Regents approve SUNO for forensic science degree program

Starting this fall students at Southern University at New Orleans will learn how to read a crime scene, for instance determining whether a victim of a violent crime was attacked at the same spot where their body was found or whether gunshot residue found on a piece of clothing came from a weapon fired at close or long range.

The state Board of Regents approved SUNO’s forensic science bachelor’s degree program last week. It will be the first such program in the state.

In a city known just as much for its violent crime as for its arts and culture, the degree program, has so far, been endorsed by a number of different organizations and by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

The program is being touted as one more tool authorities can use to fight crime in the city.

It’s well-known that Landrieu was on a 12-person jury in late 2011 that deadlocked over whether the defendant, Gerald Nickles, fatally shot a longtime acquaintance during an armed robbery.

In interviews following the mistrial, Landrieu was quoted as saying he was among the faction that believed prosecutors had proved their case.

He was also on the record saying he understood the frustrations of jurors who were concerned that police hadn’t collected blood samples, fingerprints or any number of other items that could have been used as physical evidence during the trial.

Investigators on the scene, presumably didn’t collect those items because the victim didn’t die immediately — he hung on for several days before succumbing to his injuries.

At the time, Landrieu admitted the investigation wasn’t handled well.

Late last year, when SUNO was still working on the details of its forensic science program, Landrieu wrote a letter in support of the program.

“Crime reduction and prevention is my number one priority, and to achieve our goals, New Orleans needs the best quality professionals in the area of forensic science,” Landrieu wrote. “After all, often it is forensic evidence that identifies perpetrators and leads to convictions in criminal cases.”

New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas also offered his support, writing that he is “delighted” SUNO is offering the program.

“Considering the manpower needed in the discipline of forensic science, we look forward to working with” the university, he wrote.

The idea of beefing up forensic science manpower is a familiar one in courtrooms across the state. Historically, Louisiana has had a backlog in examining DNA evidence collected at crime scenes.

State Police Capt. Doug Cain said investigators recently eliminated the backlog, but, not before it had become a significant problem.

“At one point the backlog was over 1,000 cases,” Cain said.

SUNO Chancellor Victor Ukpolo chalked up some of the backlog to what he called “a shortage of skilled workers available to help us expeditiously handle crime.”

“The state and the city are grappling with major crime issues,” Ukpolo added. “If we can contribute in some way, we feel we can help resolve some of these issues.”

SUNO Biology Professor Murty Kambhampati, said students in the forensic science degree program will have mentorship opportunities at one of Louisiana’s seven criminal labs to study disciplines ranging from DNA analysis to drug screen toxicology and forensic microscopy.

“Students will learn evidence collection processes and everything they need to know to be contemplative and confident” in their approach to field work, he said.

Illya Tietzel is also a professor of biology at SUNO. Last week, after the Regents approved the new degree program, he talked about a former student of his who had disappeared for a time.

As it turns out, the student had been falsely accused of a crime and had been held in jail until he was cleared by photographic evidence and released, Tietzel said.

Tietzel said his student’s situation likely would have been cleared up faster had investigators had a way to examine DNA evidence in a more timely manner.

“They obviously arrested the wrong person,” he said.