524 5th Avenue looks like any other historic three-story brick home. Located about a block west of the Marshall University campus in Huntington, W.Va., a wide cement sidewalk leads up to the front steps of the white-columned porch. A large green bush flanks the left side of the front façade, obscuring one half of the porch as if the homeowners placed it to permit some privacy from passersby. The center window on the second story has two vertical panes with an ornate white carving fitted between; a frilly edged curtain can be seen peeking out. But no family resides here to dress the windows.
In a way, 1524 5th Avenue is a house of horrors. During any given week, a couple of its nine rooms are transformed into a mock crime scene, complete with shoe impressions in dust, spent bullet cartridges, life-like dummies as homicide victims and fake blood spatter.
The century-old building, bought by Marshall University in 2006, serves as a training ground for recreations of real-life scenarios. The house is used exclusively for crime scene training and hands-on educational experiences for a both novice and seasoned crime scene examiners, which educators say is key practice for the discipline. Forensic experts and law enforcement professionals say books and lecture are only one portion of the learning quotient for forensic courses.
Mock cases at Marshall
Marshall University has had a forensic science program for decades. But within the last couple years, the program was able to add what Terry Fenger says is essential for forensic education.
"Crime scene investigation and forensic science are very hands-on, applied disciplines," explains Fenger, director of the Forensic Science Center at Marshall. "You can talk all about these things in class, but unless you actually put the knowledge into practice, it has less meaning. So it's very important that you have mock cases you can work so that you can really experience the crime scene aspect of it."
The crime scene facility is part of Marshall University's Forensic Science Center, one of 28 programs accredited by the AAFS Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). Fenger explains the program dates back to 1993, but in recent years the grant-funded crime scene house and training provided by the FBI were added, providing in-service instruction for practicing crime scene investigators and related law enforcement personnel from across the United States.
"Like with every other field, there are always new improvements, discoveries and techniques evolving [in crime scene investigations]," Mary Thomasson, MUFSC press information officer, says.
On the academic side, Fenger explains the program has on average about 20 students graduate per year across four areas of emphasis: crime scene investigation, forensic chemistry, forensic DNA technologies and computer forensics.
Technology in play
The house offers more than crime scene staging space. In addition to the main floor, which hosts much of the mock crimes, the house has a latent print lab, a blood-spatter room and a simulated methamphetamine lab scene that includes a bathtub. Students use various technologies to collect and record the scenes. Traditional CSI tools such as impression lifters, alternative light sources to detect stains, digital cameras and broken glass impact assessments are used. Fenger utilizes the crime scene house space for digital forensics instruction, too. Cell phone forensic basics have been covered where students train using digital evidence collection tools like CelleBrite's cell data recovery kit. Investigating wireless routers and signal origination is also reviewed, for example. Learning that all of these are possibilities to discover and collect evidence is emphasized.
"[Students are taught] to determine if there's a wireless system in play, even though the main computer is located in a particular room," Fenger says. "There could be a wireless router at a different location in connectivity to other places or the outside world."