Bullet-Lead Analysis

I try not to watch a lot of television, but after a long day of work I can’t help but flop down on the couch and “see what’s on”.  As I flip from channel to channel it seems that the bulk of the shows are courtroom dramas, rookie cop shows, or the long list of various CSI shows including CSI Miami, CSI New York.  The list goes on and on.

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Tonight I happened to catch one of my favorites, Dateline NBC.  Josh Mankiewicz was working to track down the true killer in a 1998 triple murder.  The story title, which could have been taken from a Hardy Boys Mystery; “House on Murder Mountain”, was full of plot twists and turns.

NBC opens the story with an eyrie summary: “a hill just outside Salem, Oregon is a place where many lives have ended in mysterious ways. 26-year-old Jason Kinser, a property caretaker, his fiancé, and a friend were shot and killed on an estate.”

I won’t recount the entire story, but one part that I found really intresting was the lead analysis that the criminal forensic team preformed on the bullets found at the crime scene.  The police found a box of bullets in the vehicle of the main suspect.  They compared the chemical make up of those bullets, to those found at the crime scene.  Knows as Comparative bullet-lead analysis, this technique has been used for years.  It turns out that recent advancements in forensic science, and bullet analysis have put some holes in the validity of the test.  Below is a chart from the Washington Post that explains the theory in more detail.  It compares the old theory of bullet analysis, and how how bullets are made, and chemically matched, vs. the new theory.

Washington Post Bullet-Lead Analysis Chart

Washington Post Bullet-Lead Analysis Chart

It turns out that the test may not be as reliable as once thought.  In a September 1, 2005 FBI pressrelease the agency stands behind the soundness of the test, but does make this statment.

While the FBI Laboratory still firmly supports the scientific foundation of bullet lead analysis, given the costs of maintaining the equipment, the resources necessary to do the examination, and its relative probative value, the FBI Laboratory has decided that it will no longer conduct this exam.

You can find the full FBI press release here:


It turns out that a lot of people have been asking questions about this forensics test and legal experts are reviewing several cases where the bullet lead analysis was a major factor in the conviction of a suspect.  The Innocence Project of Florida sites the case of Jimmy Ates, who was convicted in 1998 of killing his wife, Norma Ates. Jimmy’s conviction came years after the fact, and after two other prosecutors had passed on the case because of  a lack of evidence.  Of course the details Mr. Ates case or more complex than this, but in part as a result of a review of the bullet lead analysis facts the case was overturned and in January of 2009 he was released.

You can find the full story, as told by the Innocence Project of Florida here: