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New Center Trains Crime Scene Investigators - 2003-04-12

On prime-time television dramas, solving crimes looks easy, thanks to high-tech equipment and some good old-fashioned detective work. Real-life forensic scientists also use DNA analysis and other new technologies, but inadequate training and a lack of standard procedures can hinder their investigations. That's about to change, though. The just-opened National Crime Scene Training Center will offer classes to introduce forensic procedures to crime lab workers and police investigators.

On the popular television show "C.S.I.," two forensic crime fighters comb through evidence near a railroad crossing. They're searching for clues at the scene of a fatal car crash.

Sara: "Hey, Catherine, her emergency brake was on."
Catherine: "Maybe her brakes failed. She had to engage it for some reason. You know, I'm thinking that maybe another vehicle was involved."

Armed with a new theory, the investigators gather the evidence and then head back to the lab to analyze it. An hour later, the case is solved as a homicide, not an accident.

In real life, processing the evidence at a crime scene is rarely that quick, organized and efficient.

"I've seen crime scenes that I think were well-processed, and I've seen crime scenes that were just horribly processed," says Brian Carlow, a trial lawyer in the public defender's office in New Haven, Connecticut.

"We routinely see cases where individuals who are not properly trained in terms of processing crime scenes will endeavor to do that and in the course of that will lose all sorts of information through the evidence," he explains. "But if you don't process a piece of biological material properly, you've lost or at least run the risk of losing that piece of evidence as something which potentially can either inculpate or exculpate any particular person."

The 1995 O.J. Simpson murder case is widely regarded as the textbook example of what not to do at a crime scene. Forensic scientist Henry Lee gained public recognition through his testimony in the O.J. trial. He says that case could have been solved within hours if the investigators had not washed Nicole Simpson's body.

"[There were] A couple drops [of blood] on Nicole's body; they should have done DNA analysis, but the body was washed," he points out. "Down the drain. Also the bloody fingerprint on her arm. [There was a] second set of shoe prints at the scene. If you find two sets of bloody shoe prints, what does it mean? Automatically you should use logic; could be more than one suspect. "

Two years ago, the FBI issued the nation's first recommended guidelines for forensic investigation, but Dr. Lee says procedures and training still vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

"Each case is unique," he points out. "You cannot treat a rape case as a robbery, or burglary case like it's a homicide. It's all different. Therefore you have to develop the important standard guidelines and teach the detectives and forensic scientists how to use these guidelines with a systematic approach of the crime scene. That's the most difficult thing to do."

That kind of hands-on learning will now be offered at the new National Crime Scene Training Center at the University of New Haven. Alan Harper is its director.

"The emphasis is on actually being able to do something," says Alan Harper, the director of the Center. "So when you go to a shooting reconstruction course, we create shooting scenes that officers and laboratory workers will actually be able to see that by applying the techniques that they learn in class, they can actually go out and do it."

Police officers and prosecutors are encouraged to take courses, but the program is really for crime lab personnel, who Mr. Harper says often don't receive continuing education and advanced training. This program gives them the advanced skills they'll need to process information in the field, if they're asked to work alongside police at a crime scene. The Training Center director stresses it's important that everyone involved in an investigation get it right.

"Police are actually quite competent, and they do get the right answer most of the time," says Mr. Harper. "And what we really have to make sure of is that when they have the wrong answer, that we find out about that and it's not buried and that innocent people aren't prosecuted unnecessarily."

What happens when the very first investigator arrives at a crime scene can drastically change the outcome of the case. Alan Harper says if officers are better trained and able to follow some standard guidelines, fewer mistakes will be made and badly managed crime scenes like the O.J. Simpson case will be even less frequent.