Hands-on forensic science course celebrates 20-year history

As the former chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in 1998, Provost Kenneth G. Furton introduced one of his former University of Central Florida college classmates, Karen Wittman, to a newly hired FIU chemistry professor, Jose Almirall, and asked them both to work on one of the first web-based classes at FIU, Forensic Analysis. The class included topics such as crime scene investigation and the interface between science and the law – both essential subjects for aspiring forensic scientists. Since then, this course has been continually taught every year in the fall semester and is now required for all students in the Masters of Science in Forensic Science and Professional Science Masters in Forensic Science degree programs.

There was only one catch to their plan for co-teaching the class – Wittman lived and worked in Kansas. However, she and Almirall worked out the challenges of distance, and they have now been teaching the class together for the last 20 years. Each year, Wittman and Almirall share the teaching of an online component in the class, and at the end of the semester, Wittman flies to Miami to participate in a 1-day mock exercise in crime scene investigation with the forensic science students and Almirall. The crime scene exercises are followed by a 1-day moot courtroom experience at FIU’s College of Law. Wittman grills the students while acting as both a prosecutor and defense attorney, and Almirall presides as the “judge.” Wittman received her undergraduate degree in forensic chemistry from UCF and worked as a forensic chemist while pursuing a Juris Doctor degree at Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas. She has also worked as a prosecutor, a part-time judge, and a law school adjunct instructor, and she has run for the elected office of district attorney. Wittman is currently a Deputy District Attorney in Kansas City, Kansas.

Students in court room

The students in the class are asked to take the stand and testify as expert witnesses based on their activities during the three crime scene investigation exercises. One of the crime scenes is based on a breaking and entering scenario, another is a suspected murder, and the third is a hit-and-run accident. All of the exercises are held on the MMC campus. Afterwards, students are asked to be ready to testify the next day and to prepare a report on each of the crime scenes. According to Almirall, one of the more interesting times was when a student was on the stand and was asked about cleaning her tools in-between the crime scene exercises (to eliminate contamination from scene to scene), and everyone in the class, including the instructors, knew that no such cleaning had taken place. The student insisted that it had, giving the mock prosecutor an opportunity to illustrate, according to Wittman, “the value of maintaining your integrity and truthfulness when testifying.”

This course provides practical experience for any individual that plans to be an expert witness and testify in court. Wittman added, “I always let the students know that when you testify in this mock trial—it is just an exercise—but it can teach you valuable lessons for when you are in a real courtroom and a person is actually on trial.”

The students regularly rate this course very highly, and in particular, appreciate the in-person crime scene exercises and the moot court experience. The class also includes assignments for the students to report back to the class after riding along with actual crime scene investigators and attending real life trials containing forensic evidence.