An attorney, usually in a somber voice, will fold her hands in front of her suit and explain to jurors that forensic science just doesn’t happen like it does on television: You don’t get results back that fast; in many cases, there is no damning DNA evidence; and oftentimes scientists don’t have the skills to do the on-screen tests that TV character Dr. Gilbert Grissom can perform with his eyes closed.
Still, if anyone in Calhoun County — or northeast Alabama for that matter — comes close to having the skill of Dr. Grissom, Mark Hopwood does, law enforcement officials agree.
After 22 years as a forensic investigator and lab analyst for the state Department of Forensic Sciences, Hopwood in August took the helm of a new crime-scene processing partnership with the Calhoun-Cleburne Drug & Violent Crimes Task Force.
The partnership was created as a way to fill the void left by state budget cuts and the loss of the DFS laboratory at McClellan where Hopwood was based.
Since August, the partnership has been working well, officials said, processing more than a dozen major crime scenes, seven of which were homicide cases. Officials said counties across the northeastern part of the state — including Calhoun, Cleburne, Cherokee, Etowah, St. Clair and Randolph — have Hopwood to thank for continued help with processing their own major crime scenes.
“He’s done a great job,” said Lt. Chris Roberson, commander of the Drug Task Force. “He’s been working the field for over 20 years.”
That and his role as one of the state’s two top-certified forensic investigators combine to make Hopwood a unique asset to the area and the main reason local law enforcement agencies didn’t have to worry when DFS stopped its crime-processing services.
As Bill Wineman, the assistant chief at the Jacksonville Police Department, has said countless times when discussing his department’s major crimes, “Mark Hopwood is an asset.”
To hear Hopwood tell it, the 47-year-old Cherokee County native fell into forensics by accident.
“It was a major malfunction,” he said, laughing in a recent phone interview with The Star. “I was supposed to be pre-med, but then I started taking forensics courses as an elective.”
Those first courses on DNA evidence and fingerprint collection at UAB in 1983 appealed to Hopwood more than any of the chemistry or neuroscience classes did. As he switched his focus to forensic sciences, Hopwood landed a job as an assistant to the state medical examiner.
Working on autopsies granted Hopwood access to DFS, and he began working for the department in 1989, the same year he began to pursue a graduate degree from UAB in forensic sciences.
“I was a low-paid contract student worker,” he recalled.
He made $3.84 per hour transporting bodies and continuing as an assistant to the medical examiner.
It was the long hours of grunt work Hopwood performed in between studying for graduate school that ensured him a full-time job with DFS.
Worked his way up
He remembered this time as his introduction to crime-scene work, recalled the long hours dusting for fingerprints and taking photos of evidence and collecting blood and dental samples.
“Any questions that would come up and my bosses needed answers to? That was the job,” Hopwood said.
It was tiresome and sometimes gruesome, but Hopwood said forensics fieldwork suited him. DFS officials recognized that, and in 1992 assigned him to the laboratory at Jacksonville State University.
For the next two decades, Hopwood worked diligently in the lab, which eventually moved to McClellan. On any given day, he could’ve been anywhere: at a homicide scene in Cherokee County, analyzing bullet trajectories at an officer shooting in Oxford, in the lab testing a white substance suspected to be crack cocaine.
“I was all over the place,” he said. “And I kept working up from the lowly contract employee making three dollars an hour.”
His work eventually earned him in 2005 the title of director at the McClellan lab.
As an administrator, he had to shoulder extra duties such as managing the payroll and paying the phone bill, but his focus was always on the crime scenes.
He remembers spending two days tearing up carpets, tracing bullet paths and analyzing blood spatter at a 2006 homicide scene in Etowah County.
He easily recalls the hours it took processing for DNA found in the car of Wellborn teacher Kevin Thompson, who was found dead after an April kidnapping.
And with no hesitation, he recites his most recent workweek, which included a different crime scene in a different county every day.
“That’s where we made the biggest impact,” he said. “When we first started work, the director for the department (of Forensic Sciences) said, ‘forensics begins at the scene. If you don’t get it there, you don’t get it.’
“Over the course of 20 years, I’ve seen that it’s true.”
That observed truth is part of the reason Hopwood was so frustrated when last year DFS Director Mike Sparks decided to stop the department’s crime-scene processing service for law enforcement agencies across the state.
Those local law enforcement officials were frustrated, too. They knew they didn’t have the training or expertise to collect forensic evidence and ensure proper chain of command the way Hopwood and his fellow DFS investigators did.
“He had the hands-on experience and training,” Roberson said.
But because Hopwood’s loyalty has always been to the forensics and the crime scenes more than to any state institution, he and Calhoun County officials began to hammer out an agreement that would become the crime-scene processing partnership. When DFS closed the McClellan lab along with two others and stopped its forensics work in the field, the partnership stepped up.
So far, with Hopwood at the helm, it’s working.
It might not be the process depicted on television shows like CSI — Hopwood will be the first to tell you his job isn’t sexy or smooth and it’s definitely not speedy.
“Until you’re the one out there standing in the rain trying to figure out what to collect, you don’t really know what those guys are dealing with,” Hopwood said of real-life forensic investigators. “And things that you don’t think are significant at 2 o’clock in the morning turn out to be pivotal in the case.”
Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562.