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This classroom is a ‘crime’ scene

The students approach the bodies deliberately. Every few steps, they scan the crime scene visually for clues, careful not to trample any evidence. After all, they’ve been told that what their cameras record could lead detectives to the murderer.

The students treat this "investigation" with all the seriousness of the real thing…even though it’s actually a lab assignment in Mission College’s Forensic Photography 250 class.

Harlan Goldberg and adjunct instructor Lloyd Mahanay, senior criminalist with the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office, teach the course jointly. Goldberg teaches elements of photography to the students, while Mahanay focuses on the specifics of crime scene photography. After eight weeks of classroom techniques, the students are ready to venture out to Veterans Park, where a double homicide scene awaits them.

Student Kelly Moes photographs “victim” at mock crime scene as instructor Lloyd Mahanay looks on.

"The situation we have here is a boyfriend and girlfriend who came out to the park to be alone," explained Mahanay as he prepared the scene. "They were assaulted by a stranger or strangers, and both were killed. A man walking his dog this morning saw the bodies and called police."

As he talks, Mahanay twists and contorts the limbs of the two flexible dummies (specially made for crime scene training) that represent the "victims" in this scenario. The figures are placed about 15 feet apart under a tree: the "man," his arms and legs tied behind his back, dumped in a ditch; the "woman," showing signs of sexual assault, left "dead" under some bushes.

The mock set-up mirrors actual crime scenes that Mahanay said he has seen "three or four times" during his 25 years with the Coroner’s Office.

While the victims are easily spotted, Mahanay also places evidence, including a water bottle and cigarette butt, at the scene for students to discover and photograph. In groups of four, the students approach the scene, take several photos of the bodies from different angles, and soon discover the water bottle and cigarette butt.

"Okay, guys, I think we need to mark these," said student Kelly Moes, pulling out a 6-inch ruler that is placed alongside evidence to provide perspective in the photos.

Moes said she is a chemistry major but wants to apply knowledge in that field to a career in forensic science. Another student, Bruno Dueker, is undecided about a major but took the class because forensic science interests him. Yet another student, Adolfo Muller, is more typical of the class enrollment, which consists mostly of Administration of Justice majors. He hopes to become a forensic pathologist.

Mahanay believes the class is a good starting point for students interested in all aspects of forensic science.

"A forensic photographer is one of the most important investigators at a crime scene," he said. "They’re the photographer, but also a detective and a criminalist. Their job is to look at everything."

Looking at the students’ photos will help Mahanay determine if they’ve really understood the methods stressed in the classroom, he said. And even though the victims in this case are just plastic dummies in a simulated killing field, the experience challenges the students to ask themselves if murder scenes are where they want to spend a career.

See Additional Photos from the "Crime Scene"