Getting Real: Students work mock crime scene

May 3, 2011

A woman lay on her back with one arm outstretched in a grassy area between Indiana State University's Holmstedt Hall and the Cunningham Memorial Library. A small bloodstain marred her pink T-shirt. Nearby, an arm lay under a bush. Down the hill, a man's body sat propped against a tree with blood trickling down from a wound.

Standing next to one scene with the man's body, DeVere Woods passed along the information. "Witnesses saw a couple of people here earlier. There was report of an argument. First responders found your victim deceased," Woods said. "You're to find out how that happened."

Indiana State students gathered around Woods asking questions.

"Are we collecting fingerprints," at the first scene one student asked Woods.

"I don't know. Are you?" Woods responded with a smile. "I'll be judging the quality of your work."

As more questions followed, Woods gestured to the man's body.

"Flies are already attacking the body so I suggest you get to work," he said.

Students placed markers next to empty liquor bottles and beer cans, detritus from the party that went awry. Students circled around peering for clues around the mannequins serving as bodies for the culminating project of Criminology 385: Intro to Criminalistics. Throughout the semester, students learned techniques such as searching for evidence, collecting evidence, and dusting for fingerprints.

"This is so they can pull together everything they've learned from this semester," said Woods, assistant professor and criminology/criminal justice department chair. Woods watched the students work the scenes, grading them on how much they remembered from the class as they worked the scene. "It is their job to go through the crime scenes, identify and collect evidence, and then to process some of that evidence, and then finally to try to determine what does that mean. Later, we're going to ask if any of these crime scenes are related, and depending on what they found and how well they've analyzed it they should have an opinion on whether we have related crime scenes."

Before the start of class, Woods and three graduate students created the scenes for the undergraduate students to investigate. They also planted the clues for students to find, including drops of blood, buttons and fibers.

"Sometimes I'll take pieces of old scenes that I've worked, but it's more of what do you have available?" Woods said about crafting the scenes.

Tiffany Shepherd, a senior criminology and criminal justice major from Vincennes, and her team of students investigated the first scene. As they looked at the grass area, they didn't immediately know the crime. They saw only a few bottles scattered, but no body.

"At first, we didn't know what we were handed," she said. "Three people went around and did a sweep."

While they found empty liquor bottles, she acknowledged they didn't find the arm under bushes until the whole team searched the area.

"If you want to work in this field, be a police officer even, you have to know the rules of a crime scene," Shepherd said about working the scene. "You have to know that you can't just walk onto a crime scene and expect to pick something up or even touch the body. You have to know what to do and how to handle that situation."

In the class, students learned what they should do at such scenes.

"What I like about this class learning wise is that you get to do a lot of hands-on techniques and it will give you a good experience," said Leesa West, a junior criminology major from Princeton. "Most classes are through textbook work and memorization, and Dr. Woods offers this course to do more lab work, more specific technique work, which will help me advance in other classes with labs and forensics and crime scene investigations."

After collecting the evidence and the bodies, the students carried everything they found back to the lab in Holmstedt Hall. There they began processing the evidence, dusting for fingerprints and writing their reports trying to understand about the scene they worked. Students also acknowledge that such experience in the classroom will help them later in their careers, whether as a police officer, homicide investigator or criminal attorney.

"It's very hands on," Shepherd said. "We're not learning from a book and then they send us out into the world and try to develop these skills on the job, because I feel like anyone could do that. That's what this degree is giving us, a chance to learn from people with experience, to be able to incorporate that into our daily jobs rather than learning that when we get there."

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/i-r5MWqZm/0/L/i-r5MWqZm-L.jpg (ISU/Tony Campbell)
Indiana State University students work on a simulated crime scene. Their work was the culminating project of Criminology 385: Intro to Criminalistics. Throughout the semester, students learned techniques such as searching for evidence, collecting evidence and dusting for fingerprints.

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/i-Fz9K2JM/0/L/i-Fz9K2JM-L.jpg (ISU/Tony Campbell)
Indiana State University students work on a simulated crime scene as part of the culminating project for Criminology 385: Intro to Criminalistics. In the class, students learned techniques such as searching for evidence, collecting evidence and dusting for fingerprints.

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, associate director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or Jennifer.Sicking@indstate.edu.


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Story Highlights

Students work on the culminating project in Criminology 385: Intro to Criminalistics. Throughout the semester, students learned techniques such as searching for evidence, collecting evidence, and dusting for fingerprints.

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