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November / December 2003


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Investigating Forensics


Investigating Forensics
Students learn the science behind the sensationalism

About the Photo: The first day of the forensic science class, students look for "clues" on a human skull.
 

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Focused on Forsensics: Irv Kornfield
Irv Kornfield directs the Molecular Forensics Laboratory, which is an extension of his research in a branch of population genetics known as molecular systematics.
 

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Focused on Forsensics: Marcella Sorg
Despite the popularity of CSI and other television crime shows, Marcella Sorg is wary of the media emphasis on the dark side of human nature. She questions the impact of sensationalized crime shows on viewers. However, she sees value in research patterns that provide feedback to policymakers.
 

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The five student investigators were told what to expect, but the reality was still a bit of a shock. They had entered a room in the University of Maine Public Safety Building to interview a woman about a domestic disturbance. Between quiet sobs, she told them about the violent events of that afternoon. The students examined the readily apparent bruises and scrapes on her arms and face, and wanted to know if she had been injured elsewhere. That's when they found dried blood in the woman's hair where she had been hit in the head and a deep red abrasion in the shape of a boot sole from being kicked in the back.

The students took notes and asked more questions, just as their classmates were doing with the alleged perpetrator in another room down the hall. When they were done collecting evidence, it was time to compare notes, sort out conflicting accounts, review their findings and reconstruct events.

Had this been a real crime investigation, a decision to make an arrest would have depended on their conclusions

Welcome to SMS 120 Introduction to Forensic Science, a new class taught by Irv Kornfield, a UMaine professor in the School of Marine Sciences and director of the university's Molecular Forensics Laboratory. Domestic violence is just one of the topics he covers to bridge the worlds of crime and science. In this case, he got assistance from UMaine Public Safety officers Deb-orah Mitchell and Mark Coffey, who worked with officer Robert Norman, a makeup artist often called upon to create lifelike wounds and injuries as part of emergency management training exercises. The details of the case, including the placement and severity of injuries, came from police reports.

"Forensic science is a tool to support the law," says Kornfield. "The integration of law and forensic science really culminates in the investigation of crimes, particularly when crime scenes are first investigated. That is the most critical step in the entire process, and all of the other techniques are derivative of that. I want to give students a clear understanding of what is involved and an opportunity to experience what such analysis is like."

This fall, class enrollment easily reached the 75- student limit. Around the nation, colleges, universities and even high schools are offering new forensic science classes and degree programs in the wake of student interest spurred by popular TV shows such as CSI (Crime Scene Investigation). The UMaine class combines a review of the legal system with investigative techniques that apply to biology and chemistry, as well as to crime scenes.

Marcella Sorg, a lecturer in the class and a forensic anthropologist certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, also has seen a heightened public interest in forensics. She gets calls every day from high school and college students who want to know where to get a degree in the subject.

"I tell them that forensics is an application of science," says Sorg, a research associate in UMaine's Margaret Chase Smith Center for Public Policy. "If they're interested in forensics, they should pursue whatever science they are interested in entomology, molecular biology, anthropology and then do the application. Forensics is about applying science to forensic problems."

Students taking the UMaine class get a mix of both. They learn about evidence standards and the laws authorizing police and citizens to make arrests. They study DNA analysis, blood typing and the physics of traffic accidents. Contrary to the glamour and drama displayed on television crime shows, they learn to look for subtle clues that emerge during a persistent search for evidence.

Most of the students in this year's class are taking it to fulfill a general science requirement or because of an interest in the subject, says Kornfield. However, some students have more serious plans.

For Diadem Strout of Addison, Maine, a sophomore in biology, the class is career preparation. "I got interested in this back in seventh grade," she says, "and I intend to stay with it. I'd like to transfer to a school with a forensic degree program."

Jodi Wyman of Stratton, Maine, a sophomore in chemistry, also plans to go into a forensic science career. "I job shadowed with the police in eighth grade, and we had a speaker at our school talk to us about police work," she adds. "I'd like to approach forensics from the chemistry angle."

In the first class last September, Kornfield had students don blue gloves while he handed around a human skull. "Look at this skull carefully. What does it tell you about the person?" he asked. "Was he or she an adult or a child? Do you all know about the soft spot that slowly closes on a child's skull as he or she grows? What do you see here?"

During the year, Kornfield gives students multiple opportunities to use scientific skills observation, hypothesis testing, knowledge of biology, chemistry and physics to recreate events and determine if a crime was committed. For one exercise, he cordons off a room with yellow police tape and draws the outline of a victim's body in chalk on the floor. Footprints and discarded gloves are strategically placed. Students must discern the orientation of the body and a likely sequence of events.

When appropriate, he doesn't hesitate to bring in personal experience. He once photographed car damage and skid marks from a traffic accident on campus in which he was involved and used the photos to present an analysis of the incident for students.

For extra credit, students can ride along with Bangor police officers on routine patrol.

"It's important for students to understand intuitively the scientific method, the role of hypothesis testing, and research in general," says Kornfield. "That theme is stressed throughout the course."

Despite the injury, trauma and death that are common fare for crime investigators, Kornfield and Sorg are careful to avoid sensationalizing the subject. "We're very sensitive to that," says Kornfield. "Some of the images can be upsetting. There are Web sites that specialize in that sort of thing, but we avoid them because we focus on the science."

Sorg agrees. "I talk to them about what's possible to discover in a situation, what's not and what's beyond our capabilities. I'll talk to them about chain of custody, maintaining the sanctity of the evidence, and how the law works. I have a problem with exposing students to gory stuff."

by Nick Houtman
November-December, 2003

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