UNT Criminalistics Certificate program receives forensic comparison microscope

Thursday, September 20, 2007

For one laboratory assignment at the University of North Texas, students wear brand-new or freshly washed T-shirts for a day, then use magnifying glasses to identify and remove fibers, hair and other evidence of where they were during the day.

The test for Locard’s exchange principle - “Every Contact Leaves a Trace,” a basic principle of forensic science - is one of several assignments that students complete for Introduction to Criminalistics, the first course in the UNT Department of Criminal Justice’s Criminalistics Certificate program.

This semester, students will have a new tool to use in the department’s Criminalistics Laboratory in Chilton Hall - a forensic comparison microscope donated to the department by the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory. Using the microscope, students will compare markings left on fired bullets, rope, fibers and other samples.

Dr. Robert Taylor, chair of the Department of Criminal Justice, said the “generous donation” of the microscope was made by the HPD in recognition of the high quality of UNT’s criminal justice program and its faculty and the outstanding students who have worked on projects and interned with the HPD in recent years.

“Other universities in the state have criminalistics programs, so we’re honored that we were chosen,” he said, adding that the certificate program is “truly interdisciplinary.”

In addition to completing 12 hours of courses in the Department of Criminal Justice, students in the program must also complete a three-hour course in forensic biology in the Department of Biological Science in order to satisfy requirements for the certificate in criminalistics. The students are encouraged to take other courses required of students enrolled in the interdisciplinary forensic science program offered by the Departments of Biological Science and Chemistry.

Criminalistics is a branch of forensic science that focuses on the recognition, collection and laboratory analysis of items of physical evidence at a crime scene, such as fingerprints, shoe impressions, firearms, drugs, hairs and fibers, said Edward Hueske, director of UNT’s Criminalistics Certificate program.

Hueske said the program’s goal is to give students a solid foundation in the field of criminalistics to prepare them for careers in criminal justice and related fields where a knowledge and understanding of criminalistics is beneficial. Graduates of the Criminalistics Certificate program may work as crime scene investigators, detectives, corporate and private security specialists, arson scene investigators and criminal prosecuting and defense attorneys, among other careers, he said.

Forty-two students have completed UNT’s Criminalistics Certificate program since it began two years ago. About 30 students will graduate in December or May, Hueske said.

Hueske said his Introduction to Criminalistics and Advanced Criminalistics I and II classes are usually filled each semester, which he credits partially to the “CSI effect.” The popularity of CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and its two spinoffs, plus other television shows in the crime investigation genre, have “raised awareness and sparked interest” in careers in criminalistics, he said.

“CSI and the other shows are one-stop shopping. The same person is investigating the crime, collecting the evidence and analyzing the evidence, when in reality those are three different occupations,” said Hueske, who has been a consultant for “CSI’s” producers.

In addition to using the forensic comparison microscope in the Criminalistics Laboratory, Hueske said that this semester, his students will also use a metal detector to find objects, such as weapons and ammunition components, in a mock crime scene. The students will also use a global positioning system to define the location where the items were found.

“We’ll rope off a designated area for students to look for ‘fired’ shell casings, and the students will use the GPS for crime scene mapping,” he said. “In the past, investigators had to rely on taking physical measurements. Now we can say that a fired cartridge case is at a certain GPS coordinate.”

In other exercises, students are divided into teams to create their own mock crime scenes, complete with dummies, fake blood and student actors as “victims,” or learn fingerprint mapping in the Criminalistics Laboratory.

Hueske said he’s grateful that equipment such as the comparison microscope is available to students.

“When I started in my career 33 years ago, there was only very limited forensic equipment, requiring us to either modify equipment to fit our needs or create our own,” he said. “If nothing else, shows like ‘CSI’ have helped to raise the awareness of the need for specialized technology in locating and analyzing physical evidence.”

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108