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It’s a match

WVU forensic and investigative science professor researching connection between fingerprints and firearms

A West Virginia University researcher is uncovering how firearm evidence and latent fingerprint evidence helps solve crimes by finding the “perfect match.”

Keith Morris, the Ming Hsieh Distinguished Professor of Forensic and Investigative Science
Keith Morris

If a cartridge case was found at a crime scene, the investigator will compare cartridge cases to determine if they originated from a specific firearm. Keith Morris, the Ming Hsieh Distinguished Professor of Forensic and Investigative Science, focuses on the variability in the impressions that are created on the cartridge case from a particular firearm.

“We need to understand the origin of the variability and to quantify it from a statistical perspective,” Morris said. “We would like to understand the contributions of the various mechanical and chemical processes which occur during the discharge of a firearm.”

To understand the statistical perspective of that variability, Morris is collaborating with Casey Jelsema, an assistant professor of statistics at WVU whose own research primarily focuses on developing new statistical methodology.

Casey Jelsem, assistant professor of statistics at WVU
Casey Jelsema

“Morris’s research is immediately relatable to firearm examiners working right now, collecting and accessing evidence,” Jelsema said. “The verdicts of court cases could hinge on research put out by Morris and his students.”

Similar to the firearms research, Morris’ research on latent fingerprints revolves around identifying to whom a fingerprint belongs. He examines the latent fingerprints by using physical features to understand and identify individuals.

“It is a great opportunity to do this kind of research at WVU,” Morris said. “It really helps to set us apart from any other university. Funding like this allows our graduate students to be at the forefront of forensic research.”

When trying to assess if an accused committed the crime, it is important for the forensic scientist to find the similarity and dissimilarity of features between the evidence and a control. For example, when analyzing the DNA found at a crime scene, it is compared to a control or the DNA of the suspect. Assessing the random match probability indicates the strength of the evidence. Morris’ research focuses on discovering ways to assess evidence strength using probability.  

Morris also examines the interpretation of the evidence, which means understanding how the jury and public interpret what is presented in court. He also has to consider that different states, counties and cities have different laws and interpretations, so he and other forensic science investigators must present their findings in a way that various constituents can understand.

“We try to perform research that is useful in society today,” Morris said. “We want free and fair trials, and we don’t want people to be convicted of a crime if they did not commit that crime.”

Before coming to WVU in 2004, Morris worked for a police forensic lab for 13 years. He believes forensic scientists are not working toward a certain outcome in a case, but are instead looking for the truth behind the evidence.  

“A forensic scientist’s job is not to catch people; it’s not to arrest people; it’s not to play a role in what happens to that person,” Morris said. “We need to look at the evidence in an unbiased fashion.”

Morris’ research is supported by the National Institute of Justice, which awarded him a grant for $387,501 in September 2017 to continue his research at WVU.

"Receiving this grant attests to (Morris’s) rigorous approach to forensic science research,” said Suzanne Bell, chair of the Department of Forensic and Investigative Science. “The collaboration with (Jelsma) creates a partnership that will have a real impact on the practice of forensic science, and we look forward to learning of the findings.”

WVU is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the forensic and investigative science program in 2018. You’re invited to join the celebration at the Department of Forensic and Investigative Science open house on Wednesday, April 25 at 4:30 p.m. at the WVU Crime Scene Training Complex. Visit forensics.wvu.edu in the coming weeks for more details.