Posts Tagged ‘forensic science’

Studying Forensic Science in College

I had an intern from one of the local high schools work at my office last year. The intern, Kyle Nicholson, seemed pretty interested in forensic science, but I started him off kind of slow. The first assignment was to accompany me at a jury trial on a trespass charge. Slowly he worked up to more serious matters that involved more forensic science. Kyle accompanied me out of town on a first degree murder charge I was hired to defend. The intern joined me about halfway through the trial, and I put him up in a room next to me in an inexpensive motel near the courthouse. As we ate some breakfast cereal, we looked at crime lab reports, and I thought to myself that this had to be the oddest high school internship ever.
Kyle Nicholson has since graduated from high school and is now in college working toward a degree in forensic science at Chaminade University in Hawaii. After I heard from him the other day, I checked out the website for the school’s forensic science program. The director of the forensic science department is Dr M. Lee Goff, who is a leading forensic expert, and also serves as a consultant to the T.V. show C.S.I. Check out this video explaining the forensic science program at Chaminade:

In my practice as a criminal defense lawyer, I come across most of those scientific disciplines that Dr. Goff describes. Dr. Goff is a leading expert on forensic entomology. Forensic entomology is the study of insects, particularly those insect that inhabit human remains, and the insects can tell us about information about the time, location, and manner of death. It is a pretty narrow field, and there are only fifteen forensic entomologists certified by the American Board of Forensic Entomology. One of the issues that can come up with forensic entomology is the fact that insects can walk through blood and track the blood to areas near the crime scene. This can interfere with the interpretation of blood spatter. One of the issues that I encountered in one of the murder cases that I have done is how insect bites can be misinterpreted by police detectives.  Flies and maggots are attracted to locations of the human body where blood is exposed, and postmortem insect activity can cause skin lesions that can resemble powder stippling, and thus lead in investigator to believe that a gun shot was fired at close range.

See an earlier post by me on The Study of Forensic Science in High School.

High School Students Interested in C.S.I. Work

I read an interesting article this week in the Spokesman-Review about Eagle High School in Boise, where biology teacher Misty Sterk is teaching a semester long class in forensic science.  (See article).  I found this interesting because forensic science can be a little gruesome.   High school students need to be treated with a little more caution then college kids.  I sometime coach mock trial teams in high school, and I try to be careful with kids even on the subject of court cases.

Ketchup from the lunch room?

But in this class apparently, the kids are not particularly squeamish.  One student explained to the reporter: “With a knife wound, for example, a blood spatter indicating a downward trajectory means the attacker was probably right-handed, because with a left-handed person the spatter would be more horizontal.”   The article goes on to explain that the class “is getting students excited about science by processing a crime scene, using maggots to determine time of death, fingerprinting, analyzing blood spatters, and determining race and sex based on skeletal remains, DNA testing and ballistics.”

The article made me wonder how the blood spatter science could be appropriately taught in a high school.   When I took a course at the state police academy near Seattle, blood spatter science was taught in the gymnasium.  First the instructor spread out giant sheets of white paper over the floor.  Next he swung a bat repeatedly into a sponge soaked with pigs blood.  We studied how the blood droplets struck the paper.   I am not sure you can teach the subject with fake blood because any other substance will have a different viscosity and surface tension.   I am sure the teacher, being a pro, has found some way to teach this in a manner appropriate for kids.  In the world of forensics, the science is usually referred to as blood “spatter” rather than blood “splatter” but the two words are really synonyms.

I would bet that the part of the course on identification of human bones would be pretty interesting.  In 1998, I took a class in forensic anthropology at Eastern Washington University taught by Dr. Sarah Keller.   Also in the class was attorney Karl Sloan, who is now the Okanogan County Prosecuting Attorney.   The “final exam” for the class consisted of  being handed a bunch of bones in a shoe box and having to identify them.   Some bones are pretty basic, but the bones in the hands and feet are almost impossible to identify.  The subject of identification of bones  does not come up too often in forensics.  I did see, however, that this was an issue in a recent fire in Curlew, Washington.  In the news story, it was explained that a forensic anthropologist was needed to assist in identifying the bones.   The class I took at EWU didn’t make anyone an expert, but it helped teach the basic science.  Dr. Keller explained that people would be shocked at how many times police detectives would bring in a bone for her to examine that was clearly an animal bone, and that that should have been obvious.  She explained that certain bear bones can often appear to be human bones.

The television show C.S.I. has been on for about ten years.  It has been very popular and has drawn a lot of student interest in the profession.  Even many students at Eagle High School were interested in it.  Both Eastern Washington University and Seattle University have 4-year degrees available in forensics.   But despite the growing interest in the field of forensic scientists, the labs always seem to be short-staffed.  Last week, the Skagit Valley Herald printed an article describing how a shortage of qualified technicians in the state crime lab has created a huge backlog of evidence to be tested, even in serious cases such as shootings.   Washington State is trying to recruit forensic science technicians from as far away as South Africa.  A list of schools teaching forensic science is available here.  I looked at Gonzaga’s website and it does not appear that they have a degree program in forensic science at this time.

Forensic science plays a roll more and more in court cases.  The science changes all the time and criminal defense attorneys and prosecutors keep up through various trainings around the country.   If a defense lawyer does not know the science well, it is difficult to properly defend his or her client.   The use of faulty forensic science is a big cause of wrongful convictions.  About 1/2 of the 232 people that the Innocence Project has helped free were originally convicted at trial by “unvalidated or improper” forensics.    Last February, the National Academy of Science issued a report criticizing the sloppy practices of crime labs, imprecise scientific tests, and the exaggeration in court of the scientific reliability of results.   Many of these tests criticized are similar to scientific results being used (or misused) in the courts of Spokane County, Grant County, Okanogan County and other areas of Eastern Washington.

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Photo of Steve Graham Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer who works in eastern Washington, including Spokane, Grant, Ferry, Stevens, Lincoln, and Okanogan, and Whitman counties. Visit his website by clicking: www.grahamdefense.com
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