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Cal State L.A. graduate students hone crime scene expertise

In the same building as the LAPD's crime lab, the university's 'criminalistics' program is training a new generation of scientists who will analyze and interpret evidence.

July 27, 2013|By Larry Gordon
  • Donald Johnson, a professor in Cal State L.A.'s criminalistics program and former Sheriff's Department senior criminalist, poses dummies as murder victims in a small room furnished to resemble a studio apartment. Students hunt for blood and saliva samples, clothing fragments, fingerprints and other evidence.
Donald Johnson, a professor in Cal State L.A.'s criminalistics program… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Peering into her microscope at a tiny glass shard, Cal State L.A. graduate student Nancy Kedzierski tried to detect subtle shapes, textures and colors that might reveal its origin. Was it from the windshield of a car, a beer bottle, the window of a house?

The answer could be crucial if the glass was evidence in a criminal case; it could help establish how and where a murder was committed. The same could be true for all 40 or so hair strands, food particles, pieces of soil, seeds, pills and other materials — some vacuumed from the teacher's carpet for the class project.

More important than correctly identifying all those items, the forensic science students were learning the meticulous work that will be required in the jobs they are expected to pursue — lab criminalists and crime scene experts.

"They have to realize how meaningful these things may be in an investigation," said professor Katherine Roberts, director of the university's "criminalistics" program. "It's more about taking a scientific approach."

Kedzierski, 24, hopes to land a job next year at a law enforcement crime lab. "It's not so much about catching the bad guys," she said. "It's more about finding the truth. That's what we really work for."

Like many fellow students in the two-year master's program, Kedzierski is a fan of the decade-old "CSI" (Crime Scene Investigation) television series, which is credited with fueling big increases in the number of such programs nationwide. Some Cal State L.A. alumni even worked as script consultants on the show.

"I used to watch for fun when I was in high school," said Kedzierski, who graduated with a bachelor's in chemistry from Cal Poly Pomona. "Now I watch it and it's kind of a game to point out how many things are wrong."

The master's program in criminalistics — other schools call it forensic science — requires that students have a bachelor's degree in chemistry, biology or other sciences. Many of the courses are highly technical in labs filled with equipment to identify drugs, ballistics and DNA. Classes are in the same campus building, the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center, that houses the crime labs of the Los Angeles Police Department and L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

In addition to many courses in chemistry and genetics, the 26 students enrolled in the program also learn to locate and protect evidence at crime scenes, testify in court and follow ethical standards.

Professor Donald Johnson, a former Sheriff's Department senior criminalist, reconstructs crime scenes based on real cases for his courses. He poses dummies as murder victims in a small room furnished to resemble a studio apartment, with a cot and rug. Students hunt for blood and saliva samples, clothing fragments, fingerprints, hair, and in one case, a crowbar hidden behind a door, as it was in a real bludgeoning. One mannequin is named "Kenny," after the character who regularly got killed off in the animated series "South Park."

Johnson provides students with details from cases, such as the gruesome 2002 knife murders of four members of a South Whittier family that was solved with forensic evidence. "At first, of course, they are overwhelmed. But slowly they come to analyze the cases as a scientific problem," he said.

Though students typically don't visit real crime scenes, teachers show them photos and videos of mutilated bodies and car accidents. Many students attended a recent conference of the California Assn. of Criminalists, where social historian Joan Renner lectured about the infamous and unsolved Black Dahlia murder of a young woman in Los Angeles in 1947. As attendees ate lunch, a photo of the victim's body cut in half at the waist showed on a screen.

It's important to get accustomed to such images, said student Dean Schafer. "When you get to the point where you are actually called to a crime scene, you are going to have to maintain your composure and be professional," he said.

Schafer, 26, earned a degree in molecular biology from Cal State Fullerton and later worked in a lab for a medical supply firm. Forensic science is more gratifying, he said, because "what you do helps benefit society."

Of the more than 140 undergraduate and graduate programs at universities across the country, 40 are accredited by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. In California, only the programs at Cal State L.A. and UC Davis are accredited, which graduates hope gives them a leg up in their job searches.

The prospects for entry-level positions — which often pay more than $60,000 in big cities — are improving as local governments recover from the recession, officials say. And a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing police to take DNA samples from all suspects arrested in serious crimes is seen as a boon for job opportunities.

Students are warned to resist possible prosecution or defense pressures to tamper with evidence or bend interpretations, said Joseph Peterson, who teaches an ethics course. "The foremost quest of these new forensic scientists is to find out the scientific truth of the evidence," he said. They must be as ready to help convict the guilty as to clear the innocent, he said.

At her microscope, Kedzierski established that one of the glass pieces was cube-shaped, probably from a tempered car windshield. In investigating a fatal hit-and-run accident, such a fragment inside a car might help prove a previous accident even if the window had been replaced, she said later.

The time-consuming inspection emphasizes the difference between fast-paced television and reality, Roberts says. Crime shows leave "the impression that everything can be solved and everything can be solved in a very short time period. When in reality, there are some things you just don't know."

larry.gordon@latimes.com

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