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Legislators get close-up look at forensics

Forensics
Nov. 26, 2012 @ 11:35 AM

HUNTINGTON -- It takes some hands-on learning for legislators to be able to make good decisions, said West Virginia Sen. Roman Prezioso of Marion County. That's why he and about 25 other members of the West Virginia Legislature toured the Marshall University Forensic Science Center on Monday.

Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, and Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, of Subcommittee B of the Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary, joined local legislators Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, and Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell, and others on the tour to learn more about the center's academic programs and the forensic services it provides to law enforcement within the state and the nation.

With all the data that legislators get from various special interest groups, "These are the things we need to see," said Prezioso, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who said he applauds what the center is already doing and is glad to know what still needs state support.

The center both teaches a master's program in forensic science and operates working laboratories. It does a variety of services in everything from analyzing DNA to finding Internet criminals using state-of-the-art computer/smart phone tracking equipment. It works closely with the West Virginia State Police in forensics, and helps law enforcement agencies throughout the country, either through lab or Internet work done here, or by educating others on the model practices used at Marshall.

More than 1,000 people have come to West Virginia for weeklong training, coming from as far as Malaysia, said Terry Fenger, director of the center.

Getting a visit from the legislators was an honor, he said, sharing with them the developments that have been under way at the center during the past decade and how there is existing space that still needs to be "built out."

Among the needs of the center are the funding to complete an on-site lab for forensic chemistry, said Professor Graham Rankin, who for 10 years has been working in a "temporary" location off-site. With the ever-growing problem of bath salts and synthetic cannabinoids, "we're training the next level of forensic chemists to go out there," he said. "There are new and emerging drugs on the market all the time."

Using forensic chemistry, these new drugs can be detected as seized, and in cases of overdoses and death, he said.

The legislators took the opportunity to ask several other questions about efforts already under way and what was needed to improve their programs.

While they can track down perpetrators of child pornography quicker than ever before, the team working on digital forensics said one growing challenge in that realm is "sexting," including nude photographs that teens take of themselves to send via cellphone to their partners. The photos get into the wrong hands, end up on the Internet and are essentially child pornography, said Cpl. Robert Boggs.

It starts out as something private, and "once you put it in the digital world it can be used (for the wrong purposes)," Poore said, adding that it can lead to the ever-pervasive problem of bullying. She said she wanted to have further discussions about how the Legislature can help.

Sobonya asked whether there's any digital forensics work done that tracks internet criminals who go online to empty bank accounts, a situation in which a few people in the room had been victimized. It's not something that Marshall does at this point, though it is becoming more widespread, officials said.

The legislators also got a look at DNA labs and heard about current projects. One involved a shipment of about 800 sexual assault kits that had been administered to assault victims but had been left in storage for years in Detroit. The MU Forensic Science Center has been enlisted to help with DNA testing of the kits to help identify offenders. It's a project being funded through funds from Detroit and grant money.

Jenkins asked about whether the center has potential for becoming a more financially self-sustaining enterprise. There are consistent requests for government funds for the center, he said, and he asked whether the center should be charging for some type of service. That's a complex answer, depending on how the equipment being used was funded, and whether or not it can be used for profit.

Sobonya said that while she's visited the Forensic Science Center several times, she learns something new each time. She said the staff should be commended for making it a facility that's well-respected throughout the country. She also was happy to hear that legislation that she co-sponsored and was passed in 2006 is helping stop perpetrators of child pornography earlier in the process. Before that bill, the criminal had to actually have contact with the child before facing charges. With the passage of the Internet Protection Act, adults can face felony charges for using a computer to solicit or lure a minor to commit an illegal act.

"It's humbling to see the effectiveness that we as legislators can actually have in helping people," she said.

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