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Forensics students experience 'real deal'

Thursday, June 13, 2013

You can lecture, demonstrate, simulate and create all kinds of hands-on experiences in the lab, but there’s nothing quite like the real deal. And that’s just what students in Dennis Dirkmaat’s Death-Scene Archaeology Short Course got last week when they responded en masse to a crime scene in Clearfield County.

It marks only the third time in the history of this 22-year-old short course originated by Dirkmaat, chair of Applied Forensic Sciences at Mercyhurst University, that students had their campus experience augmented by genuine crime-scene work. In this particular case, Dirkmaat was summoned to Clearfield County by Pennsylvania State Police to recover a body, believed to be the victim of a homicide.

“It was a pretty rich experience,” said Dirkmaat, who along with anthropology faculty Heather Garvin, Ph.D.,  led more than 20 students, including Mercyhurst forensic anthropology graduate students and short-course students, to the scene near Rolling Stone Road in Covington Township on Tuesday, June 4. 

“I had just lectured the day before on how to recover a surface scatter of remains, and that’s exactly what we had been asked to do,” Dirkmaat said. “We had the short-course students clear the forest floor of vegetation and, because it was a fairly large area where the remains were scattered, we were able to process the scene in a reasonable time – five to six hours.”

Dirkmaat said the short-course students, who include professionals like police and medical examiners, as well as human rights workers and students, flagged but did not handle evidence. That was accomplished by Dirkmaat, Garvin and Mercyhurst’s specially trained graduate students, who also mapped the distribution of evidence using a Total Station and survey-grade GPS.

“I was able to take the students step by step through the archaeological recovery process, allow them to see the role of a forensic anthropologist with the police and witness the layering of technology that we use to document a site,” Dirkmaat said. “I was also able to impress upon them the importance of processing an outdoor scene just as efficiently as we have long processed indoor scenes.”

The short-course series continues this week with Laboratory Methods in the Identification of Human Skeletal Remains. Two more weeks of training follow. This year's students come from South Africa, Korea, Spain, the UK and Canada as well as across the U.S.