Forensic Investigation: Seeking Justice Through Science

Gregory Miller, Associate Professor of Chemistry, Southern Oregon University, Ashland, Oregon.

In recent years, dozens of individuals have been exonerated of capital crimes and released from life imprisonment, and even death row, due to new forensic technology that proved their innocence. The Forensic Investigation course, developed at Southern Oregon University, capitalizes on a new public awareness of forensic science to connect science content to the important civic questions raised by our criminal justice system. Although the course is taught by a chemist, forensics draws on many scientific disciplines and outside experts from the faculty and the local community participate as guest presenters.

The course is organized around well-known criminal case-studies that highlight particular forensic techniques and the scientific content upon which they depend. Trace evidence and fingerprint detection require an understanding of computerized quantitative and qualitative analysis, sampling, and spectroscopy. Arson and explosive investigation draws on organic and inorganic chemistry and atomic bonding. Forensic Toxicology and DNA evidence rests on a knowledge of biology, including immunology, cell structure, and genetics. Forensic pathology and anthropology draws on soft-tissue and skeletal anatomy, physiology and demography, while ballistics and vehicular crimes require an understanding of physics, including mass, force, momentum, and gravity. All of this scientific knowledge is used in a specific legal and ethical context where individual rights, criminal law, public opinion, and societal biases play a role.

The course involves three hours of interactive lecture and discussion and three hours of laboratory work each week where students experience trace evidence collection, fingerprinting, ballistic analysis, blood-typing, and DNA fingerprinting. A key feature of the course is classroom interactive technology - EduCue's Personal Response System. This technology keeps students involved in class discussions by giving them the ability to share their opinions anonymously on controversial topics, or to vote on what they feel is the appropriate forensic technique to apply to a given case before, during, and after the content of the techniques are taught. The responses often facilitate discussion of the pros and cons of a given method and can be used to monitor student understanding of complex topic during class.

Learning Goals

  • To provide students with a foundation of knowledge in scientific methods and principles as they apply to criminal investigation
  • Allow students to apply appropriate scientific principles to societal issues
  • Allow students to appreciate the power and the limitations of science with regard to forensic study
  • Allow students to recognize that scientifically optimal solutions to societal problems may result in conflict with important human values
  • To build in students the capacity to resolve complex issues with intelligence, compassion, and understanding
  • To develop in students a healthy initial skepticism by nurturing a demand to support assertions
  • To promote student critical thinking and allow informed choices to be made when faced with conflicting ideas
  • To familiarize the student with available scientific resources and allow them the opportunity to remain an active learner as both science and society continue to evolve

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