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Forensic science sleuths move to forefront

Step aside, Dirty Harry. These days, scientists are getting the bad guys and the glory. And thanks to television and two passionate Purdue teachers whose courses have captured students’ imaginations, growing numbers of Purdue students see themselves as future crime-solving forensic scientists.

David Tate

The technological boom in forensic science has played out on TV with dramatic portrayals of both factual and fictional cases, and in the process, a college degree in science has been elevated to a new kind of cool.

Recognizing that Purdue’s rich history in the sciences, engineering and high technology positioned the University well to offer a curriculum in forensic science, David Tate and Ralph Williams teamed up last year to create "Introduction to Forensic Science" at Purdue. Tate, director of clinical and continuing education in the School of Health Sciences, and Williams, professor of entomology in the School of Agriculture, have been pleasantly surprised by the immense popularity of the course and have since added two more.

Renee Richmond and Tabi Cripe
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The stage may have been set back in 1995 for the popularity of the new forensic science courses at Purdue.

During that year, the world became fascinated with the macabre field of high-tech forensic science as the nine-month murder trial of O.J. Simpson played out on TV. Not long into the trial, it became obvious that forensic science would play a make-it-or-break-it role in its outcome. Discussions of evidence found in blood-spatter patterns and in the DNA of blood samples became standard, if not appetizing, dinner-table talk, and armchair criminalists second-guessed officials responsible for evidence handling and analysis.

Since the Simpson acquittal – which many argue was due to the mishandling of evidence – network television has brought us "CSI: Crime Science Investigation," its offshoot, "CSI: Miami," and "Crossing Jordan," among other fictional shows that solve crimes through forensic science. In each episode, the actors are upstaged by the science – the shows’ real star. The science also is front and center on the Discovery Channel’s nonfictional "Forensic Files," and "The New Detectives: Case Studies in Forensic Science."

The real-world advances in criminal forensics that the shows portray have given scientists of nearly every description – medical technologists, biologists, entomologists, chemists, anthropologists, geneticists, botanists and more – the opportunity to crack criminal cases using their advanced education and the most sophisticated equipment high technology can offer.

Would be cabin
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Thanks to history, television and their own enthusiasm for subject matter that students are clamoring for, it’s been all Tate and Williams can do to keep up with the demand for their forensic science courses.

"We’ve created a monster," Tate says happily, about the problems he and Williams are facing as they cope with the demand for courses that so far aren’t offered at any other major Indiana university. "We did this in response to high school teachers and our own admissions office. The demand for it was there and now it’s growing."

Illustrating his point are the 300 sophomores, juniors and first-semester seniors who are currently signed up for the introductory course being offered in the fall. "And that’s the number we have without the incoming freshmen," Tate points out.

The intro course gives students a taste of the many scientific disciplines that can play a role in defining the truth of a crime by correctly observing, gathering and analyzing evidence left at a crime scene. The semester begins with a review of the history of forensic science and its role in the criminal justice system, then students learn what insects are important to forensic entomologists and why the expertise of forensic botanists, pathologists, anthropologists and toxicologists is used in investigating crime. The course also covers crime scene evidence, trace evidence and analysis,

firearms forensics, blood chemistry and blood spatter science, as well as new trends, techniques and equipment in forensic investigations.

Responding to student demand for more, Tate and Williams offered a second course this spring, "Criminalistics: Crime Scene Techniques and Management," which delves more deeply into crime scene observation, documentation, evidence gathering and analysis. An added laboratory section had the students using collection techniques for fingerprinting, trace evidence, and blood-spatter patterns. The students, who were split into crime scene investigation teams, investigated a staged homicide involving a car used to take the victim to a hiding place inside a remote cabin.

Evidence samples
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Next fall, "Advanced Forensic Science," will be added. The laboratory course will cover legal proceedings, advanced ballistics, gas chromatography techniques, advanced DNA technology, pathology, and biochemical assay of soils.

Tate says a recent $65,000 grant for a stereo microscope will enable students to use a key tool of the forensic science trade. It allows microscopic evidence to be compared to samples side-by-side, as is done in actual forensic laboratories. "This will allow students to do the actual work rather than watch us show them about it on a projector," he says.

Tate and Williams, and an increasing number of undergraduates, are hopeful in the short term that forensic science could be made available as a minor at Purdue and possibly a major course of study one day in the distant future.

"We’re definitely positioning ourselves to serve the students who want just one course or who want to get a minor," Williams says. "Right now we would have a lot of students who want this as a minor and many who would take it as a major. These students are very serious about this. We can do nothing but nurture that."

Mike Medler, commander of the Laboratory Division of the Indiana State Police, says he believes the coursework is invaluable.

A 27-year police veteran, Medler serves as one of Williams’ and Tate’s curriculum consultants. He took an interest in crime scene investigation early in his career, managing the I.S.P. crime lab in Fort Wayne. In that role he studied crime scene analysis, fingerprint evidence and blood-flight analysis – the science of reconstructing a criminal act by determining the manner in which blood was spattered at a crime scene. Medler also has taught forensic science to police recruits at the Indiana Police Academy for 17 years.

"Yes, it will help, absolutely," Medler says, when asked if forensic courses are really helpful for students who already are getting a top-notch scientific education.

Though many scientific and technological disciplines can prepare students for a career related to forensic science, Medler cites chemistry as one example.

"If I’m a chemistry major and one of the things I might do is work in a forensics lab – there are about 400 in the world – I might get hired. But they’ll have to train me because I won’t have experience with the equipment they use or experience with chain of custody," Medler says. "I may be great in chemistry, but I may not see the need – if I’m analyzing a substance in a plastic bag – to first check for a fingerprint on the bag or to question whether the properties of bag itself could have had an effect on the contents. So the chemistry major who has had some forensic science has a leg up."

Medler says forensic science is continually changing and becoming more sophisticated – a fact that attracts students who are intrigued by cutting-edge technology.

"The science is faster and smaller and we can continually do more," he says. "Ten years down the road we’ll have a device at crime scenes where we can check a blood sample and send a wireless signal back to be cross-referenced in a computer to identify someone. We aren’t there yet, but the foundation is there."

Tate and Williams also consult with Purdue alumnus and forensic entomologist Neal Haskell, who received master’s and doctoral degrees in forensic entomology through a program of study customized for him by Williams. Haskell, the first person in the nation to receive the specialized advanced degrees in forensic entomology, now serves on the faculty at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind. He and William Bass, who in 1971 established the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Facility to study human decomposition, present guest lectures in class at Purdue.

Haskell also lives on a ranch that serves as a field trip destination for hands-on training sessions on how insect development on cadavers helps scientists determine time and location of death, among other relevant facts.

Members of the new, 220-member strong Purdue student Forensic Science Club have made the trip to Haskell’s ranch to examine the cadaver "evidence."

Kate Seigfried, a sophomore psychology and law and society major from Mulberry, Ind., is the club president. Once convinced that all she wanted to do was become a police officer, Seigfried says her course work has opened her eyes to other fascinating possibilities.

"Now that I’m at Purdue, I keep adding subjects," she says. "I believe I’ll go to law school and into the FBI after I get my law degree. I’d like to do something in psychological forensics or criminalistics."

Asked why the Forensic Science Club, which was established just seven months ago, already has 220 members, Seigfried says she thinks it’s a combination of


"Everyone is really fired up about the new Purdue program. "CSI" helps – and "Forensic Files," with actual case studies. People really want to know if this is really what goes on and find out whether it’s just TV," she says. "And it applies to so much of what we’re learning – biology, chemistry, anthropology, photography, psych and law, engineering, computer science."

Seigfried remembers watching the O.J. Simpson trial when she was 14 years old.

"Nobody was eating lunch at school; we were all watching it on TV. I remember it was so fascinating because a lot of what happened was scientific and had to do with DNA and the chain of custody (of evidence)," she says.

Since then, forensic science has been steadily ramping up to give prosecutors and defense attorneys more foolproof and novel ways to get to the truth.

Given what she’s learned since then, Seigfried contemplates how differently the Simpson case might have played out if today’s technologies had been available then.

"Who knows what could have happened," she says. "It could have been a completely different outcome.

Story by Amy Raley
Purdue University Perspective writer

A fictitious murder site was created in and around Smith Hall during the spring semester for forensic science students. The site included three areas designed by advanced forensic science students at St. Joseph's College, Rensselaer. Sophomore medical technology major Renee Richmond looks on as a student as senior Tabi Cripe takes photographs inside the car believed to have transported the victim from the murder scene. The criminalistics lab students find blood-stained plastic gloves and a bottle of bathroom cleaner on the front-seat floorboard and apparent blood stains in the trunk.

At a would-be cabin in the woods where the murder victim's remains lie wrapped in a blood-stained blanket under a table, sophomore biology major Ellen Smith, senior pyschology major Laura Accord and senior genetics major Kristel Mathie use cotton swabs to gather evidence from a sink the perpetrator may have used. Ralph Williams, professor of entomology and instructor for the criminalistics lab course, looks on.

Criminalistics lab students (left to right), sophomore liberal arts major Joe Wodark, senior law and society major Tabi Cripe, senior science major Erin O'Neal, and second-year pharmacy student Jason Barnes, study, document and retrieve evidence samples from the fictitious murder site.

Photographs by David Umberger