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Body of Evidence



Published September 29, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

Television's top-rated series, the Las Vegas version of "CSI," has spawned sister shows set in Miami and New York City. Audiences apparently can't get enough of the autopsies that these programs depict in a highly stylized form. Crime-scene investigation is hot, and C. William Kilpatrick, an associate professor at the University of Vermont, offers a cool class for the not-too-squeamish. He says his Forensic Biology Seminar, which predominantly enrolls seniors, is the only college course of its kind in the state.

On a warm Friday afternoon in September, 23 students in an airless room at the Marsh Life Sciences Building seem engrossed in a visual presentation on the kinds of physical trauma that cause death. Each week, the 60-year-old Kilpatrick invites a different guest lecturer. This time it's Dr. Paul Morrow, formerly Vermont's chief medical examiner. During his hourlong talk, he discusses the image of a body with two gunshot wounds: Curiously, they appear different because one was slowed by a Harley Davidson patch on the victim's vest.

Although Kilpatrick has been at UVM for three decades, his biology, zoology and natural history specialties did not include a forensics course until this semester. Off campus, his knowledge of DNA profiling -- a.k.a. "fingerprinting" -- has made him an expert witness at trials in the region. The tall, hefty Fairfax resident, a native of Texas, pays close attention to well-publicized homicides across the country. His familiarity with the shoddy procedures at a crime lab involved in the O.J. Simpson legal proceedings led him to predict that the former football hero would get off. Kilpatrick, who currently suspects that the prosecution has "a weak case" against alleged wife-murderer Scott Peterson, is naturally a big fan of "CSI."

SEVEN DAYS: How did you get into this field?

C. WILLIAM KILPATRICK: Well, I originally thought I'd be a veterinarian. As a sophomore at Midwestern State University, where I got my Bachelor's and Master's degrees, I studied bats and rodents in Vera Cruz, Mexico. My real specialty is zoology, which uses the same tools as we do in forensics -- particularly DNA methods. My doctorate in biology came from North Texas State University.

SD: Were your parents science-minded?

CWK: Not at all. My father, who died while I was young, was a banker. My mother, a housewife, always wanted me to become a banker. When I took field trips to exotic places, she would ask, "Are you getting credit for that?" My older sister is a retired teacher for homebound students.

SD: How did your career get started?

CWK: I took a temporary job teaching comparative anatomy at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, which is not as hot as Texas but has long winters.

SD: You don't have a twang anymore.

CWK: I can get it back in about 20 minutes.

SD: What brought you to Vermont?

CWK: In 1974 I saw that UVM had an opening for evolutionary genetics. Over the years, I've also taught mammalogy, systematics -- which is reconstruction of evolutionary trees -- and molecular ecology, a new area. And I've done graduate colloquiums and seminars.

SD: Do you have a family?

CWK: My first wife died in 1987. Our three kids are now 36, 35 and 23. A few years ago I remarried a woman named Margaret I met through a dating service. She works for Homeland Security.

SD: Doing what?

CWK: Database services. She carries a badge but not a gun.

SD: Speaking of guns, what prompted you to give a forensics course?

CWK: Students want that career choice. There seems to be a lot of demand for these skills. So UVM decided last semester to provide forensics as a concentration of study. This course is the capstone. After this, it'll be offered once a year in the fall. Most of them are biology majors. They need to have taken several prerequisites, such as chemistry and genetics. There are no tests, no papers. Class participation is everything. They must ask questions.

SD: Are they very motivated?

CWK: Absolutely. They have to be for a class that meets late Friday afternoon.

SD: You bring in guest speakers each week?

CWK: Yes. This semester we heard from [Vermont] Attorney General Bill Sorrell about how forensics has changed, from a prosecutor's point of view. I worked with him on my first court case, in 1991. That was also the first time DNA was used in a Vermont trial.

SD: What was the charge?

CWK: Sexual assault, in Hinesburg. We got a conviction.

SD: Were you nervous on the stand in the beginning?

CWK: No. It was akin to an oral exam for a graduate degree. But I had a lot to learn. Since I was new at it, Bill helped me determine what I should charge. He told me I should include the hours spent waiting outside the courtroom -- sometimes for days -- in addition to the time I actually testify.

SD: You don't participate in the autopsies or hands-on investigations.

CWK: Right. The state crime lab sends me their information -- x-rays, photographs and other documentation -- and I analyze it to provide a second opinion. DNA fingerprinting began in the 1970s but took a while to gain acceptance. Now, the techniques have been revolutionized. The biggest change is that we can look at trace amounts of DNA.

SD: Are there ever mistakes?

CWK: An innocent person has never been convicted on DNA evidence. Conversely, people have been released from prison when DNA proves their innocence. It's an absolute if we're talking about unrelated individuals, but a more slippery slope when it comes to identical twins, even siblings sometimes.

SD: Because twins share the same DNA, it would be tricky to figure out which one committed a crime?

CWK: Yes.

SD: According to recent news accounts, DNA found under the fingernails of a Colchester victim led to the arrest of her sister for the killing. Would you be the person asked to testify about that at her trial?

CWK: DNA has become so accepted that they often don't need expert witnesses these days. Defense attorneys are less likely to challenge it. The number of cases I'm called in on has gone down tremendously.

SD: Do some cases play on your emotions?

CWK: Occasionally. One suspect in the mid-1990s had a terrible look in his eyes. Something about him made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

SD: Was he convicted?

CWK: For rape and murder.