Marshall University’s Forensic Science Center is one of only a handful of institutions in the country whose forensic sciences programs are accredited. Since accepting it’s first class of forensic science students in 1995, the Forensic Science Center has grown not only in size but also in their reputation.
The first phase of the building of the center was in 1995 when the old Marshall University Fairfield Stadium locker room was renovated. The building was transformed into a state-of-the-art human identification DNA laboratory. In 2009, a three-story annex was opened. This building holds offices as well as the digital forensics laboratory, a Bioscience incubator, and classrooms. This building is still relatively new and remains a work in progress.
The center itself has two components; the master’s degree program in forensic science and the other as a working research and testing laboratories. From an entirely academic standpoint, the center has been long accredited but has recently received a second accreditation in digital forensics, which makes it the first academic program in the country to receive this sort of accreditation. As working research and testing laboratories, the Forensic Science Center’s work extends outside the borders of West Virginia. Law enforcement agencies from other states have reached out to the center for help. One agency looking for help was the New Orleans Police Department who had an extensive backlog of more than 800 untested sexual assault kits. Hurricane Katrina left the department’s evidence room and DNA lab submerged in water. Marshall’s Forensic Science Center stepped in to help. So far, the work done has resulted in two rape convictions and with other cases still preparing to go to trial. Other agencies looking for help from the center include the Los Angeles Police Department and law enforcement in Miami Dade Florida and Charleston, South Carolina. Most of the help requested by Miami Dade and Charleston South Carolina are property crimes.
Aside from helping out of state agencies, the Forensic Science Center works with the West Virginia medical examiner and the West Virginia State Police.
Committee members were able to tour both the DNA laboratories and also the new digital forensics laboratories during today’s visit.
While touring the DNA laboratories, committee members inquired as to whether students ran the lab. A representative with the center wanted to make it clear that no students operated the labs or did any testing. That was a requirement before receiving certification to be used as a certified testing center by the FBI. The only instances in which students even enter the laboratories are if they are graduate assistants to perform such tasks as making sure the refrigerators are working properly. The representative told committee members that one of the most often made assumptions about the center is that it is solely an institution of learning. What is not known is that the center is a certified testing center where the results from these laboratories are used in cases.
State Police Cpl. Robert J. Boggs discussed the center’s newer digital forensics and how it is helping the State police catch individuals who are committing Internet crimes against children in the state. Boggs told the committee that these resources allows the state police to track those individuals who are exploiting children over the web and arrest them before more harm can come to those children. Approximately 60 percent of the digital forensics case work involves child exploitation. When asked by lawmakers what kind of help the Legislature could give to law enforcement and the center policy wise, what would it be. A representative with the state police told the members that the biggest challenge the state police face is that of “sexting.” This is a topic that is not completely understood by those teenagers committing the crime and law enforcement as to how to handle the topic.
Further information on Marshall University’s Forensic Science Center can be found on the center’s website at www.forsenics.marshall.edu.