Corpses, crime, and solving for ‘why’
CSUEB trains future law, justice, and forensic science pros
BY MONIQUE BEELER
Examining corpses doesn’t match everyone’s vision of the ideal post-college job. But working as a forensic autopsy technician for the county of San Mateo among scalpels, scales, and cardboard boxes of homicide evidence is a fit for Kenneth Advincula ’11. The laboratory job, which he started as a CSUEB intern last spring, suited Advincula’s career goals and academic background in science, mathematics, and criminal justice administration. It also meshed with his temperament, fulfilling the scientist
in him while letting him help people heal from the death of a loved one.
“It’s my job to figure out how they died,” Advincula says. “When we finally figure out why they passed, that’s rewarding. For a lot of people, that’s what brings closure to them.”
Like many of his classmates mesmerized by TV crime scene investigation shows such as CBS’s popular CSI series, which draws 73 million viewers weekly, Advincula arrived at Cal State East Bay prepared to pursue a career in law or law enforcement. That was before his CSUEB experiences — in and out of the classroom — showed him that his academic and professional options exceeded those he’d known when he first enrolled. It’s a familiar tale to Cal State East Bay faculty and staff. When recruiters for the University visit college fairs, prospective students often ask them: “Can I major in CSI?”
“The whole CSI boom contributed to (my initial interest),” Advincula says. “When I looked into it more, I was hooked by the stories of the people, how they passed, and the lives they were leading.”
SCIENCE VS. CSI
Spurred on, in part, by TV depictions of glamorous criminologists quickly solving cases — shows that one criminal justice professor labels “B.S.I.” for their unrealistic portrayal of the profession — interest in forensic science, criminal justice administration, and associated fields has soared. Fortunately, the job outlook in the coming decade remains bright with demand expected to grow from 10 to 22 percent, depending on specialty. Nationwide, for instance, the U.S. has fewer than half the forensic pathologists it needs, according to a 2009 National Academy of Sciences report to Congress. The report also called for major reforms to the forensic science system nationally, including certification and accreditation, and new research to strengthen the scientific basis and reliability of methods, such as fingerprint and toolmark analysis, which have not undergone rigorous scientific study.
“Forensic science is not merely just popular at the moment but undergoing the most vigorous challenge in its 150 years,” says Assistant Professor Keith Inman of the CSUEB Department of Criminal Justice Administration (CRJA). “This makes it a rich time to be in academia.”
“What I find really exciting, especially with the (University’s) emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), is the opportunity to grow or be in the vanguard for progress in forensic science.” That includes training the next generation of leaders in STEM education, he says.
The national push to further professionalize the role of criminologists — including criminalists, specialists who collect and analyze evidence — and improve the science they employ also makes it a rich time for CSUEB students studying CRJA and overlapping disciplines, from anthropology to computer science.
SPECTRUM OF OPTIONS
“Criminal justice administration is such a big field,” says CSUEB lecturer Michelle Rippy ’02, who also serves as senior deputy coroner for San Mateo County.
“It’s kind of a generic term for the spectrum of fields it encompasses — crime prevention and control, restorative justice, women in criminal justice,” she says. “It gives students a well-rounded perspective.”
Early in her career, CRJA Chair and Associate Professor Silvina Ituarte, for example, worked in victim advocacy in a victim witness program and later in a drug treatment center and a youth center diversion program. She also notes that technology is opening up new specialties.
“A lot of times with us in criminal justice, students think you have to be in law enforcement or corrections working in a jail,” Ituarte says. “There’s way more than that.”
Giving students full exposure to the options means that those pursuing studies in criminal justice also take courses in other disciplines, such as “Psychology of Personality,” “Elements of Probability and Statistics,” and “Medical Anthropology.”
Partnerships between departments are not unusual. Assistant Professor Julie Beck helped found a freshman learning community, “Creativity and Social Change,” that blended studies in CRJA with theater and dance. Inman and Professor William Thibault of the mathematics and computer science department have explored ways to use 360-degree computer imaging in forensic science. And Associate Professor Dawna Komorosky collaborated on a recent study with Dianne Rush Woods of the Department of Social Work (see Save a Pet, Save a Life, p. 30).
A CRJA degree prepares students for roles spanning insurance fraud investigator, parole officer, teacher in a women’s prison, police administrator, and social worker. For students in the STEM disciplines, such as Advincula, job possibilities also include forensic laboratory technician.
“It can be very interesting for students — even those who don’t want to carry a gun,” Ituarte says.
Advincula doesn’t carry a gun on the job, but he’s seen his share of gunshot wounds, methamphetamine overdoses, heart disease, and other life-ending hazards. However, he learned on his first visit to the coroner’s office, where his then-instructor Rippy handles case investigations, not to rely on assumptions.
“(Rippy) invited us on a field trip to go to the morgue,” explains Advincula, who majored in applied mathematics with a minor in CRJA. “When we were there, she told us the story of a person who had been in a car accident.
But it wasn’t the car accident that killed her; she had medical issues.”
The gap between outward appearances and what science revealed in the case solidified his interest in the field. When Rippy informed students that she was creating an internship at the coroner’s office, Advincula quickly applied and was accepted. His colleagues were so pleased with his work, they invited him to stay on as an intern the following quarter. In February, they offered him a full-time position, which he eagerly accepted.
Advincula credits the real-world preparation CSUEB faculty gave him for his on-the-job success.
“Most of the instructors are … retired cops and (faculty) still working in the field,” Advincula says. “They can give us a better, bigger perspective. We’re not just learning from a book. We’re learning from a person who lived the life.”
Inman, one of Advincula’s former CRJA instructors, has been living the life of a criminalist for nearly 35 years, performing DNA analysis and crime scene reconstruction in private practice, for sheriff’s departments, and public agencies such as the state Department of Justice DNA Laboratory. He worked on the high-profile Hillside Strangler case in the 1970s. When not in the classroom, he works for a private, Hayward-based crime lab, Forensic Analytical Sciences Inc., which reviews cases, assesses evidence, and offers services from bloodstain pattern interpretation to gunshot residue analysis.
A faculty member since 1997, Inman peppers lectures with references to cases he’s worked on, often showing actual crime scene photos. Students enrolled in his courses soon learn it won’t be a passive experience. During a session of “Comparative Evidence and Its Evaluation,” an upper division CRJA course, students take in a short video, get a dose of forensic science philosophy from Inman, then examine the basics of a shooting case in which a police officer’s body was found leaning against a boat just inside a garage in a Bakersfield neighborhood. The 1975 case was one of the first Inman worked.
“Here’s what happens: An officer calls in a traffic stop,” Inman explains to the 24 students scattered about the Meiklejohn Hall classroom. “Shortly after this, he says, ‘I need backup.’ A second officer shows up in mere minutes, and when he shows up, he finds the first officer shot.”
“Based on what I gave you in this brief scenario, use your forensic imagination and imagine what evidence could exist.”
At Inman’s prompt, the students drag their desks into clusters of two or three to brainstorm.
After several minutes, Inman interrupts the thrumming, energetic conversations between students and asks the groups to call out their evidence ideas. Acting as scribe, he notes their responses — from bullet strikes to surveillance camera recordings — in blue ink on a white board at the front of the room.
“OK, Jhoanna, your group?” he says, soliciting evidence ideas.
“Timeframe in which everything happened,” says senior Jhoanna Navarro, 23. “What time the call was made? What time back up came?”
“It is related to physical evidence,” Inman says. “I’m going to ask you for another one.”
“The position of the body,” Navarro says.
Early in the class session, Inman stresses to his students that whether they’re studying or writing about firearms and toolmarks or dermal ridge prints (aka, fingerprints), he expects them to communicate precisely and pay attention to the small stuff.
SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF
“This idea of specifics and detail is crucial to science,” he says. “And I’m going to insist on it.
“If you leave out one detail it can be catastrophic.”
By the end of the course, he’ll set up a mock crime scene containing faux evidence for students to investigate that will further reinforce the lesson. It’s the kind of hands-on exercise that serves students well, says Ituarte, the department chair.
“It’s a valuable teaching tool,” she says. “It actually makes you remember the experience.’’
For a recent restorative justice course Ituarte instructed, students created a video promoting the work of the McCullum Youth Court in Oakland, where she regularly arranges visits for her students. Many go on to volunteer for the youth-run court, where young people guilty of first-time misdemeanors from vandalism to petty theft receive legally-binding sentences from their peers, middle school and high school students who have previously appeared in the court.
PRINCIPLES IN ACTION
The youth court demonstrates restorative justice in action.
“It’s a victim-centered approach that’s focusing on repairing the harm that’s been committed,” she explains. “Instead of focusing on the criminal as violator of the law, we’re focusing on the crime as harm that was committed either to the individual or the community as a whole. From there, everything is geared toward how to repair the harm. It’s about holding the offender accountable.”
Sentences meted out may range from paying for a broken window to providing hours of community service that may include filling a role on the youth court itself such as judge or juror.
Courts in several countries, including Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, apply restorative justice approaches to juveniles. In Canada and parts of Central America, the principles increasingly are incorporated into the adult criminal justice system. The United States, on the other hand, lags in putting restorative justice into practice, and few universities instruct undergraduate students in its tenets, Ituarte says.
“We’re leading in the sense that we’re making our students aware of (restorative justice),” she says. “It’s been around, it just hasn’t been implemented in the U.S.”
Former students steeped in restorative justice principles have gone on to roles from leading a vocational training program at San Quentin State Prison to pursuing a career in international law in London.
“You can do anything you want with a degree from here,” says alumna Rippy.
In her role as a medical legal death investigator for the coroner’s office, Rippy’s duties encompass scene investigation, handling evidence and remains, safeguarding property of the deceased — from pocket watches to apartment furniture — and notifying families of a death. When a gas line exploded in San Bruno in September, leaving seven dead, Rippy got the call to investigate the scene and assist in identifying the victims. She uses it as a case study in class discussions, challenging students to explain step-by-step how they would investigate had they been first on the scene.
“I want to give the most up-to-date information to my students,” she says. “I love coming back to campus. The students are great. You get such a good mix of people (with) different life experiences; they’re able to bring that to class. I’ve had very active students.”
As an adjunct faculty member, Rippy teaches CSUEB courses — including online classes — in basic criminal investigation, administration of justice, crime prevention and control, ethics, and evidence evaluation. She originally arrived at the University 10 years ago as a pre-med student. But after taking “Basic Criminal Instruction,” her “all-time favorite class” (and now her favorite course to teach), her professional interest permanently shifted, and she crafted an independent study major, blending courses in criminal justice with chemistry, anatomy, and statistics. Because the field was so young when she was a Cal State East Bay student, Rippy improvised in determining what training it would take to make it professionally. Today, students such as Advincula benefit from existing internship, academic, and degree programs, plus the flexibility to take additional courses that support their career goals.
“There are more resources now,” Rippy says. “And you have professors here that have been involved with the field.”
Since Advincula signed on for the then-fledgling coroner’s office internship, eight more students have completed the program and an additional four have signed on as interns, serving one day each week working in scene investigation, including writing reports, and a second day serving in the pathology department, assisting with autopsies. Ultimately, Advincula says he hopes to follow in Rippy’s path on the investigative side of the house.
“There are so many internships available, including federal government and local agencies,” she says. “I’ve (also) helped some students get into probation (work). The other good thing is we have contacts all over the place. If someone wants an FBI internship, we can help them.”
NO SCIENTIFIC SHORTCUTS
Wearing blue scrubs and black clogs, Advincula spends one recent afternoon at his new job reviewing the day’s three cases, filling out case paperwork, and awaiting the pickup of the deceased. Any glamorous allure the job once held long ago was replaced by the daily medical realities of preparing tissue samples, examining muscles for signs of disease, and resolving himself to the passing of people from newlyweds to grandmothers.
During one autopsy, Advincula stared into the face of a young man who he says “could have been me” — same age, same Filipino heritage, and only a few months out of college when he died.
“That’s part of why I love this job,” he says. “A lot of people take things for granted, especially their lives.”
“I appreciate life so much more now.”
By graduation, CSUEB students like Advincula, who have enrolled in courses from across the University catalog, emerge with a realistic sense of what to expect on the job. It’s the kind of job-readiness that area employers often say gives CSUEB grads an edge in the employment market.
As Inman puts it: “They know by the time they’ve been through two or three of my classes that it’s not a (profession where you) jump out of bed, put on your designer clothes, hop in the Hummer, and helicopter into the crime scene.”
CSI-type TV shows are all about “getting the suspect” in 60 minutes, often using imaginary technology that spits out foolproof DNA or fingerprint matches instantly, Advincula explains. His job as a forensic autopsy technician, on the other hand, focuses on determining why someone died based on what their body reveals; no scientific shortcuts available. Instead, the methodical work requires patience, thoroughness, and objectivity. Analyzing deaths due to causes from gang shootings to self-inflicted wounds, he says, has taught him to keep an open mind.
“You really have to question a lot of things,” Advincula says. “You can’t take everything at face value.”