Learning Forensic Science at Penn State

As a Penn State student and lawyer, one of the most enticing and refreshing academic experiences I had so far was taking FRNSC 200 (Introduction to Crime Scene Investigation), a course specially tailored to understand how the basic principles of forensic science should be applied to crime scene investigations.

The Importance of Conducting a Proper Crime Scene Investigation

The lawyer, as a legal professional, has the key duty of analyzing or at least anticipating the evidences that eventually could be used by the prosecution to sustain an eventual conviction. In criminal cases some of the most relevant evidences are those collected after a crime scene investigation. For a defender it is vital to determine if the field examination was duly carried out with a proper scene management or whether it was, conversely, a botched investigation.

A few semesters ago I had the chance and privilege to study FRNSC 200 with Robert Shaler, founding director of the Penn State Forensic Science Program and former director of forensic biology at the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, who supervised the remarkable and terrible task of identifying the thousands of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Through mock crime scene investigations, and fully interactive discussions, group assignments, and multiple enticing exercises (e.g. fingerprint and bloodstain analysis) I was able to gain priceless experience. If a defense attorney is able to understand properly the principles of the forensic science—like, for instance, the one that states that the victim’s body is a crime scene in itself or that it is necessary to use the less intrusive methods as possible to process the crime scene in order to avoid harming it—the legal professional can have a powerful element to compromise relevant aspects of the prosecution’s strategy.

Many crime scene investigations are flawed and they can lead to wrong conclusions that ultimately will be the basis for wrongful convictions. One of the most relevant aspects I learned with Dr. Shaler was the importance of implementing crime scene investigation units that allowed criminalists and experienced scene investigators work together to take the lead in interpreting and drawing inferences from the scene data to avoid a botched investigation.

Even the most experienced investigators lack the appropriate scientific credentials to fully and correctly interpret how certain scientific tests are conducted and consequently the reliability of the data obtained. Fostering those collaborative efforts can enhance the outcomes of the crime scene investigations.

If a lawyer is able to appropriately understand how a crime scene investigation was conducted in his client’s case, the professional will boost the opportunities of offering a proper counsel. That will actively contribute to safeguard the defendant’s due process rights and ultimately increase the chances of an acquittal.