From crime scene to courtroom: FIU center examines justice from all angles

The Global Forensic and Justice Center is a collaborative research and education hub with more than $10 million in contracts and grants.

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Every contact leaves a trace—it’s the fundamental principle that guides forensic science. But the many types of evidence now available to investigators only reveals its value when a battery of trained professionals comes together to make sense of it and use it appropriately.

“The way we think about the administration of justice is changing, and FIU is at the forefront of the movement,” says Kevin Lothridge, director of FIU’s Global Forensic and Justice Center. “Incorporating information more broadly across the criminal justice process is the future.”

The key: creating a culture of connectivity. No longer does anyone work in isolation but, rather, with a clearer view of how steps taken at the crime scene and in the lab impact what happens in the courtroom and, ultimately, society.

The Global Forensic and Justice Center is a collaborative hub that today has contracts and grants that exceed $10 million, educates more than 60 current undergraduate and graduate students and brings together those who study science and those who administer justice. The idea originated with Kenneth G. Furton, FIU provost and executive vice president, who co-founded the International Forensic Research Institute on campus more than 20 years ago.

“The original concept back then was to be a highly interdisciplinary research institute,” Furton says. “The Global Forensic and Justice Center advances that dream as it is arguably the most interdisciplinary forensic center in the world.”

Creating such a comprehensive center took bringing together four university entities that collectively work to improve forensic education, update the skills and knowledge of professionals already in the field, develop new scientific tools, influence policy decisions and set the standard for the use of forensic evidence in the administration of justice. The goal is to connect science and society to effect fair and just outcomes.

Work abroad

For an illustration of that interconnectedness, one need look no further than the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) and the Center for the Administration of Justice (CAJ), to understand how science and society intersect. The two centers have different missions—the one providing technical, scientific training and support, and the other working to advance the practical application of justice—and each is making a global impact in pursuit of truth.

For example: With funding from the U.S. Department of State and the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, NFSTC welcomed 14 forensic scientists from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama to train them on improving crime scene processes, DNA testing and laboratory operations. The upgrading of skills and procedures can have a profound effect in a region scarred by protracted civil wars and foreign occupations that combined have left a sad legacy of mass graves. Analysts there now have the tools and education to pursue giving names to previously unidentified bodies—and answers to families that have waited years to learn the fate of their loved ones.

The NFSTC is also consulting with Central American crime labs and crime scene professionals to improve practices with a goal of helping facilities meet international testing standards to secure laboratory accreditation, a stamp of approval that should have a positive impact on individual countries’ justice systems.

It was with the help of the NFSTC at FIU that the North African nation of Morocco earned international forensic laboratory accreditation. In only eight months, the team from FIU translated material from French to English, coordinated training with personnel, reviewed all pertinent documents and addressed other related issues to achieve success.

Complementing these efforts in support of science-backed and technical-based improvements is the work of the Center for the Administration of Justice (CAJ). It has longstanding relationships throughout Latin America, where it has collaborated with governments and NGOs to develop procedures related to institutional legal reform. Funders such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank have contributed some $50 million in grants for its activities over the years.

A postdoctoral fellow in Professor Jose Almirall’s research group holds a patented device that captures volatile organic compounds in the air to detect the presence of drugs, explosives and other illicit materials.

Leading the center is Luis Salas. The criminal law professor has been at FIU for 45 years and, beginning in the mid-80s, spent a solid decade in a regional office in Costa Rica, from which he ran numerous projects throughout Central America. The efforts coincided with U.S. government efforts to promote the rule of law and human rights in that part of the world at a time of heightened crises, Salas explains.

Among the center’s signature projects is one in Colombia, where researchers cooperated with government officials and community organizations to establish a dozen “justice houses” throughout the country. The locations accommodate legal offices and courts and provide citizens with easy access to services such as dispute resolution. The concurrent implementation of 20 virtual courtrooms has since allowed defendants in rural or conflict-compromised areas to come before the court in instances where transportation or security issues might otherwise bar their participation. These years-long efforts have gone hand-in-hand with the training of judges, prosecutors, public defenders and others, and the drafting of legislation (later brought before Colombia’s congress for passage) as part of the country’s formal transition to a new legal system.

Furthering the ongoing transition, Salas’ team regularly welcomes to campus law students from Colombia for a week at a time to educate them through lectures, visits to local courts and meetings with judges and attorneys in South Florida.

“The purpose is [for them] to understand the good and bad of our system,” Salas says. “All of these countries are trying to implement something similar [to the U.S.], and I think it’s very useful for them to understand how the system has worked, and failed.” To that end, he wants to disabuse young people of the idealized view of justice one might glean from American TV shows and movies. He hopes to provide a reality check that makes clear the inherent messiness of adjudicating the law.

Today the office in San Jose first opened by Salas all those many years ago continues to operate in earnest (albeit in a new location), with both Salas and co-director Ana Carazo Johanning spending weeks-long stretches there. Progress has been made throughout Central America over the decades, say the two, even as corruption and the massive drug trade hammer away at the integrity of what are today still-shaky democracies, many having cast off military rule only a few short years ago.

“The basis of any democracy, to a large extent, is respect for the rule of law,” Salas explains. “When you have organized crime and you have massive amounts of narcotics and the money that comes with that, it’s very hard to successfully implement a democratic system. I think that there is a lot of hope for the region,” he continues, “but it’s very difficult.”

Carazo Johanning agrees. “It’s always a struggle, a challenge, like anything that you do in justice administration,” she says, even as she reaffirms her dedication to the cause: “Both Dr. Salas and I like challenges.”

Research and development

The science and technology behind forensic science work is evolving at a breakneck pace, and the Center for Advanced Research in Forensic Science (CARFS) plays a critical role in new developments. Funded by the National Science Foundation and part of a four-university cooperative, the center is actively pitching original research ideas as well as developing projects of interest to industry and other organizations. Partner institutions include the FBI Laboratory, the Drug Enforcement Administration Office of Forensic Sciences and several Department of Defense forensic organizations as well as private companies.

“We ask them, ‘What are your most pressing problems of today that we could put our considerable research capacity toward solving,’” explains Jose Almirall, CARFS director and himself an active researcher with several forensics-related patents and more than 20 years invested at FIU. (Overall, FIU has secured some 30 forensics-related patents since 2000.)

Roughly 10 researchers—largely from the chemistry and biology departments, although one specialized in forensic psychology and another from engineering are currently in the mix—and between 30 and 35 graduate students annually participate in the research work, which includes testing instrumentation and developing new products, processes and materials.

For example, a current pressing need of the DEA is to help agents differentiate between industrial hemp, legal since President Trump’s signing of the 2018 Farm Bill, from marijuana, which is still illegal at the federal level. CARFS researchers are developing an inexpensive and easy test that can be used in the field to distinguish between the two and have applied for multiple patents on the technology, which a startup company is already moving to commercialize.

Internationally, CARFS has conducted a database project for the Dubai Police Force in the area of forensic entomology— the study of insects and arthropods that inhabit decomposing remains—to improve
estimates of time of death in arid countries. The center also works with a company in the United Kingdom that makes chemical “taggants” used to coat various materials as a way of tracking them in the event of theft.

FIU’s research remains critical in promoting fairness and impartiality, Almirall says. New innovations can make possible establishing someone’s criminality with a greater level of certainty but, he adds, “also exonerating those who are wrongfully convicted.”

“That’s the other side of justice,” he says. “We know that mistakes have been made by forensic scientists in the past, and we’re all about developing tools that can help prevent those mistakes in the future.”

Among the research taking place in a forensic chemistry lab is development of new and improved methods for the analysis of inks to helps trace fraudulent security documents and currency. Such work has led to the development of an ink library, a first-of-its kind database that can be used by forensic labs throughout the world for security intelligence and anti-counterfeiting measures.

Training the next generation of professionals

As anyone who has watched the CSI television programs or read the news in recent years can attest, the impact of forensic science is burgeoning. Providing the human resources needed to keep up with the accelerated pace of that science remains critical.

To meet growing demand for qualified forensics professionals, FIU has honed its graduate academic programming with a focus on forensic chemistry and biology. Beyond rigorous coursework, students in the master’s and Ph.D. programs actively work on research projects that they design and conduct on their own. Access to mentors and resources associated with the Global Forensic and Justice Center translates into unparalleled opportunities for those who will soon take up the baton. (An intensive two-week summer camp draws high-achieving high schoolers with an interest in pursuing the discipline in college.)

“This center helps our graduates understand the greater ‘why’ to their work,” says DeEtta Mills, deputy director of the Global Forensic and Justice Center. “By connecting research to practical applications and then to justice outcomes through industry and government partners, our graduates will be worlds ahead when they enter the workforce.”

Lilliana Moreno benefitted from that approach. The alumna earned both a master’s, in 2005, and a doctorate, in 2015, from FIU and today is a forensic biologist in the DNA support unit at the Federal Bureau of Investigation Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia. Moreno remains convinced that the requirement to design and run her own research project, as well as strong encouragement to take an internship, led to her success in obtaining an excellent job.

“When you try to fix something and you fail, and you break it and you get up and you fail and you do it again, that’s the way that you learn,” Moreno says. (Her research looked at the microbial content of various types of soils—which can get lodged in the grooves of tires and the soles of shoes—as a way of potentially establishing suspects’ recent activities.) “I feel like that experience put me ahead of so many other people that applied [for the FBI job]. That experience was priceless.”

As someone who now participates in interviewing potential employees for jobs at the bureau, Moreno sees firsthand why FIU graduates have the upper hand. “It’s something that we actually miss,” she says of the research component too many newcomers lack. “When applicants come through who don’t have that research experience, they know how to follow protocol, but they cannot necessarily think on their own.”

As for taking an internship with the FBI, it was her mentor, chemistry professor Bruce R. McCord, who insisted on it, she says. The temporary position led immediately into a full-time job, during which both McCord and a mentor within the bureau helped to keep Moreno on track to finishing the Ph.D. That kind of support proved invaluable, she says.

Today, FIU forensic science alumni work across the country and around the world. Graduates have a near-perfect employment rate, with many securing jobs within a year of graduation with federal organizations, among them the CIA, DEA, Secret Service and Naval Research Laboratory, as well as state and local crime lab teams.

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The sheer breadth and depth of work under the umbrella of the Global Forensic and Justice Center points to the growing power of science to establish truth and, ultimately, help individuals and society arrive at justice, or some measure of it. Today, forensic science remains the lifeblood of the investigator by providing the incontrovertible proof upon which a judge, jury or tribunal can base a verdict. FIU remains committed to ensuring that such proof serves the interest of humanity.


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