DNA testing, bullet and weapon breakdowns, organic and inorganic tissue analysis, fiber and hair testing, toxicology and blood studies—the little things that comprise the physical evidence now make up a specialized field of law enforcement. They’re also the subject of a three-course series of electives at Xavier—and some of the most popular courses on campus.
Although a forensic science class was first offered in 1981, it’s grown considerably since the O.J. case six years ago. Today, it’s a series of criminal justice classes taught in conjunction with the department of chemistry that feature daylong workshops led by experienced “participating faculty” like Phil Vannatter, the lead investigator with the Los Angeles Police Department in the O.J. case.
Class sizes are near 50 students and feature lengthy waiting lists. Only about half of the students are criminal justice majors, says Jack Richardson, who chairs the department. The rest come from other departments, drawn mostly by word-of-mouth accounts. What attracts the students is the fascinating, sometimes gory aspects surrounding a homicide, and the workshop speakers.
Some of the experts who have taught a workshop include:
• Clarence Caeser, the senior crime scene analyst for the Cincinnati Crime Lab and a graduate of the FBI school. The 68-year-old Caeser spent more than 40 years as a homicide detective;
• Daniel Shoenfelt, a graduate student and narcotics officer for the Cincinnati Police Division. He shows a surveillance video of a drug purchase and bust, and talks about topics like how methamphetamine labs are made from everyday products;
• Richardson’s wife, Marilyn, who has a master’s degree in molecular biology from Purdue and teaches about DNA and rape evidence analysis;
• Beth Murray, a forensic anthropologist who examines bones and badly decomposed bodies for evidence;
• David W. Jones, the Kentucky state medical examiner in Frankfort; and
• Jim Dibowski, a postal inspector and handwriting expert.
It was in the 1960s that physical evidence first surpassed eyewitness accounts of a crime to become the true identifier of guilt, says Richardson. Since then, major scientific discoveries involving physical evidence collection have come about. Now, forensic science impacts almost all of the areas that employ criminal justice majors—law enforcement, courts, corrections.
An example of the impact of forensics, says Richardson, is the Elwood Jones case. Jones was convicted of brutally murdering an elderly woman in a Blue Ash hotel in 1994. While he was beating her, though, she bit him. Four days later, Dr. Jack McDonough, a 1953 graduate and hand surgeon, examined Jones’ badly infected hand, which he claimed he had cut on a Dumpster. McDonough discovered the wound was actually a bite mark. At the same time, Pete Aldervecci, a longtime adjunct faculty member, was the chief investigator in the case, and had Jones’ home and car searched for evidence—blood, hair, fibers, anything—linking him to the murder.
The victim’s necklace was found hidden in Jones’ car, but what cinched the case was McDonough’s testimony and two pieces of forensic evidence discovered by the medical examiner: a facial bruise that matched Jones’ walkie-talkie, and a chest bruise that matched Jones’ boot sole.
“Forensic science begins at the crime scene,” says Richardson, “and cases are won and lost because of it.”