Forensic center works outside spotlight
HUNTINGTON -- There are no movie stars or television cameras, but there is a lot of real-life CSI drama behind the scenes in Huntington.
The Marshall University Forensic Science Center, whose lobby used to be the former Marshall locker room at Fairfield Stadium, is housed in two buildings off of Charleston Avenue as well as the Crime Scene House at 524 5th Ave. While director Dr. Terry Fenger shuns comparisons to the CBS television drama, it is obvious during a tour of the facilities that very dramatic things are indeed happening behind the doors.
"A lot of people don't even know this place exists," Fenger said. "They know we're doing something down here, but they don't know what."
"What" is a variety of services from DNA extraction and testing laboratories to digital forensic investigations of computers, cell phones and GPS units. It works closely with law enforcement as the only DNA testing facility for all convicted offenders in West Virginia -- a fact that came into play in late October when the DNA of one inmate matched a DNA sample from the Huntington Mall rape cases from 1987.
"A lot of people ask, 'Why didn't we do this 20 years ago?' It's because the technology hadn't caught up yet. It took technology getting to this point for it to work. The stars all had to align," Fenger said. "In just the 10 years since I've been here, a DNA sample might go from a 1 in 1,000 result to a 1 in 5 quadrillion result. That's how much things have improved."
Today, the technology appears to be full speed ahead with the center boasting high-end lab equipment, super computers and a movie-esque radiofrequency isolation chamber. The chamber, made of copper, brass, aluminum and zinc, is designed to disrupt and block satellite and remote signals to GPS units and cell phones, preventing a potential criminal from remotely wiping out information that might be important in the course of an investigation.
Forensic Science Center buildings also house modern classrooms and training labs for students to learn first-hand about paternity and mortuary testing, convicted offender data basing, cyber crime investigations and DNA analysis case work.
One of the two main areas of focus for center staff is the digital forensics unit, which handles a variety of computer hard drives, cell phones and even PlayStations in the course of helping law enforcement investigate crimes. More than 50 percent of this unit's case load involves child pornography. The tremendous workload has caused staff to look at expanding to office space three times their current size on another floor of the building, an area that would also encompass two labs currently off-site.
"You don't think of using PlayStations to send photos, but that's where things are going, so we have to be on top of that," Fenger said. "We have to be able to anticipate what's coming down the pike and account for it before it happens."
There's also the educational component. The center offers a two-year master's degree program in forensic science, and its students recently ranked No. 1 in the country for highest overall test scores. The center also conducts numerous training programs for the FBI to sexual assault nurse examiners. The programs boast more than 1,200 participants from across the country to date.
"West Virginia is the only state in the country where an accredited institution is working this closely with law enforcement," Fenger said. "I don't think Marshall gets enough credit for the things that go on in this state."
Fenger was also quick to thank the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd for money awarded to the facility to help further its work.
"I can honestly say we've never wasted a cent in this operation. This is not 'pork,' " Fenger said. "It's really benefiting the whole forensic community nationally."
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