it.”
210 – It’s important to preserve tire tracks because “they may show — if you’re looking at tire tracks — whether it’s a suspect vehicle, depending on whether he was braking or not, you might be able to determine the speed of the vehicle, direction of the vehicle, where it came from, that type of thing.”
210-211 – The best way to preserve evidence is to stay out of the area but you can’t always do that. Sometimes you have to let paramedics in because safety is foremost. But you don’t let people in that don’t need to be in.
211-212 – BP has a sector evidence team to provide the chief with a comprehensive administrative investigation. Copies are sent to our OIA and used in LMR proceedings (labor management proceedings). Blea had never been involved in a case where the investigation was used in a criminal proceeding.
212-213 – In October 2005, Blea investigated and prepared a notebook on this case at the request of C. Sanchez. [Blea identified GOV EXH 99 as that notebook.] In the investigation: “We took pictures. We also spent a good — I think over three hours with the metal detector. We did a strip search of the area with a metal detector, trying to look for any shell casings or any other evidence, whether it was shell casings or the fired bullets, maybe some — ones that had gone into the ground. But we really couldn’t narrow down the actual place where we needed to look, so it was kind of broad. And we didn’t come up with anything.”
213-214 – C. Sanchez took Blea to the area where this incident occurred and told him there might be shell casings in the ditch. Blea’s team used a metal detector 20 or 30 yards on both sides of Jess Harris, and then up and down one side on the south side of the canal and up and down on the north side. The metal detector hit on a lot of old metal but they didn’t find any shell casings.
214 – When a gun is fired, a bullet and a shell casing is discharged. A spent shell casing is what’s thrown out of the weapon after the fired bullet has gone out of the chamber.
214-215 – Blea also looked for bullets at the scene, based on information provided to him by C. Sanchez where he understood the agents fired on February 17. They did not find any bullets or casings on the vega.
215 – Blea did not look for footprints or blood.
216-217 – If the sector evidence team knows there was marijuana seized at a location and if there was a vehicle involved, the sector evidence team would dust for fingerprints, the van, inside and out, the doors — especially if the suspect had absconded, and attempt to get some fingerprints from the vehicle, in order to try and identify the suspect. They hope someday to be able to identify and prosecute that person. They would also fingerprint the marijuana and look for documents, cell phones, wallets, etc., in the vehicle. They may transfer evidence they can’t process (documents, firearms) to another agency.
217-218 – The investigation takes weather and time of day into account. If a shooting happened at night, agents would secure the scene until the next day so they could inspect the scene in the daylight. They would do that unless the area was unsafe, such as if there were shooting from across the border or 50-mph-winds in March. Blea would not endanger his agents for a crime scene.
218-219 – The sector evidence team usually has a pilot take aerial photographs within a few days. They do not use the helicopters to look for people, only to take photographs. They did take photographs in this case.
219-220 – Gunshot residue is:
“It’s what’s left after the explosion of the fired projectile coming out of the shell casing. When it separates, there’s a mini explosion, and that — I don’t know — I don’t know how to say it — gunpowder, maybe it is, I’m not sure. But I think it’s gunpowder. It gets — it disperses from the gun, and it lands on anything that’s close.”
If you test positive for gunshot residue, it means you fired a gun recently. Blea has been trained in testing for gunshot residue but he has never done it.
220 – [The Court sustained a defense objection (based on facts not in evidence) to a question whether Blea could test for gunshot residue on a nonagent shooter.]
220 – Everything Blea testified to he learned in his 1-week course.
221-222 – When Blea goes to a scene to locate evidence like shell casings, they mark the evidence with flags or markers, photograph it, make a rough sketch of the scene, and take distances from a known point to make a diagram. Then the shell casings are preserved as evidence (in case they are needed in court) by maintaining the chain of custody and storing them (in a locked evidence locker within a locked evidence room in the station) until the case is complete.
222 – Blea also takes a basic field sketch – “someone goes out to the scene with a pad and a pencil, drawing what they see, basic layout, street, tree, whether it’s shell casings, a weapon, a knife, skid marks. On that field sketch we’ll take measurements and put them on there, whether it’s length of skid marks, distance from weapon to shell casing, distance from suspect to agent. It just depends on the situation.” A diagram shows more than a photograph can show.
223-224 – Blea identified GOV EXHS 30 and 31 as aerial photos with legends of the scene that were taken by someone on the sector evidence team at the request of C. Sanchez. The diagramming on GOV EXHS 30 and 31 was not a basic field sketch because they were computer-generated using a program called Vista FX. Blea measured the distances at the scene, input the information in the computer program, and prepared GOV EXHS 30 and 31.
224-225 – C. Sanchez also requested that the sector evidence team search the van for fingerprints. They lifted a few prints and ran them through the El Paso crime scene unit, but there were no hits.
225 – The sector evidence team takes pictures because it is pristine evidence if it hasn’t been contaminated (e.g., a “true and accurate representation” according to the prosecution). The 1-week course teaches how to take photos of a scene by starting far away and working your way in, using scales or a ruler to document size of objects.
225-226 – It takes 2 weeks to 2 months to complete an investigation. The sector evidence team gets the repeater tape /transcript from sector radio to listen for what happened. If potential witnesses haven’t already been talked to, the sector evidence team will interview them and the interviews are included in the report.
226-228 – The sector evidence team will track down property owners and witnesses. They do not do forensic testing, but they do analyze the evidence from the scene and generate a report that reaches some conclusions. The report is submitted to the BP sector chief. Blea doesn’t know what happens to the report from there, except if/when he is called to testify.
Ramos cross-examination (by Stephen G. Peters):
228-230 – Blea does not recall when he was first asked to gather evidence in this incident. The sector evidence team was first asked to process a van for fingerprints but he doesn’t know when that was and he doesn’t know where the van was located. It was not located at Jess Harris. Blea did not go to the scene until October 2005. [NOTE: at p 232:] Blea thinks they fingerprinted the van about a month or two after the incident. It was not done in February 2005.
230-231 – The closer the inspection is to the date of the event, the less degradation that will occur to the evidence. In general, it would be better to look for evidence 6 weeks after an event than 8 months afterward, although a bullet lodged in a tree would probably be there both times.
231 – When he was asked to do a crime scene investigation in October, Blea doesn’t whether he was told the case was scheduled for trial that month.
231-232 – Blea doesn’t recall when they fingerprinted the van but he thinks it was a month or two after the incident. It was not in February 2005. The sector evidence team has been called to fingerprint marijuana and cell phones in the past but it’s not a regular occurrence.
232-233 – Blea is not sure if agents are told not to handle evidence – it depends on what the trainees field training officer tells them. They can get fingerprints from tape on the marijuana packages which could only come from the suspect or someone who helped wrap the package.
233 – Blea is not aware of any BP policy that that prohibits BP agents from handling evidence.
233-234 – Gunshot residue is taken to verify if someone shot a gun. Blea is not sure if it is used where someone admits to shooting a gun. He’s not sure because he gathers information and doesn’t process it.
234-235 – Blea did not attend any other BP evidence training courses with Ramos since 1999 and, to Blea’s knowledge, Ramos did not rotate through the ride-along program. Blea never saw Ramos called out to investigate an evidence scene.
235-236 – The sector response team (SRT) is different than the sector evidence team. Ramos was on the sector evidence team. Blea doesn’t know if Ramos was on the sector response team. Blea is not on the SRT.
Compean cross-examination (by Chris Antcliff):
236-237 – Blea believes the sector evidence team does the same job as a crime scene investigator, even though they don’t define it as a crime scene. The sector evidence team prepares a report with no conclusions and sends it up the chain of command. The first time they were asked to do this in the Fabens incident was in October 2005.
237-238 – It would be nice to preserve evidence at the scene but Blea doesn’t know if they teach that at the BP academy. There is training for sector evidence team personnel and for trainees who are taught that by their field training officers.
238 – The sector evidence team responds to all reportable shootings, as defined by the sector firearms policy as directed by an assistant chief.
238-239 – Shell casings are lighter after they are fired because the bullet and gunpowder are gone. Blea assumes that, in February and March, wind blows in the El Paso area strong enough to blow shell casings around.
239 – Agents learn how to track footprints but not to preserve them.
239 – Blea can’t tell whether somebody had a gun in their hands from footprints.
239 – To Blea’s knowledge, Compean has never been on the sector evidence team.
239-240 – Blea searched for bullets and shell casings in the area between the levee and the river on the US side of the border. He did not search the Mexican side of the river.
240-241 – The BP turns over seized drugs to the DEA or other agencies, and that agency continues on with the investigation. The BP’s investigation is limited.
241 – Blea lifted prints from the van and took them to the latent print section of the El Paso Police Department’s crime scene unit where they ran them through their database of fingerprints. There were no hits because none of the prints were usable: “I believe it was because the prints were not complete prints, to where they could compare them. They were not usable. They were partials, smudges, that type of thing.”
241-242 – As part of its investigation, the sector evidence team did not learn that Field Operations Supervisor Richards took pictures of the scene on February 17, 2005, and the team did not interview any witnesses in preparing its booklet [report].
242 – [Witness excused.]
243-245 – [Brief bench conference regarding scheduling matters.]
245 – [Court in recess for the evening.]