Students in Ann Burgess’ fall forensic science lab at Boston College have a murder mystery to solve. And their grades depend on deducing the right suspect.
This year, for the first time at the college, a hands-on lab will accompany the course Burgess, RN, DNSc, RNCS, FAAN, professor of psychiatric mental health nursing at the college’s Connell School of Nursing, has taught for eight years. Students will study a mock crime scene and learn to take fingerprints, study broken glass, test DNA, match blood samples, and even take apart a computer hard drive and study phone records to choose the right “killer” from four suspects.
Toward the end of the lab, students will be called as witnesses in a mock trial and will present their findings to a jury. The course is offered through the school of nursing in conjunction with the biology department, which had the lab equipment in place. But it is open to all university students. It is one of the first such programs in the country offered on an undergraduate level.
“It will be a multidisciplinary approach,” says Burgess. “We will use people from the university as well as guests. For example, the BC police will come in and do the fingerprinting. My co-director in the biology department will help in the DNA area with blood they have to examine and match. Someone from the physics department will help with glass shattering and how to match a shard to a pane of glass.”
The lab is one of five classes Burgess will teach this year along with victimology, forensic case studies, forensic science, and forensic mental health (the study of offenders). Forensic nursing, which simply means the application of nursing science to legal proceedings, is a relatively new field and was only recognized as a subspecialty by the American Nurses Association in 1995. In April 2002, the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) held its first international certification exam.
Early forensic nursing focused on sexual assault and abuse cases. Now a forensic nurse may help with crime scene investigations, work with offenders in prison, counsel schoolchildren, or help conduct death investigations.
Burgess started out studying victims. She co-founded, along with Boston College sociologist Lynda Holmstrom, one of the first hospital-based crisis counseling programs for rape victims in 1972 at Boston City Hospital. Work from that program led to the establishment of Rape Trauma Syndrome in 1974, a diagnosis that describes a rape victim’s stages of response after the assault. That work led her to collaborate with the FBI to help develop profiling approaches for serial rapists and murderers. Subsequently, her work has focused on the dual roles of victim and offender, and she has authored dozens of texts and books that follow both. She is working on a new textbook on victimology.
“From a treatment standpoint, you need to understand what has traumatized the victim and that, of course, has to do with the offender,” Burgess says.
Her latest work is in comparing current online child pornography predators to those of the 1980s, who were limited to photographs and other low-tech methods of feeding their sexual proclivities.
“It’s much easier now,” Burgess says. “These predators can get online and send out 100 e-mails on MySpace, or whatever, and they may get one or two back. It’s amazing how rapidly that can expand.”
Burgess also is part of a study funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention on a multi-pronged approach to study online predators, victims, and young Internet users. She and other researchers are developing questionnaires for middle school, high school, and college students on their understanding of the Internet and how they may get lured into possibly dangerous situations.
Recently, Burgess has been called as an expert witness in high-profile cases. In the Riley Fox case, she testified for the father, Kevin Fox, who was cleared of charges he murdered his 3-year-old daughter, Riley, in Wilmington, Ill., in 2004 and spoke about the profile of a person who could have committed the crime. In the Duke University lacrosse case, she testified for one of three team members falsely accused of raping a woman in 2006.
It’s the courtroom testimony that may keep more nurses from entering the forensic nursing specialty, Burgess suspects. Cross-examination challenges the knowledge behind the nurse’s testimony and it can be intimidating.
“You just have to think of the jury as needing the best of our science,” Burgess says. “We need more nurses in this field. When there are more people who can do what I do, then I will feel that my work has been justified.”