Is that guy passed-out drunk, or is that a dead body? Ketchup, or blood? What’s going on here?
On Becker College campus, the confusion is understandable thanks to the new John Dorsey Sr. Crime Scene Laboratory, named after one of the college’s longest-serving law professors. The 1100 square-foot lab is designed to mimic the horror and authenticity of real crime scenes, and according to Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Earley, a friend of Professor Dorsey, “I got the heebie-jeebies. It was that realistic.” The idea behind the sometimes gruesome vignettes is to give students a leg up in the real world, especially if they’re looking at a career in law enforcement or forensics.
Blood is often the de-facto DNA source in crime shows, but according to Science Daily, a new technique for identifying human hair may be the next big thing in forensics. Researchers Lily Huang and Dr. Diane Beauchemin of Queen’s University have been working on a way to analyze hair samples rather than blood for DNA, since blood deteriorates quickly and can be contaminated, while hair is much more forgiving.
The Queen’s technique requires forensic scientists to grind up hair samples, burn them, and then analyze the vapor produced. So far, Huang and Beauchemin have a 100 percent success rate and works regardless of hair type or coloring—even better, the process only takes 85 seconds. They’ve contacted law enforcement agencies to see who’s interested and are looking to improve their technique, allowing a single hair to provide information about age, ethnicity and even place of origin.
This is the reality of forensics and a far cry from what most prospective students see on television, according to Kristen Schelling, assistant technical leader for the Michigan State Police forensics lab, and the reason labs like the one at Becker are so important. Schelling notes that real forensic scientists don’t get to drive fancy, agency-issued cars, arrest bad guys or instantly get access to a criminal’s name, phone number, address, and most recent employer just because they run his DNA through a scanner.
While she notes that the “trace” department, which analyzes tire marks, paint chips, and footprints, is fairly representative of the real deal—most other elements are inaccurate. She points out that whole handprints are rarely left at the scene by criminals, and most process take much longer than on TV. Still, the industry is booming as police agencies and research firms look for better ways to catch criminals.
Bottom line? Old standbys remain effective when it comes to limiting crime: monitored alarm systems and “target hardening” can convince criminals to look elsewhere. More advanced technology like digital cameras and recording equipment can help track down lawbreakers, and now forensics is catching up thanks to facilities like the one at Becker and the development of fast, reliable DNA analysis.
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