MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Researchers in the West Virginia University Department of Forensic and Investigative Science has received two grants from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and National Institute of Justice.
One grant is worth $466,543, and WVU assistant professor Tatiana Trejos, Ph.D., is the principal investigator charged with creating more objective and computational methods to make comparisons of materials that are fractured at crime scenes. Trejos said when criminal activities like sexual assaults, kidnappings, hit and run accidents, and homicides happen; a crime scene is often left with only partial evidence, and she is tasked with finding a way to figure out the puzzle and how it relates to a person of interest or suspect in the case.
For example, if you have an improvised explosive device (IED) and that device was exploded, and all that was left was probably small residues of the explosive and small residues of the tape that was used to build the IED. If we come up with a suspect, part of the things that they found are pieces of tape or a tape roll. We can do comparisons of the pieces left at the crime scene and the pieces of evidence recovered from the suspect, and that can be very probatory in the courtroom. So what we are developing in these grants is a more effective and practical approach to increase the objectivity of how we do these analyses and to make them also faster.Tatiana Trejos, Ph.D. – WVU Department of Forensic and Investigative Science
Trejos said she and her colleagues use computer science, or computational science and statistics to make these comparisons more automated. Also, they want to provide a significantly more objective assessment of if two or more pieces fit together from a crime scene than they can now.
The second DOJ grant, Trejos said, is meant to develop new technologies for the detection of residues that are left in the hands and clothing of individuals after firing a gun or starting a fire. She said that research is “very critical” in terms of investigations of any fire and gun-related crimes to try to associate a suspect or person of interest to a particular set of activities in crime scenes.
For this project, worth $476,517, Trejos is the co-principal investigator. She will be working alongside her colleague Luis Arroyo, Ph.D. She said they would be working together to develop new methods and quality control standards to make determinations faster.
“We are also evaluating different knowledge to understand better how what happened with these residues that are invisible to the naked eye, but they can remain for several hours in the hands, clothing, face, and hair of the individuals,” Trejos said. “So we are developing methods to detect those residues in a very efficient manner. For example, a technology that is used at the crime laboratories may take two to eight hours to do this analysis, and the technology that we are developing can do the same type of analysis in just under five minutes per sample, so it’s a huge increase in the speed of analysis and the decision making process that can come out of that.”
Trejos said they are developing instrumentation that can be used in the field, at crime scenes, not just in the lab.
Both grants, Trejos said, have one common goal: to provide better methods and tools to fight crime in an objective manner using evidence-based knowledge. The funding that allows for these advances is critical to the university, especially to graduate students.
Many WVU graduate students go on to work in West Virginia, so the knowledge and experience they accumulate in school will directly benefit the state someday. That is why Trejos said she is appreciative of the DOJ because none of these advances would be possible without it. The DOJ provides money for research that has direct applications, and that is important, she said.
“We really believe in science that is applicable and provides solutions for existing needs, and so that is really critical for us,” Trejos said. “One of the things that we have been able to do with these types of grants and funding is to work in collaboration with forensic practitioners so that we can plan strategically how to better disseminate the information of this research and eventually adopt that at the crime laboratory and in the field. So these types of opportunities are just very important for the development of these types of novel research capacity and building capabilities. Building all that infrastructure to do the actual research, to disseminate the research, and make it available to end users would not be possible without this type of support from the DOJ and funding agencies.”