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Forensic Science Center uses technology to solve crime

Published: Thursday, November 13, 2008

Updated: Saturday, September 19, 2009 13:09

The Marshall University Forensic Science Center and West Virginia State Troopers have been investigating computer crimes since the development of the computer forensics program two years ago.

Terry W. Fenger, director of the center, said computer evidence is used in cases involving child pornography, embezzlement, drugs and even homicide.

"Computers can be used to perpetrate a crime or contain evidence linked to other types of offenses," he said. "If a computer isn't actually used to commit the crime, there may still be evidence found on the computer, such as communication records."

Investigating officers provide the digital evidence laboratory with the majority of the evidence the lab analyses, but some evidence is collected directly at the laboratory, West Virginia state trooper Robert Boggs said.

"We monitor the Internet," Boggs said. "Not to say we necessarily sit and surf the Web, but we receive tips and do follow ups. Once we received a tip about an Internet user bragging that he had a child in a cage. We investigated that lead, and it turned out the man was making a false claim."

Fenger said child pornography consumes a substantial amount of investigative time.

"Child pornography is more pervasive than one might anticipate," he said. "We could use five more investigators, and it would still keep them busy all the time."

The computer forensics laboratory at Marshall is one of two in West Virginia. The other is in Morgantown at West Virginia University.

Boggs, who trained at the Morgantown facility for six months and now oversees investigations at the Huntington facility, said once the evidence, which could include computers, cell phones, digital cameras or other electronic devices, is received, the first step is to make a copy of the hard drive.

"We have to make sure we have forensically sound material," Boggs said. "When cannot create any files on the suspects hard drive, and we never work off the original."

Boggs said the information on the hard drive is extracted using software that first eliminates default program files and then examines all the user-created files.

"The hardware on computers today contain such vast amounts that a person couldn't just sit down and look through all the files," Boggs said. "Our powerful software makes it possible to find the types of files we are looking for."

Funding for the computer forensics program comes from a $750,000 grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Fenger said.

"We realized computer forensics was an important part of forensic science before we received the grant," Fenger said.

Erica Duffield can be contacted at

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