Body of evidence
Student sleuths win national crime scene competition
CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI: New York, Cold Case. TV watchers canít get enough of police evidence investigation shows. Type the acronym for crime scene investigation into an Internet search engine, and more than eight million hits appear.
Forensics has captured the publicís attention, so itís not surprising that when UT Arlington students won the national crime scene competition at the annual meeting of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences in Chicago this year, the buzz resonated beyond the campus.
After placing second five years in a row, members of the Alpha Phi Sigma criminal justice graduate school honor society defeated groups from university criminology departments nationwide, as well as a New York City team headed by a professional crime scene investigator.
"These students were innovative and relied on their critical-thinking skills to solve the project," said Associate Professor Alex del Carmen, the groupís adviser.
Hereís how they won. The students entered a hotel room and found an, ah, informally dressed, heavily made-up young woman lying on the bed. She was dead. Her body displayed gunshot and stab wounds. There were signs of sexual assault. A book of matches from a local bar was on the bedside table, along with a glass smudged with two shades of lipstick. The room showed no indication of forced entry.
Officers from the Miami-Dade Police Departmentís CSI, the top crime lab in the country, carefully orchestrated the scenario. They made certain that, just as in real life, some of the "evidence" was misleading.
The students had 15 minutes to examine the room and document the evidence. Then they wrote a report and a theory of what happened.
They didnít actually solve the crime. Without a crime lab, they missed the two shades of lipstick on the glass and presumed that the murderer was male. That conclusion was inaccurate, but the team still came closer than its competitors and received high praise for careful handling of the evidence.
Victory was sweet for the honor society. Laura Cumbie, who graduated in May, was in the competition for the second time. She said it was nice to win second place last year, but it only motivated the team to try harder in Chicago. Not for the prizesósimple certificates and patchesóbut for the big eward,recognition for the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department.
Alpha Phi Sigma members exude the school loyalty usually associated with sports teams.
"We are so fortunate to have dedicated, brilliant, thought-provoking professors," Cumbie said. "They certainly want to make UT Arlington look good, but their real goal is to produce top-notch, quality criminologists who are going to go out and make a difference. Itís almost patriotic."
Cumbie is active in the alumni chapter of the honor society and hopes to help spread the word that UT Arlington produces the kind of criminologists organizations want working for them.
Heather Miata echoes those sentiments. She earned a masterís degree in August and would love to pursue a doctoral degree at UT Arlington.
"There are no Ph.Ds. in criminal justice offered in this area," she said. ďThere is a definite need for a doctoral program, and the program needs to be at UT Arlington."
She noted that department Chairman Robert Bing and professors del Carmen and Elmer Polk are widely published and that their research is highly regarded. And the department is growing.
"In the two years it took to complete my masterís, five new adjuncts or visiting professors were added, and they came in with years of experience," she said.
One of the new hires is Shari Julian, who holds a postdoctoral certificate in forensic psychiatry/psychology from Harvard University. Julian is a fellow in both forensic expertise and forensic medicine, a member of the American College of Forensic Experts and has worked in criminal behaviors for 20 years.
Students also encounter pros like Arlington Police Chief Theron Bowman, who holds three UT Arlington degrees, including a Ph.D. from the School of Urban and Public Affairs.
Dr. Bing says the department thrives on the diversity of the faculty, some with great field experience and others who are strong theoretically.
"This provides a balance,Ē he said. "As a criminologist, I am fond of saying that theory and practice are fundamentally related. You cannot have good practice without sound theory."
— Sue Stevens