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To Catch a Criminal

By Caroline Barnhill 

If you're like me, you can barely turn on the TV without catching a Law & Order, CSI, or The First 48. What can we say – we like watching shows where the criminals always get caught, tried and convicted. 

"Part of the reason people are drawn to crime stories is the element of the unknown – how can this happen to average people like us," says Dr. Ann H. Ross, associate professor of anthropology and co-director of the North Carolina Program for Forensic Sciences.

Law enforcement personnel learn about the latest scientific advancements in forensics at NC State's Bugs, Bones and Botany workshop. Top photo: ground penetration radar enhances the search for buried remains.

Unfortunately, in the real world, crimes aren't so entertaining. There are real victims, complicated investigations and grieving families.

"People would be surprised to know that how forensics is portrayed on television isn't quite accurate," Ross says. "Most shows have one lead character that is well versed in a broad spectrum of forensic disciplines – dentistry, entomology, anthropology, soil science – which is completely unrealistic. Also, the complicated laboratory analyses they do on television take only a few seconds when in fact a more realistic time frame would be from several days  to several months depending on the backlog of the lab and the type of test being performed."

More than 120 law enforcement personnel from around the region gathered in early December at NC State's first annual Forensic Science Symposium, held at the College of Textiles on Centennial Campus, to learn about the latest forensic technologies to assist in their investigations.

What did they learn about?

3-D Scanning Systems that allow law enforcement personnel to capture measurements of an entire crime or accident scene and provide dozens of high-resolution images blanking a scene in just a few minutes. These systems allow medical examiners and law enforcement to analyze blood splatter, view a crime scene from a multitude of vantage points and create a virtual 'walk-through' to show in court.

Ground-Penetration Radars that use a variety of geological surveying equipment to tell investigators what's below their feet before they break ground. The data shows anomalies in the soil that can be anything from water or sewer lines, abandoned pipes, or soil variations that could indicate where human remains were buried.

Researchers from NC State held the symposium as part of the North Carolina Program for Forensic Science, which launched in early 2005 to provide efficient contact with certified experts in science and technology, as well as technical information and services to law enforcement and medical examiners throughout the state on issues relating to death investigations.

"Our goal was to illustrate to the law enforcement community the expertise available to them at NC State," says Dr. Wes Watson, assistant professor of entomology. "For the university, this effort is unique, because is spans several colleges and many departments, highlighting the commitment and dedication of many faculty to the advancement of forensic science."

The program is the result of a multidisciplinary effort that includes professors and researchers from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Textiles and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. These researchers look at every aspect of a crime scene from analysis of the skeletal remains, to the bugs found on the body and fibers on the victim's clothing. All are crucial parts to any investigation.

Experts at NC State have participated in over 33 cases in North Carolina – some high profile. For instance, in a multidisciplinary effort involving several specialties at NC State, researchers assisted in narrowing down the location of the remains of Cynthia Moreland, a Progress Energy employee who disappeared from a downtown Raleigh parking garage on Aug. 22, 2006

In another interesting case – far beyond the city limits of Raleigh – NC State's forensic anthropology team was instrumental in identifying victims from the past military dictatorship in the Republic of Panama. One individual identified was a Chilean national who was detained in 1974. NC State researchers were able to locate his grave and make the identification based on photographic superimposition – overlaying a victim's photographs on skeletal remains – and return the remains and provide closure for his family.

But researchers at NC State know how imperative it is to teach these skills to others.

Locally, as part of the program, workshops – such as Bugs, Bones and Botany – have been well attended by law enforcement personnel and medical examiners from more than a dozen states, and several foreign countries.

A survey conducted at the symposium showed that 88 percent of attendees strongly agreed that North Carolina law enforcement agencies need a forensic research and development center. A need, Dr. Billy Oliver, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology, and co-director of the North Carolina Program for Forensic Sciences, says will hopefully come to fruition.

"The establishment of an NC State Center for Forensic Science will create the first truly interdisciplinary scientific center merging research, educational innovation and technical assistance to law enforcement and medical examiners," says Oliver. "The forensic science initiative will establish NC State as a world leader engaging national and international communities, understanding their needs, establishing new analytical protocols and inspiring new generations of students and professionals in this emerging field of science."

But until then, the university will continue to be an asset in crime scene investigations throughout the region, and the world.