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Genes and justice

$1.6 million grant will aid DNA evidence procedures

In an effort to harness the crime-solving potential of DNA technology, the Interactive Media Laboratory (IML) at Dartmouth Medical School (DMS) will train professionals to manage DNA evidence with a $1.6 million grant, awarded by the National Institute of Justice and the Office on Violence Against Women. The Lab will develop virtual computer-based training programs to educate personnel in the criminal justice system on the collection, preservation and use of DNA biological evidence.

Joseph Henderson
Joseph Henderson, Professor of Community and Family Medicine and Director, Interactive Media Laboratory (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

"DNA evidence could revolutionize the U.S. justice system if the technology protocols are properly understood, both in the laboratory and in the courts," said Joseph Henderson, Director of the IML and Professor of Community and Family Medicine at DMS.

Leading a team of designers and software developers, Henderson has developed an innovative instructional model for computer-based professional education that is applied toward producing "virtual clinics" on a range of topics. The interactive distance learning courses, delivered on CD or via the Internet, incorporate lectures, 3-D images, animation, patient and expert interviews and periodic examinations to provide comprehensive instruction regardless of the trainee's location or time constraints.

Henderson's newest project involves educating and training two sets of professionals in the U.S. justice system. The first course is geared toward health care and victims services providers, training them to respond to the concerns of the victim and in methods to accurately collect DNA evidence. The second program covers the next step: making sure that DNA information is interpreted correctly by prosecutors, judges and other legal professionals.

"Since this is a relatively new area of forensics, there seems to be a knowledge gap in how to properly utilize DNA data during trials," said Henderson, who noted that instruction on responding to sexual assaults on women will be emphasized in the training courses.

To ensure that all clinical information is comprehensive and up to date, IML is collaborating with leading experts in DNA technology and forensics. The project will include input from sexual assault clinical experts from around the country, as well as leaders at the National Forensic Science Technology Center, the FBI Laboratories, the Office on Violence Against Women, the American Prosecutors Research Institute, the National Institute of Justice and Dartmouth Medical School.

"Collaborations are absolutely crucial to the success of this project," said Joshua Nelson, Administrative Director of IML. "Our goal is to make sure that the procedures and protocols we teach in these courses will eliminate breakdowns in the field, the laboratory and the court system so there is no doubt on the final verdict."

The IML team hopes to ease the overload of cases on the justice system. Henderson believes that if a laboratory technician can efficiently analyze a properly collected sample, clearly labeled with all pertinent information, and then submit the data to prosecutors and judges in a timely manner, it will boost the efficiency of the U.S. court system.

The IML estimates that the DNA evidence clinics will be completed in spring of 2007. Researchers there are close to finishing another program, the Virtual Terrorism Response Academy (VTRA), which will train first responders in the event of a terrorist attack or hazardous material spill. The VTRA, scheduled for release in fall of 2005, equips fire service, law enforcement and emergency paramedics with skills to accurately assess the nature of a threat, keep casualties to a minimum and contain damage as quickly and safely as possible.

By ANDREW NORDHOFF

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Last Updated: 12/17/08