On a rainy day in March, nine OSU-CHS forensic sciences students sketched, measured, swabbed and bagged evidence at a mock crime scene aboard an MD-80 aircraft at Stillwater Regional Airport.
It was part of the Advanced Criminalistics crse required of all OSU-CHS forensic sciences graduate students. Last Tuesday, the students brought the case full circle, testifying as expert witnesses in a mock trial before Judge Rebecca Nightingale at the Tulsa County Courthouse.
“The best way to learn how to present forensic evidence in court is to actually do it,” said Ron Thrasher, Ph.D., associate professor of forensic sciences. “This experience has provided students with a foundation they can draw from when they begin their careers as toxicologists, death scene investigators or DNA analysts.”
In the scenario presented to students, an airplane headed to Dallas from Kansas City made an emergency landing in Stillwater after a male passenger died and other passengers fell ill. When students entered the aircraft’s crime scene, they found half-filled soda cups, a powdered substance and simulated blood spatter in the first-class cabin.
Since gathering the evidence, the students processed it in a lab and found that the opioid Fentanyl and the sedative Xanax were present in the urine of several passengers, including the “deceased person.”
The project was designed to teach students to process a crime scene, write accurate reports and act as an expert witness at a criminal trial.
“Being able to partake in the whole procedure from processing the actual crime scene and analyzing the evidence to writing the report and then testifying was one of the best real-life experiences that this program offers,” said Ashley LaMothe, a student specializing in pathology and death scene investigation. “I believe there is no substitute for testifying from an actual witness chair in front of a sitting judge and real attorneys.”
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler played the role of defense attorney and Tulsa County Assistant District Attorney Reagan Reininger was the prosecutor. In his role as defense attorney, Kunzweiler worked to get the witnesses off track.
“Is it fair to say this was some kind of pill party going on?” he asked participant Dane Robertson, a student specializing in toxicology.
“I can’t testify as to what was taking place on the airplane,” Robertson replied.
Travis Brachtenbach said he felt nervous throughout the entire testimony.
“I answered all of the questions to the best of my ability and I think that's all that anyone can ask,” he said. “This exercise was useful in gaining insight into the courtroom side of things. While I have plenty of experience with lab work, it was great to have the lawyers and judge give their advice on how to effectively communicate what I do in the lab to a jury.”
After all students had been questioned and cross-examined, Nightingale, Kunzweiler and Reininger provided feedback to the students.
“I asked a lot of questions that were designed to get you to step out of your box– in this case, science – and say something I can use to prove my case,” Kunzweiler said. “You handled those questions very well.”
Nightingale said the students were well prepared for the assignment.
“When you testify before a jury, you are teaching them,” she said. “I was very impressed with what you all did.”