training the next generation of CSI experts

 

As a drilling Reservist with the US Army and veteran of three Iraq deployments, I am able to share some related experiences with my younger classmates. (It is unknown to me if my often unsolicited stories and advice are welcomed by these students, but they listen politely). While in Tikrit in 2008-2009, my unit was performing tasks as a Police Transition Team (PTT). At the time, we were entering all Iraqi nationals into a biometrics index. This included Iraqi police officers, civilians and detained insurgents/aggressors. Our squads were imbedded with Department of Defense civilians who would sometimes do forensic work. I recall the experience of responding to the scene of a firefight between coalition forces and insurgents. The remains of the suicide bombers: so much shredded flesh and clothing on the side of the road; the cadavers of the aggressors were thoroughly shot apart. It was a challenge to gather intelligence for our report, and stay focused amidst all the distractions and gore. (The distractions were not just the gore. There was also celebratory gunfire by the friendly Iraqis who were involved in the firefight). At one point I had to use the biometrics device (along with another sergeant) on a dead insurgent in a ditch. So I applaud the younger students at UNH who are pursuing this work on the civilian side. I tell them attention to detail amidst distractions is crucial.

         Here at UNH Durham, there are presently two forensics courses available: BIOL 420- Introduction to Forensic Sciences and ANTH 550 - Introduction to Forensic Anthropology. Seeing how intrigued UNH students are with forensics, I decided to revisit BIOL 420, a class that I took myself in fall semester of 2011.

         Professor Janet Anderson is a lecturer in UNH’s Department of Biological Sciences. Her area of focus is Animal Science and Biology. She has taught BIOL 420 since 2014. The class this semester features two weekly lectures and multiple attached labs. Anderson earned a Master in Science in Animal & Nutritional Science from UNH in 2003, and a PhD in Animal & Nutritional Science with a focus on Molecular Biology from UNH, 2008.

      “As a biology Discovery class, BIOL 420 does not examine criminology, profiling, or the legal aspects of forensic investigation,” said Anderson.  “It focuses on comparative science in the laboratory. My graduate training in the scientific method, critical inquiry, and evidence-based analysis has helped immensely. My specialty is DNA analysis.”

      “There are four types of evidence,” said Anderson in an early semester lecture. “These are physical, documentary, demonstrative and testimony. Evidence can support or refute a fact. Physical evidence can include hair, paint, serial numbers, powder residue, soil and minerals, and tool marks.”

       Anderson emphasizes this concept using crime scene photographs for all evidence.

“Always use a frame of reference,” she said. “This could be a ruler, or something familiar like a pencil or pen.”

      This year, Professor Anderson gave students a historic example of early forensic work when Anderson related the Titterton murder case. On April 10, 1936, aspiring novelist Nancy Titterton was discovered raped and strangled to death with her own pajamas in the bathtub of the New York City apartment she shared with her husband, an executive at NBC. All the detectives had to work with was a length of cord discovered underneath the body, and a single horsehair.

     Police then checked up on every rope and twine manufacturer in the Northeast. The cord was finally found to have come from Hanover Cordage Company in Pennsylvania. A check of records then revealed that some of the distinctive cord had been sold to Theodore Kruger’s upholstery shop in New York City.

       This led police to suspect John Fiorenza, an assistant at Kruger’s shop. Fiorenza had been at the Titterton house on April 9 and had been late for work the morning of the murder. Fiorenza and Kruger were the first to discover Titterton’s body on April 10, wh

 

en they arrived to return a repaired couch. Investigators used the evidence to prompt a confession from Fiorenza, who was sentenced and executed.

         While attending Professor Anderson’s forensics class, I recalled that my 2011 class was the first place I had heard of “The Body Farm.” William K. Bass’s center for forensic observation is situated behind the University of Tennessee. It is a 2.5 acre plot of land that contains research focused on how organic materials break down and decompose. The training aids are human cadavers. (And it’s a good thing the location is surrounded by a razor wire fence -- it is clearly not the type of thing you want families or hikers to stumble across). Here, forensic scientists and researchers learn about human decomposition. The cadavers are placed in several scenarios that recreate crime scenes. The work done here has greatly advanced the field of forensic anthropology.

Anderson spoke to the importance of comparing knowns with unknowns.

    “Associative evidence is categorized as Individual, and Class,” said Anderson. “Class can include blood type, or caliber of a weapon. Individual might be fingerprints, or matched striations from a bullet fired from a particular firearm.”

    One of the lecturers early in the semester was Mr. Timothy J. Pifer, the Laboratory Director of the New Hampshire State Police Forensic Laboratory. Pifer spoke to the current drug epidemic.

   “In 2017, there were 418 deaths in New Hampshire where drugs were involved,” said Pifer. “The progression of drugs used in the past few years saw heroine lead to Fentanyl, and now counter Fentanyl. Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroine.”

     As Pifer pointed out, the high frequency of drug related incidents requires that crimes against persons take priority over crimes against property. Pifer also showed intriguing techniques such as the use of luminol, a chemical used in forensics to detect trace amounts of blood at a crime scene.

     While cold cases are sometimes solved with archived DNA from crime scenes, Pifer favors a good old fashioned technique.

     “Fingerprints are more reliable than DNA,” he said. “They are unique and permanent.”

     On a lighter note, Pifer told a story about how confiscated marijuana used to be taken to Durham, to be destroyed at UNH facilities.

   “When the drugs were being burned, you would see college students come out of the woodwork to check it out,” said Pifer. “Then they would see the law enforcement vehicles and disappear.”

     Those college kids!

     I recently attended one of the attached class labs, a mock crime scene. It was my first time in the Rudman building since fall of 2011.

    As students waited in the lobby, the TAs put the finishing touches on a simulated murder scene. This particular lab is set up like a crime scene. In the remaining labs, students compare evidence from the crime scene to exemplars collected from suspects.

   Sean Byrne is a sophomore psychology major, who aspires to find a career in child psychology. BIOL 420 caught his interest.

   “I actually had the class recommended to me by a friend, and I really like it so far,” said Byrne.

When the TAs called everyone to the hallway outside the lab, students signed in for class and were given specific duties.

        Aliza Ray, second year Master in Science Candidate, and Morgan Olmstead, second year Masters Student in Integrative and Organismal Biology, were on hand to assign jobs, and give initial instructions. Students were tasked with security, footprint impressionist, serology (the scientific examination of blood), trace evaluators (which often involves fingerprints), measurement specialists, photographers, as well as other duties.

      Afterwards, I noticed that while we were in the hallway, I had been standing on top of (simulated) bloody footprints that led from the indoor crime scene to the outdoor one.

         So much for using all of my experience! Nothing beats attention to detail.

      Besides Ray and Olmstead, the teaching assistants included Elizabeth Beaton and Riley Boss, both undergraduates. Boss had a unique role in the mock crime scene. She was bloodied and lying on the floor as the murder victim!

      The initial walk through showed students a lab room which, in addition to the cadaver, showed more bloody footprints, cabinet doors sprung open as if ransacked, bloodied paper in a waste basket, a hammer on the floor amidst splattered blood, and multiple architect drawings open on the tables.

The students were first responders to a crime scene at the Acme construction site in this scenario.

       Next, the students were taken outdoors, where bloody footprints meandered through a hallway and outside to a pile of snow. Footprints were visible, and the footprint team resolved to check it out in good order.

    Back in the lab, I observed how intent and professional the students went about their duties.

   The priorities, before any evidence was handled, were measurements and photographs. Freshmen Laura Clancy and Victoria Coller looked more like professionals than undergrads, as they surveyed and photographed the scene. A tape measure was used and sketch artists employed, charting distances from walls to tables to the murder victim to other evidence.

   When evidence was finally handled, it was placed in the preferred paper bags and tagged.

   “This allows the article of evidence to breathe, as opposed to plastic bags which might encourage mold or other damaging effects,” explained Ray.

   Sophomores Sean Bowers and Ashley Ceriani placed evidence in bags. Juniors Leah Roselli and Julia King assisted in the handling and cataloging of evidence.

    As the students worked, the TAs encouraged them and answered questions.

   “What should we do if the evidence starts to break apart when we pick it up,” one student asked.

   “Make sure to photograph it, before and after,” said Ray.

   After being “resurrected” by the medical examiner, Riley Boss was able to advise and observe students.

“We thought up the scenario and fine-tuned it in about two weeks,” Ray said. “Also, we started working today at 8 a.m. to set up tonight’s mock crime scene.”

     The other TAs acknowledged that the pop culture versions of CSI have influenced the students and themselves.

      “I grew up watching ‘CSI Las Vegas,’ and also ‘Bones,’” said Olmstead.

      “For me, I have always enjoyed Criminal Minds,’” said Beaton.

Eric Clum-Russell was one of the impressionists who worked on the footprints. Eric Clum-Russell is a freshman here at UNH. He is interested in psychology and justice studies.

Along with Nicolas Routier and Zack Delise, he was able to make a cast of a couple of footprints, and lift them from the snow intact. Other students had photographed the indoor and outdoor scenes.

    “Two things that I would like students to take away from this class are critical thinking skills, and evidence based decision-making skills,” said Anderson. “This is a really fun class to teach!”

        Any concern of mine that young people have a sometimes unhealthy fascination with death and destruction was erased when I saw how serious and professional these students went about their business.

   As an undergraduate and graduate non degree student at UNH since 2009, I have written many news and magazine stories profiling the high quality of young people and faculty at this school. From the women’s crew team winning the gold at the Head of the Charles Regatta (two out of three years), to the other men’s and women’s sports teams giving their all, to the late night study sessions among the students at Dimond library and Kingsbury all year long, to students actively fighting for positive change on campus and in the world-- I always enjoy chronicling this great generation of young people and their mentors. Observing these students as well as their professor and TAs in BIOL 420, I was reminded again how fortunate I have been to be embedded here at this university.

     I encourage the younger students to use their fascination with death as a resource, and a way to help those that are living. To help others be safe and get closure for some tragic event. As poet W.H. Auden once said:  

 

"Let us honor if we can the vertical man, though we value none but the horizontal one.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Let us honor if we can the vertical man, though we value none but the horizontal one.”

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