Forensic microscopy is a relatively obscure field, made more so right now by the sensational results of DNA matching-which is sending criminals to jail and freeing innocents from jail-and by the success of shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which insert forensic investigators into frontline cops-and-robbers action in a way that makes Palenik cringe. "If someone ran a crime lab that way I think they'd be facing charges of some sort," he says.
He's not a forensic Luddite. Palenik has due respect for DNA analysis, and he owns some high-tech instruments of his own, including a $150,000 infrared microspectrophotometer, though he's happy to use a 5-cent microchemical reagent test if it moves the work along. He complains, as an experienced physician might, that forensic science is greater than the sum of its technologies. Many of his peers, he says, do only the most expensive tests, even if they're the wrong ones. "This is a thinking person's lab. We don't get results here by running something through an instrument."
Palenik, admirers agree, is a virtuoso: He can look at a fragment of charcoal and determine the species of tree it came from. Peter De Forest, a professor of criminalistics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, says the breadth of Palenik's training distinguishes him: "We have too few people like Skip who have this generalist background. There's a trend to make things more routine. This is why Skip is so valuable."
The fibers found with Judi Burgin's body displayed a striking diversity of cross-sectional shapes and diameters. There were seven types in all: one large and round, one small and round, and five others with various three-leaf-clover-like shapes. Synthetic carpet fibers are often extruded in distinctive ways that reveal their identities as clearly as a trademark. Palenik concluded he was looking at particularly cheap carpet, the kind that's made from miscellaneous leftovers, so-called junk fibers that are cast off by mainstream carpet manufacturers, then processed into low-quality composites. Because such composites are made from whatever fibers happen to be available at a given time, each batch possesses its own signature.
Comparing the rug fibers found with Burgin's body to the ones taken from Brown's home, Palenik discovered that not only were the same seven types of fiber present, and the same combination of dyes used to color those fibers, but that quirky aspects of the fibers also matched. For example, one of the seven kinds of fiber had been imperfectly dyed-the color had not soaked all the way through. Not only was this true of that particular fiber in both samples, but to exactly the same degree. Another of the seven types of fiber possessed tiny bleached-out areas, visible under the microscope, where the dye had not taken; again, this was true in both samples.
The troopers had their match-and Carl Brown had met his. "Skip told us you couldn't reproduce this carpet if you tried," Sgt. Dallas Massie, the now-retired Alaska state trooper who was in charge of the investigation, told me. "His analysis is our case." Brown was found guilty in 1998; his conviction was later overturned on a technicality, and in April of this year he was retried, with Palenik again acting as star witness. Brown was convicted of first degree murder for the second time.