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June 3, 2009 > Sherlock Holmes Wouldn't Have a Clue

Sherlock Holmes Wouldn't Have a Clue

Forensic science students compete to solve a case that would've baffled the great detective!

By Marty Friedman

The scene of the crime.
At 6:15am, a staff member at Mission Valley ROP discovered an unconscious woman lying in a tent, very seriously wounded. Following a 911 call, the police arrived at 6:28. The victim was transported to Washington Hospital at 6:35 pm for emergency surgery.

Enter the Forensic Challenge.
Just imagine. 170 students from American and Logan high schools, Mission Valley ROP (Regional Occupational Program), and other schools split into 16 forensic science student teams. Above all, each team had one goal in mind: to determine "who dunnit."

What is more, every team member had both a level of training and technology that Holmes and Dr. Watson put together couldn't begin to fathom. Just two examples are the Forensic Science and Bio-Technology labs in the ROP building. Students rely on both labs to help act as a magnifying glass to a crime scene.

Why all the interest in a field as challenging as forensic science? TV shows like CSI, Forensic Files, and Law & Order Special Victims Unit have brought glamour and excitement to what was previously thought of as routine police work.

The challenge in the Forensic Challenge.
See all those tents dotting the ROP campus? Each one holds the identical clues. Every team's challenge is to unearth and analyze, as accurately as possible, all the clues found on the scene.

The clues.
Sherlock Holmes was a rank amateur compared to the task that all the student sleuths faced sifting through this evidence:
¥ An extra large T-shirt with blood stains
¥ Plastic hair comb with blood on it
¥ Emery boards possibly with blood on them
¥ Cellular phone, very low power left. Smeared prints.
¥ Plastic hot pink fingernail.

The truly clever Gordon Sanford.
Think that Gordon Sandford, forensic science teacher and creator of the Forensic Challenge, was brilliantly clever coming up with these clues? Then you don't know the half of his brilliance. Based on the clues, each Evidence Collection Team (ECT) was expected to:
¥ Establish a Crime Scene (CS) activity log
¥ Document CS with sketches and photos
¥ Properly "Bag n'tag" the evidence.
¥ Process-dust (no chemical processing)
¥ Recover latent prints
¥ Confirm blood stains through a Kastle Meyer test
¥ Conduct Amylase tests (starch agar petri dish
¥ Identify physical evidence like hair and fibers

Now for the nail biting part.
Once each team has carefully weighed all the evidence, 2 members from each team have to face a panel consisting of some of the area's most distinguished law enforcement personnel. Mirroring an actual courtroom, members of the Alameda DA office, an FBI special agent from San Francisco, and the Fremont, Oakland, Newark and Milpitas PD among others, judged each team's findings.

How detailed were some of the ECT teams presentations? Take the hot pink plastic fingernail found at the crime scene as just one example. The nail it was determined did not belong to the victim since she had a French manicure.

"Aha, the nail must've come from a woman who was clearly the suspect," the team member deduced.

"Not necessarily so," a panel member laughingly pointed out. "There are men in San Francisco who wear hot pink nails, too."

Where do they go from here?
Forensic Science students are a mix of high school and college students, plus adults seeking to change professions.

Some students move on after graduation to the Police Academy, Ohlone College, San Jose State, and California State University in East bay among others.

A final word.
Maybe the Forensic Challenge should be called the "Forensic Just-How-Far Do-You Want-To Go-Challenge?" This is every student's opportunity to really show everything that he or she has learned. In short, it is the final exam.

Don't feel bad , Sherlock. Just put your name on the waiting list.

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