Syracuse University Magazine

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Forensic science students work together to determine the area of origin of the bloodstain pattern.



Blood School

Most college students release their end-of-semester stress by playing a pickup game of basketball or partying with friends. But students in Professor Anita Zannin’s bloodstain pattern analysis course take out their aggression on poor Spatter Head—a plaster-based, hollow human head reproduction filled with sheep blood that they beat with a variety of blunt instruments to analyze the size, shape, and distribution of the resulting blood stains to determine what kind of event occurred. “By analyzing bloodstain patterns you can determine whether it was a beating, a stomping, or a shooting,” says Zannin G’11, a faculty member in the Forensic and National Security Sciences Institute in the College of Arts and Sciences. “And you can establish the minimum number of blows that were struck and if the attacker was also injured.”

Analyzing bloodstain patterns to solve crimes is nothing new. In fact, the technique was used informally in Europe in the 1800s. But it didn’t become popular in the Western Hemisphere until the 1970s when Herbert MacDonell from Corning, New York, applied the modern scientific principles of biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics to boost it to a higher level, and it is now an accepted scientific discipline. “Bloodstain pattern analysis is an important law enforcement tool because it can help solve crimes by guiding the investigation in the early stages before other lab results are back,” says Zannin, who earned undergraduate degrees in forensic science and criminal justice at Buffalo State College. “And later, once you have DNA evidence, it can help put specific people in specific places.”

Unfortunately, not all bloodstain pattern analysts are created equal, and caution must be taken to ensure that an “expert witness” has the appropriate credentials and training. Syracuse University is one of only two institutions in the country—the other is Baylor University in Texas—approved by the International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts (IABPA) to offer a sanctioned 40-hour course in the field. IABPA recognition is significant because it gives students the opportunity to apply for membership in the organization at a provisional level, and then after a year qualify for full membership. “When you go to court you are always asked to what professional associations you belong,” says Zannin, who has a medical background and holds a graduate degree in forensic science from Syracuse University. “It shows you are keeping current with your field.”

Students attending “Blood School,” as Zannin’s course is affectionately called, learn how to use microscopy and chemical tests to investigate crime scenes, conduct hands-on experiments to reconstruct incidents and criminal investigations, and evaluate statements from witnesses and suspects. Undergraduates taking the three-credit course come from a variety of academic disciplines. “My favorite part was being able to go over cases and see how to use the techniques we were learning in real-life scenarios,” says Danielle Lindgren ’14, a chemistry major and an integrated learning major in forensic science. “Overall, the course gave me a significantly better understanding of bloodstains and how they apply to other laws of science, such as physics.”

Graduate students enrolled in the course are studying for a forensic science degree, and there also is a non-credit option for mid-career professionals in forensic science, law, health, and medicine. Krystyna Rotella ’10, a Madison County (N.Y.) deputy sheriff, completed the course as an undergraduate biology major and is now studying for her graduate degree in forensic science. “I gained a wealth of knowledge from Professor Zannin’s course that I will use in law enforcement and, eventually, in criminal forensics,” Rotella says. “It was a real blast.”       —Christine Yackel