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Jewish World Review April 3, 2001 / 10 Nissan, 5761

Michael A. Fuoco

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Consumer Reports

Their course work is murder --- literally -- MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- When a select group of students at West Virginia University say their course work is murder, they're not complaining.

Really, their course work is murder - and rape, robbery, kidnapping, arson and burglary.

They are the first 220 students seeking a bachelor of science degree in forensic identification, the first degree program of its kind. The 4-year-old program, developed at the request of the FBI to fill a training and educational void in forensic identification, will graduate its first three students next month.

While those in the program account for 1 percent of the university's 22,000 students, it nonetheless has become known on campus. It is the only truly interdisciplinary course of study at the university, requiring instructors from nearly every college.

And then there's the house.

It's a small ordinary-looking brick house, next to the Towers Dormitory on the university's Evansdale Campus, with a sign outside that reads "Forensic Identification Program Laboratory." Nearly every week, the remnants of a crime are found inside what's come to be affectionately known on campus as the "crime scene house."

While the program's students go to classrooms to learn about physics, math, chemistry, biology, computer science, photography and other disciplines used in forensics, they come to the house to learn how to gather the evidence to be analyzed.

Year-round, instructors use the furnished and fully functioning home as a real-life example of the kind of place in which students will use the skills they've acquired in the program. This is where students look for the body fluids, hairs, fibers, fingerprints and other trace evidence planted by instructors in a crime-scene scenario, usually taken from real cases.

As other students quaffed green beer elsewhere on campus St. Patrick's Day, seven juniors arrived at the house for their daylong Saturday class in the course Crime Scene Investigation I.

Classes at the house are usually conducted Friday nights and all day Saturday to accommodate the schedules of crime-scene instructors, who hold full-time jobs in the specialties they teach.

The instructor for this course is State Police Sgt. Mark Neal, head of the Latent Print Section of the State Police Crime Lab in South Charleston.

"I really enjoy it. It's different than a regular college class. And it's different for me because usually I'm trying to find evidence, and now I'm trying to cover it up. It's kind of scary because I find myself thinking, 'What's the best way to plot a murder?'"

The seven students - five women and two men - have processed scenes in the house dealing with a kidnapping and a burglary. An arson and a whole-house homicide scene will be staged later in the semester.

On this day, Neal explains the scenario: An outdoor drug deal has gone bad and a would-be drug buyer has been killed. He has been shot and stabbed. Neal tells them that from the autopsy they know the victim was shot with two weapons, one a .22-caliber and the other a .44-caliber.

They are to execute a search warrant in the rented bedroom of the murder suspect, a drug dealer, to see if there is any evidence linking him to the murder. After that, they will fingerprint the victim's car - actually Neal's son's - which is parked in the house's garage.

After discussing the kind of evidence they will be looking for, the students leave their textbooks - "Criminal Investigation - A Method of Reconstructing the Past" - and go to work in the bedroom.

Students Jason Litner, a state trooper assigned to the Morgantown station, and Jennifer Campbell are in charge of the search. Zachary Nine sketches the room. Heather Comrey takes photographs. Lydia Littlefield is responsible for packaging. Michelle Laffey keeps a log. Melissa Webb helps each of her fellow students.

Wearing gloves so they won't contaminate the evidence, the students turn over the mattress and find a bloody shirt. As Neal watches, they discuss the manner in which such an item should be handled.

"You shouldn't fold it because the blood may transfer," Littlefield says.

"I found a firearm," Campbell says, waiting for Comrey to photograph its location before removing a rifle from behind a cabinet.

Soon, they find a bag of marijuana - actually, oregano - inside a flower pot. A bag of cocaine - confectioners' sugar - is discovered in the top of the miniblinds; a handgun is discovered under a chair pillow and a knife with blood on it is found under the chair. Also found are blue jeans with blood on them and another bag of cocaine.

Neal is pleased with how the students discovered the evidence and handled it. He tells them to take a lunch break, after which they will search his son's car and dust it for fingerprints.

Michael A. Fuoco writes for Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, SHNS