'It really opened my eyes': Forensics expert visits QJHS biology classroom

Quincy Junior High School student Gabby Amos pulls on a pair of latex gloves Thursday before conducting a test of DNA material during a presentation by Danyelle Harrison, left, in teacher Cheryl Voglerís honors biology class. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)
Posted: Apr. 5, 2013 8:45 am Updated: Apr. 19, 2013 11:15 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Cheryl Vogler welcomed a crime scene into her biology classroom at Quincy Junior High School on Thursday.

Criminalist Danyelle Harrison came equipped with mock evidence and crunched a decade of murder investigation experience into a 50-minute class period. While the students had studied DNA in class with Vogler, Harrison put its importance in a real-world perspective. In her career, she had seen traces of semen, blood and hair samples solve crimes and convict murderers.

"That's the stuff that puts people away for life," Harrison said.

Harrison accepted a position with the St. Louis Metro Police Department shortly after the 1993 O.J. Simpson trial spurred a need for more forensic scientists. While she returned to Quincy nine years ago to run the family business, Harrison Monuments, she receives subpoenas for cases she worked on more than 10 years ago. The DNA evidence doesn't weaken with time.

"This is evidence that does not get confused or excited by the moment," Harrison said.

Using a stained pair of jeans, Harrison showed the honors biology students how to pull DNA samples from evidence. Devin Prost used a solution and a cotton swab to extract the fake blood from the pants.

Harrison said those blood splatters didn't match the victim, so they needed a sample from the suspect. Austin Wiegand took a buccal swab, which uses DNA from the mouth, from classmate Jacob Smith. Harrison explained that during a criminal investigation, DNA gained from buccal swabs may place suspects at the scene of the crime.

"I had no idea about any of the details about forensics," Smith said. "This was awesome. It really opened my eyes."

Vogler said when her students are excited about a classroom topic, she tries to find someone else to explain how it applies to the real world. Harrison warned the students that forensics is a gruesome but exciting career. She talked the kids through deaths she'd seen in her work. She recalled a young man who had strangled himself with video game controller cord, as well as an older man who stabbed himself to death with scissors. She showed pictures of corpses that had been set on fire or chewed by dogs. While some students looked away, most eagerly asked questions.

"The kids need to understand that science can be a lot of different things," Vogler said.