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Two students in white forensic suits digging a hole in the ground in a cordoned off area
Photo courtesy of the U of T Mississauga Forensic Science Program

The Real CSI

Students in UTM's forensic science program learn quickly that art does not always imitate life

An occasional squelch from a police car punctuates the air as Tracy Rogers strides toward a patch of farmland in rural British Columbia. She looks like an astronaut. Dressed in a white protective suit and hardcover hood, she is on an exploratory mission, looking not for signs of life but for evidence of death. Scouring acres of land, sifting through tons of soil, she hopes to help piece together the facts of what may be the largest serial killing in Canadian history.

It is the summer of 2002, and the University of Toronto professor and forensic anthropologist is assisting with the excavation of the pig farm in Port Coquitlam belonging to Robert William Pickton. Over the better part of two summers, Rogers will help uncover and analyze thousands of bone fragments, working closely with an elite squad of more than 100 forensic experts, pathologists, scientists, coroners and police investigators. Pickton is now charged with 15 counts of murder and is the focus of an investigation into the disappearance of nearly 70 women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Like all detective work, forensic science involves the painstaking process of gathering evidence and analyzing it. Crime scene investigators spend hours collecting and sorting through bits of clothing, strands of hair, even cigarette butts, in the hope of obtaining evidence that will link a perpetrator to a crime. Each item is tagged, carefully logged and sent on for further examination in the lab.

The Port Coquitlam work exacted a physical and emotional toll on Rogers and the other members of the team. In the summer heat, the sweat poured into the sleeves of Rogers’ synthetic jumpsuit. Her hands grew damp beneath two layers of gloves as she sifted through three separate crime scenes in search of minute pieces of evidence. In a nearby tent and makeshift refuge, family members gathered daily, waiting for news that would fill in the details of what may have happened to their daughters, sisters and lovers.

“It’s always hard when you have contact with the family,” the 38-year-old assistant professor says, noting that psychologists were on hand to counsel the team through the emotional trauma of the work. “But I feel that we do have something very positive to offer. I never forget that it’s not the remains of a person, but someone’s loved one. We can’t bring them back, but at least we can provide some resolution.”

Students enrolled in forensic science at the University of Toronto at Mississauga (UTM) learn through simulations about the intense nature of crime scene investigations. On an early September morning this past fall, Rogers sealed off a patch of meadow on the bucolic UTM campus with yellow police tape to create a fictional crime scene. The supposed victim? A 17-year-old girl last seen walking her dog along the edge of campus.

The exercise, devised for a third-year class, is certainly not as involved as the Pickton investigation, though there is one macabre aspect that evokes the alleged serial murder: these students are scouring the earth for pig corpses. Just coincidence, says Rogers. Pigs are the animals used to replicate humans in fieldwork, sort of the crash-test dummies of forensics.

For some of these fresh-faced students, it’s gruesome work. But it provides an important lesson in a fundamental aspect of all forensic science: the recovery, mapping and documentation of evidence. In their fourth year, the students will move to the lab where they will examine human bones to determine characteristics such as age, sex and ancestry, and to look for evidence of trauma to help determine the cause of death.

Nicki Engel is one of the students enjoying the fieldwork as she steps gingerly through the meadow, marked with spikes and flags where evidence has been unearthed. The 22-year-old Chilliwack, B.C., native says she’s been fascinated by crime stories ever since she was a kid reading Nancy Drew mysteries. She wanted to be a police officer for a while, but now hopes to work outside Canada on cases of international importance. “I’d like to take what I learn here and work with the [United Nations] in the mass gravesites in Kosovo or with the police at Scotland Yard,” she says.

Engel is one of a select group of aspiring sleuths to have earned a spot in UTM’s four-year forensics program, the first of its kind in Canada – and the most comprehensive. While Rogers specializes in forensic anthropology, which involves the search, recovery and identification of bones and the presentation of findings in court, other faculty members teach pathology, entomology, toxicology, odontology and molecular biology.

Now in its 10th year, U of T’s program owes its existence to Professor Emeritus Jerry Melbye, a well-known presence at UTM until he retired a few years ago. Over the years, Ontario police came to rely on the forensic anthropologist for his expertise in the identification of victims from skeletal remains. One of Melbye’s highest profile cases was the second trial of Guy Paul Morin who was charged with the 1984 murder of nine-year-old Christine Jessop. DNA evidence eventually cleared Morin, who had spent the better part of a decade in and out of jail.

Melbye was one of the first people to recognize the importance of having an educational program dedicated exclusively to forensic science. In the early days of the profession – the first recorded case in Canada of a non-medical expert testifying in court was in 1850 – police departments typically trained scientists in the finer points of forensic investigation, and prepared them for courtroom testimony. “I realized as I started working on cases myself just how varied everyone’s background was,” says Melbye. “I wanted to train forensic scientists who could speak to each other about their problems and challenges in a common language.”

Melbye rallied the Office of the Chief Coroner for the Province of Ontario, along with the Centre of Forensic Sciences in Toronto, to support the launch of a dual bachelor of science degree at U of T. The program confers a degree in forensic science combined with one other specialty, such as biology, anthropology, psychology or chemistry.

This year – largely because of an increased demand for spots – the program has accepted 50 new students, double the intake of last year. Program director Raymond Cummins attributes the growing interest in part to the boom in crime shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, as well as the novels of real-life forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs, whose Grave Secrets and Déjà Dead have won a cult-like following.

But Rogers sees a deeper meaning in our society’s current fascination with criminal investigation. “When someone dies, their body is taken away for burial preparations. We’re now dissociated from death and so it’s shrouded in mystery. Science offers us a window on the process of death.”

Although there is a team aspect to forensics, the profession calls for hours of solitary work. Most of a forensic grad’s career will be spent in a laboratory peering through a microscope. An investigator or lab technician might spend more time in the company of the dead than the living. The work demands surpassing patience. Directing a crime scene investigation is time-consuming. Cases aren’t neatly wrapped up in an hour. Sometimes they stretch on for years; in other cases, decades. And although it’s a small part of their job description, forensic scientists have to be experts in the courtroom. By definition, forensic science means the study of evidence discovered during criminal investigations and used in courts of law. Forensic witnesses, therefore, need to feel comfortable presenting their findings in a legal setting.

Students also need a strong background in their chosen field of specialty, such as chemistry or biology, and must be able to interpret increasingly sophisticated lab results. DNA analysis – accepted commonly as a legal tool only a decade ago – has helped the discipline evolve, giving investigators a powerful means of solving both current and cold cases. The information revolution is affecting the discipline, too, as new police databases help match up evidentiary material – fingerprints, bullets and DNA – more quickly with known offenders and weapons used in other cases. This will allow investigators to link crimes more efficiently and to identify repeat offenders much faster.

Many graduates of UTM’s forensics program will look for work outside the country. Some will go to the United States where the violent crime rate and the demand for forensic scientists are much higher. Still, police forces across Canada are hiring an increasing number of students – as are the nation’s seven centres for forensic science. But applications for such coveted jobs typically run upwards of 300. And the top rate for scientists is only about $70,000 a year.

Back in the UTM meadow, these students seem to have more on their minds this morning than money. They are carefully photographing their crime scenes for a guest instructor, Crown attorney James Cornish. He’s evaluating their work and advising them on how to organize their findings for a mock trial.

Rogers looks on critically at the interaction between her students and the lawyer. She knows the drill. How important it is to get this all right.

“This is what it all comes down to,” she explains. “It’s about righting wrongs; bringing culprits to justice.

That’s one thing I don’t really mind about television’s portrayal of our work,” she continues. “Sometimes they make us out to be heroes. And that’s okay, because we really are the good guys.”

Susan Bourette is a writer in Toronto.

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