Forensic scientists have a blast in Happy Valley

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — To a common observer, a crime scene may seem like an impossible puzzle; but in the eyes of a forensic scientist, it is a complex and incomplete record of past events — difficult to interpret, but decipherable through science.

"A lot of times, we're dealing with highly fragmented information," said Penn State Forensic Science Program Director Jack Hietpas. "Very rarely do we have a lot of information to work with. We must rely on rigorous scientific principles as the basis for our analysis and interpretation of the physical evidence, if we are going to reconstruct such complex crime events."

From bullet fragments and cartridge cases, entrance and exit holes, particles of gunshot residue, and blood spatter patterns, a forensic expert elicits details of shooter and firearm, shot sequence and trajectories; develops, tests and reevaluates hypotheses; and painstakingly pieces the scene together through a meticulous, scientific process.

Analyzing bullet holes and trajectories at a mock crime scene.

Analyzing bullet holes and trajectories at a mock crime scene. 

Image: Penn State

Such skills are invaluable to the criminal justice system, and as the incidence of mass shootings as well as firearm use in terrorist attacks rises, law enforcement agencies are in ever-increasing need of firearms experts who can accurately process, analyze and interpret shooting scenes en route to serving justice to both the perpetrators of such violence and the victims of those crimes.

Toward meeting that need, Penn State's Forensic Science program recently partnered with the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP) to train Algerian and Tunisian crime lab personnel in the science of shooting-scene reconstruction.

Over eight consecutive 12-or-more-hour days at University Park, the trainees learned leading-edge forensic techniques and a holistic approach to investigating shooting scenes — identifying, collecting, documenting and interpreting relevant physical evidence — an astounding amount of information to be crammed into a very short period of time, but with the goal that the cohort graduate as top-notch forensic scientists who are fully capable of training new cadres of investigators back home.

"We're not training the participants to be simply technicians," said Hietpas. "That's really against our mantra. We're training them to be scientists so that they can interpret the physical evidence and understand it in the context of each individual case. It is our goal that the attendees transfer what they learned here at Penn State to their current and future colleagues.”

Processing a mock crime scene and analyzing evidence in the lab

Processing a mock crime scene and analyzing evidence in the lab.

Image: Penn State

ICITAP Senior Forensic Adviser Rebecca Bucht, who works for the agency in Algeria and was one of the inaugural coordinators who made the workshop possible, speaks unequivocally of Penn State's merit in this regard.

"Penn State certainly has some of the best forensic science professionals — I'd say worldwide — in shooting-scene reconstruction, with a lot of experience, both academic and practical," she said. "And with the facilities that are available here, it's an ideal training situation."

Hietpas, reflecting finally on the results to date, is clearly pleased.

"We're making a really outstanding global impact here, and I believe it's because we have such great resources and opportunities at Penn State. It's rewarding that we're able to share these assets with colleagues from other countries around the world," he said. "And we're having a blast — no pun intended — teaching the students how to work these types of cases."

Learn more about Penn State's Forensic Science program at http://forensics.psu.edu/ and keep up to date by following them on Facebook (@PennStateForensics) and Twitter (@FRNSCPSU).

Last Updated January 26, 2018