Longform

The Dead Zone

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During the next decade, Courtney found comfort in the solitude of the laboratory where he analyzed drugs, blood, hair fibers, fingerprints and ballistics.

In 1980 he moved to the University of Texas at Arlington where he taught aspiring criminal justice students. He still found time to consult, however.

"Joe Watson, the police chief in Hurst, was among those constantly complaining about the length of time it took to get evidence processed," Courtney recalls. Like most small agencies with neither budgets nor manpower to conduct their own evidence processing, the Hurst Police Department was relegated to the frustrating take-a-number-and-wait process that was common at the only forensic labs available to them--the Fort Worth Police Department and the Department of Public Safety lab in Garland. "One day Joe offhandedly suggested that I open my own lab." Which he did.

"For the first year," Courtney says, "we really struggled. I did a little consulting here, some testing there, but it took awhile for word to get around that we could be of real benefit to the smaller law enforcement agencies that didn't have the luxury of their own crime labs.

Among the first to sign up Courtney and his FCS was Mansfield police Chief Steve Noonkester. "Max had trained me in crime scene investigation when I was with the Fort Worth Police Department," he says, "and I knew that his work was flawless. I was 100 percent confident in his abilities, and it made a great deal of sense to me to be able to call on him with whatever forensic needs we might have."

Admitting that the last television cop show he watched was the sitcom Barney Miller, Noonkester suggests that you'll find no Hollywood glitz attached to the manner in which Courtney arrives at his results. "He has the knowledge, the skills and the equipment necessary to find the truth. That's all he's interested in. And he goes about his work so methodically that it drives you crazy."

But, Noonkester quickly adds, the relationship has paid off on numerous occasions. And not only on crime scene investigations and drug testing.

It was in 1994 that a Mansfield officer-in-training witnessed an automobile accident and became involved in a high-speed pursuit of the fleeing perpetrator. Ultimately, the driver stopped, jumped from his car and squared off in a defensive stance that caused the young officer to shoot and wound the man. In time, a civil lawsuit was filed against the city and police department.

"There was no doubt in my mind or that of our city officials that the response of our officer had been justified," Noonkester says, "so we made preparations for a trial." Courtney was hired to do a detailed re-creation of the shooting. "He even went so far as to locate the man's car, which had been junked and the motor removed and sold, and had it rebuilt. He used every skill and every piece of equipment he had." By the time the case went to trial, Courtney and his staff had prepared a presentation that described the event in second-by-second detail.

The trial, Noonkester recalls, went on for months, yet it took the jury only 16 minutes to return a no-fault verdict. Courtney's examination of the case, he notes, is now used as a teaching tool in forensic classes throughout the nation.


Today, it seems, no case, criminal or civil, is resolved without benefit of some form of scientific evidence and expert testimony. Forensics, once a foreign word to the mainstream, is now an ingrained part of the judicial mix. Which is one of the reasons Courtney and his eclectic staff of fellow scientists now have their hands full.

Among the four full-time criminalists working alongside the lab director/owner are his former FWPD crime lab boss Shiller and Tom Ekis, a one-time Baptist missionary who developed a fascination for forensics, particularly fingerprint examination, while a UTA student of Courtney's. The combined crime lab experience of his staff, Courtney brags, adds up to well over a century. "Everyone we have," he says, "is a generalist, qualified to do everything from crime scene investigation to drug testing, classroom instruction to trace evidence examination."

Although drug analysis fills the majority of the FCS hours--the lab now averages almost 4,000 tests annually--it is those times when Courtney and his staff are called into the field, to search homicide scenes for hair and fiber evidence, finger- or footprints or tire tracks, or read the secrets hidden by blood patterns, that cause the adrenaline to flow. And add to a collection of war stories that rival the best efforts of today's novelists and screenwriters.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers

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