April 23, 2018
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The science of crime

By Rob Stigile, Special to the BDN

ORONO, Maine — Open the door to Irv Kornfield’s unassuming office in a quiet university building and you might be surprised what you find.

Animal pieces in jars of formaldehyde. Empty bullet casings and shotgun shells. Posters on the walls depicting DNA sequences. Fingerprint charts from the Maine State Police. Maybe even a graduate student lying on the floor in what looks like a pool of blood.

In addition to his duties as a professor in the school of biology and ecology at the University of Maine, Kornfield has taught a wildly popular course on forensic science since 2003. While any number of crime scene investigation television dramas may pique students’ interest in the course, Kornfield quickly replaces slow-motion camera shots with cold, hard science. In fact, the first assignment of the year is to watch one of these shows and record the absurdities.

“I disabuse them of the notion that they can become crime scene investigators,” as no such position exists in the real world, Kornfield said.

Topics in the course range from ballistics to accident reconstruction; however, Kornfield said he focuses on the acquisition and use of DNA evidence. Despite what the television shows depict, one of the main messages Kornfield wants his students to take home is that DNA evidence is only a piece of the puzzle when solving a crime.

“On its own, DNA is insufficient to decide if someone is guilty or innocent,” Kornfield said.

In the basement of Murray Hall on the UM campus, Kornfield has set up a DNA testing lab complete with sterile vent hoods and freezers packed with various samples of animal tissue and fluids. Since the state operates its own crime lab to test DNA samples, he examines mainly animal remains for the Maine Warden Service.

By testing samples of meat in a hunter’s freezer, for example, Kornfield can determine how many different animals are represented among the cuts. This information can then be used to determine whether that hunter had exceeded his bag limit.

Due to the popularity of the 180-seat course, which has seen full enrollment since its inception, Kornfield decided to offer an online session this summer, a move that presented a number of challenges for the hands-on nature of the material. With grants from UMaine’s Continuing and Distance Education, Center for Teaching Excellence and Faculty Development Center, Kornfield was able to piece together a series of video lectures from classes throughout the year featuring a number of guest speakers who are experts in their fields.

“I had the help of a couple of undergraduates without whom I would still be sitting there with nothing,” Kornfield said of the online content. “We worked hard at it the whole summer.”

Perhaps the crowning achievements of the switch to an electronic class format are the crime scene re-creations which students must use to investigate a fictitious murder. Designed with the same software used by real estate agents for virtual property tours, Kornfield’s program allows students to explore the crime scene, investigating blood smears on the walls and floor or a mysterious fingerprint left on a bar of soap.

Forensic investigation has led Kornfield to critically evaluate the person behind the crime, much like quality control on an assembly line. He said forensic science is a holistic art that requires not only the hard facts that can be gathered from the crime scene, but also an understanding of the typical factors that drive individuals to the wrong side of the law.

“In general, the people who commit crimes are not very smart,” Kornfield said, adding that more often than not some extenuating factor such as drug addiction is part of the perpetrator’s motive.

“You’re dealing with people who don’t recognize what makes a coherent society,” he said.

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