Former Attorney General Reno tours forensic science labs, addresses students

January 09, 2006

University Park, Pa. -- Forensic science is a powerful tool to prevent wrongful convictions, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno told students enrolled in a new forensics course beginning this semester at University Park.

Reno's lecture, which was open to the public, was the opening session in a first-year seminar -- a one-credit, five-week overview of the field, part of Penn State's new forensic science major.

Robert Shaler, formerly director of forensic biology in the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, is heading Penn State's program, which is an interdisciplinary collaboration among academic units in the colleges of Agricultural Science, the Liberal Arts, Health and Human Development and the Eberly College of Science.

Reno, who served eight years as attorney general under President Bill Clinton, said Monday, Jan. 9, that forensic science majors have the capability to improve public service in the future. "The opportunity to understand the crime scene is elementary to the case that follows," she said. "It influences the direction of the investigation."

She urged Penn State President Graham B. Spanier, who introduced Reno, to consider adding a psychology component to the University's new major that would look at issues related to memory and the fallibility of eyewitnesses. "These become critically important," she said.

Futhermore, Reno said she is concerned that a series of checks and balances are required in the judicial system that would help prevent innocent people from being wrongfully convicted. Post-conviction DNA testing has identified 164 individuals who were convicted on insufficient evidence or who were innocent, she said. Seeking justice through accountability requires vigilance, integrity and problem-solving, she said.

The former attorney general told students to "think how precise you are, how you use language, how methodical you are. If you don't gain precision, you're going to wind up on the witness stand with a defense attorney who will make you look foolish."

She encouraged scientists to work toward making their findings more accessible to the public. If the judges and the juries cannot understand the evidence as it is presented in court, how can they render informed verdicts, she asked.

"I believe we can build a better criminal justice system informed by science and founded in the law," she said.

Reno's speech capped off a morning spent touring the University Park campus with Shaler. The former attorney general inspected the classrooms and labs where students will learn forensic chemistry, study evidence, learn to process fibers and how to study crime scenes. Reno toured Spruce Cottage, which has been outfitted as a crime scene lab, complete with footprints, blood spatters, weapons and "victims" scattered throughout the rooms.

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See photos from Reno's visit at http://www.psu.edu/ur/flash/2006_01_09_reno/

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 19, 2009