Forensic Anthropology class makes a mockery of a crime scene, in a good way.
Cigarette butts, crushed beer cans, and a decaying tome about 12-Step programs lied scattered around the quad. But the focus was the gruesome sight these objects surrounded: a skeleton, still wearing the tattered clothes it died in, lying sprawled out on the grass — the blood spray pattern on the clothes a polka dot pattern of death. “Basically, we have a victim here that was shot in the head with a shotgun. We actually got that information from the police officers prior to coming to the scene,” said Frank Hernandez, an SMC student studying the body of the presumed gunshot victim.
Over the last weekend, this bloody scene of carnage could be seen on the southern lawn of SMC’s Main Campus quad behind a 12-by-12 cordon of orange tape declaring, “Danger: Do not enter.” It wasn’t the only scene of violence either — only a few feet away laid the skeleton of a small child still in its tiny clothes behind another barricade of tape.
But this isn’t a horrible case of double homicide that will have the SMCPD hunting down the culprits. Rather, the pair of skeletons were placed on the campus quad over the weekend as part of an annual class project for the school’s Forensic Anthropology course — a mock crime scene recovery.
Hernandez? He’s an Aerospace Engineering major taking the class along with the dozen others who roamed the quad, studying the sites for clues while taking extensive notes and putting down small flags next to the various items scattered about in the grass. Yellow flags are placed next to pieces of evidence that aren’t human remains, orange flags next to anything that might have been a person.
"Crime scene recovery is a destructive process,” said Professor Ciarán Brewster, the teacher in charge of this out of the ordinary class project. “That's why it's super important for [students] to take detailed notation of everything pertaining to the site, to take photographs, document it. The ideal would to be able to go back from our written notes, our documentation, and our photographs and be able to reconstruct what the site was like."
Brewster explained how after his students initially analyzed the scene and pinned flags next to individual pieces of evidence on the ground, the next step was to take photographs and create a grid of the scene using J-pins and string. The grid is used to help calculate how various objects may have fallen onto the ground at the time of the victim's death, and this is further used to analyze how the death may have occurred.
“If it was a gunshot victim for instance — we have one of the scenarios like that — one of the things that might be looking out for might be the location of the body relative to the bullet," said Brewster.
Though the recovery of the scene would only take three to four hours to be finished by the students, the harder work of analysis would be done when the class met later in the week. There, they would use their notes as well as bagged and tagged evidence to come up with a theory to best match the scenarios Brewster had set up. Brewster emphasized that this later analysis is why going out to crime scenes was so important for anthropologists, saying, “Because in too many cases, we get evidence that arrives in a box [at] the lab and there's no context.”
Students attending the event went about their business of crime scene recovery, chattering excitedly and loudly to compete with the noise of gardeners performing loud groundskeeping duties nearby. It was an otherwise empty campus, as one might expect on the weekend.
But despite the somber scene and empty grounds, every one of the students seemed excited by the assignment — none more so than Ayla Hartvig.
“It's fun,” said Hartvig. “This is what I want to do. The bones thing is kind of my deal. Last weekend we went to the coroner's office and I think it would be pretty dope to work there, so I'm highly considering that.”
Hartvig spoke about the class’ trip to the county morgue a week earlier; about how while other students blanched at the sight of corpses awaiting analysis, she had no problem whatsoever. “Honestly, I know this sounds really weird, [but] when we went to the morgue, it didn't bug me. Everyone was like, 'Oh my god, bodies!' and I was like, 'OK, well they are dead people. But they're just people that aren't living anymore.' It's not that weird. It smells, but it's not that weird."
For Hartvig, these kinds of hands on experiences that Brewster’s class has exposed her to are what helped her decide, at only 19, to pursue Forensic Anthropology as not only her major, but as a real career.
“Having this class helped me solidify the fact that this is what I want to do with the rest of my life," said Hartvig, which is exactly the kind of reaction Brewster said he wants to create. As a first year faculty member at SMC, he said that he’s worked hard to figure out ways to engage students with material they will find useful for their future career paths rather than mere intellectual exercises.
“For me what I love about Santa Monica College is that I get to focus on my teaching," said Brewster. "At universities, there are other demands in terms of research, bringing in funding, writing papers. But what I care passionately about is the teaching aspect of my career. Giving the students opportunities and really focusing on undergraduates so they can have real world experiences.”