When 15 students in a brand-new Mississippi State University academic course shoulder their backpacks and head to class, textbooks aren't their major concern.
In addition to their normal note-taking tools, they're packing fingerprint powder, evidence markers and cotton swabs.
The students are a new breed of forensic scientists--those learning to investigate crimes against wildlife and the great outdoors. In a class being taught at MSU for the first time this semester by the husband-wife team of Richard Minnis and Clare Chesnavage, the future forensic scientists are getting hands-on training in tracking crimes ranging from hunting out of season to importing restricted animals.
The teaching duo is making academic history with their effort. "Mississippi State is the only university in North America offering a course in wildlife forensics and one of a few universities offering a degree in wildlife law enforcement," Minnis noted.
To develop the course, Minnis did his homework. The assistant research professor in the College of Forest Resources, also a deputy for the Oktibbeha County sheriff's office, interviewed several forensic laboratories around the United States. He received assistance from Chesnagave, who has worked with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service on cold cases and as a medical technologist in laboratories for more than 15 years.
"Wildlife crime scenes are outdoors and cover an extremely large area, unlike most traditional crime scenes, which are indoors and very small," Minnis explained. "In this course, we have to be innovative and alter the techniques used in traditional forensics to adapt them for wildlife."
The resulting coursework reflects the most frequent problem reported by forensic laboratories: the improper collection of evidence by wildlife officers. "The evidence is either missed, not picked up or improperly handled so that it becomes contaminated," Chesnavage said. "A lot of evidence is lost just from not being collected properly."
Without attention to details, the likelihood of conviction is reduced, she said.
Crime scene investigation involves the sometimes fastidious gathering of evidence, most often by wildlife officers working independently. "Many times the same officer will work a crime scene, collect evidence and present the results in court," Chesnavage explained.
That process is the focus of the academic training MSU students now are receiving. "While we want students to be aware of laboratory procedures, this class emphasizes how to properly identify and collect evidence so that it can be examined in the lab and then finally in the courtroom," she said.
At the end of the course, students will be required to work a crime scene without contaminating it, identify evidence, mark it, collect it, and take proper notes.
To learn about crime scenes, the class will hear from a variety of guest speakers--conservation officers, a state district attorney, a bureau of narcotics officer, an investigator for the sheriff's office, MSU veterinary medicine professors, forensics instructors, and wildlife professors. In addition, a representative from the U.S. Forest Service will conduct a session on protecting reptiles and amphibians.
Wildlife-related crimes already are taken seriously in Mississippi, the two professors note. Between 1996-2002, approximately 71,000 citations were written, with an 87.5 percent conviction rate.
"This course will be invaluable for graduating students to begin working in the field with an understanding of the terminology and the process of collecting evidence during a wildlife investigation," said Master Sgt. Jim Willcutt, conservation officer with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. "This understanding should assist new officers in continuing to solve wildlife crimes."