Courtroom Experience Puts Forensics Students to the Test

Release Date: 
May 10 2012

Forensics Mock Trial

The defense attorney nearly shouted when he accused the young forensics student of conspiring to convict his client of drug and murder charges.

“Basically, you think my client is guilty, don’t you?” asked Scott Newman, a former two-term prosecuting attorney for Marion County.

Tara Sharts, a student in the Forensic and Investigative Sciences (FIS) Program at IUPUI, kept her cool under Newman’s attack and stuck to the evidence. She had examined a handwriting sample on what was believed to be a forged personal check written by the defendant. 

“We found alterations on the check,” Sharts repeated calmly.

Newman’s short-lived confrontation gave way to another underlying lesson of the daylong mock trial: Good science needs good advocates. The exercise was designed to help forensic students get used to the courtroom environment and handle the pressure of being challenged as expert witnesses. 

More than 100 students attend the IUPUI program, one of only 16 undergraduate programs in the country to be accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission. Each student is expected to graduate as a highly trained and capable forensic scientist, said Dr. John Goodpaster, program director and assistant professor of chemistry in the School of Science at IUPUI.

“This is a good drill for them to learn the scientific way to handle evidence as well as how to be able to explain it so those in the courtroom can understand and support it,” he said. “Ultimately, forensic scientists are going to have to survive this type of experience to do well in a legal environment.”

Forensics Mock TrialA parade of student witnesses took the stand in the historic U.S. District Court of Indiana during the mock trial. They presented analyses of a wide range of evidence including fire debris, DNA, and an improvised explosive device (IED).

Newman, who portrayed a defense attorney at the mock trial, approached the experience as a lesson in accuracy and a reminder of the responsibility that comes with a career in forensic science. A veteran in the courtroom, he targeted any perceived weaknesses in the students’ evidence or reports.

“If I smell that a witness may not know something well, I will go after it,” advised Newman, a visiting assistant professor in the FIS program.

“This was really nerve racking, and I think it would be even more so during an actual trial,” said senior Michael White. “I thought this was a really great experience.”

Senior Samantha Moore agreed, adding that she was nervous to participate in her first mock trial 

Forensics Mock Trial“I sort of had an idea of what was going to happen,” said Moore, who hopes to specialize in serology, the study of blood serum and other bodily fluids, after graduation. “It’s important to be honest and be calm. I think you can learn something every time you testify.” 

Newman agreed: “This mock trial exercise is part of one of the most ambitious and rigorous undergraduate programs anywhere.”

Learn more about the Forensic and Investigative Sciences Program at IUPUI: