Crime lab carries out an experiment in reaching kids

The Baltimore Sun

The crime lab technician, Evana Hebb, fingerprinted India Mouton, a 10th-grader from Dunbar High.

All five fingers on her right hand rubbed in black ink and pressed hard onto a white sheet of paper in a garage at the headquarters of the Baltimore Police Department.

It's part of a monthlong lesson for teenagers at city recreation centers on the criminal justice system - they are following a mock murder from corpse to trial - but for this 15-year-old student, it's the start of what she hopes will be a career as a scientist investigating crime.

India is one of the most inquisitive of the 30 participants, and here's why: "All my friends are being killed," she told me, "and I want to find out whose doing it."

It's an overstatement, yes, but with a sad truth attached. She lives in East Baltimore - where any number of adjectives describing despair, drugs and violence would be appropriate - and knows friends and acquaintances cut down by bullets fired over petty disputes.

Two years ago, she told me, her cousin was killed in a carryout. He walked in to order food as a man and wife argued. Her cousin was known as "Smiley" because he couldn't wipe the perpetual grin off his face, and India told me the man arguing with his wife thought Smiley was laughing at him.

"He shot my cousin in the head," India said. "It was right around the corner from my house."

We're standing off to the side, the rest of the group watching Hebb fingerprint more teens while she talks about looking at dead bodies and trying not to take her work home at night.

"I want to do the evidence," India tells me.

She doesn't elaborate, and her clipped answers about Smiley's death emerge without anger or sadness, almost clinically, her emotions checked. I ask for Smiley's name, but she resists. It's too personal, too difficult. The suspect was caught.

I've been following this group since the first week in February when they played the role of cops and homicide detectives investigating the shooting death of a maintenance worker in a high-rise condo at Silo Point in Locust Point. City officers, prosecutors, public defenders and others are helping stage a complete investigation with reports, charging documents, bail hearings and, next month, a jury trial before a real judge in Baltimore Circuit Court.

The purpose is twofold - show kids a positive side of law enforcement but also showcase different careers, show that there's more than being a cop. Some of the kids tell me they have no idea what they want to do later in life, but others like India are clearly interested in pursuing some sort of job in law enforcement.

That India is using her grief to do something productive is a testament that programs like this can work. Yes, Hebb and the crime lab supervisor, Michael Bailey, lectured about DNA and swabbing saliva off cans of Red Bull, but Hebb also talked about how she sacrificed a summer for an internship in Washington.

Bailey has been working in the city crime lab for 31 years, and he teaches a university class on how to collect evidence. He can tell you that skin follicles float to the top of bath water and can be scraped off the surface, that he once noticed a box of chocolates slightly askew, and on a hunch dusted a piece of candy and got the fingerprints of a man who murdered a nun in a convent and just couldn't resist taking a sweet before his escape.

"It just didn't look right," he said, smiling proudly.

The mock murder is fun. It will be interesting to watch the trial, and the talks by homicide detectives and attorneys about due process and procedure are useful. But all around the staged play are inescapable hints of real events.

Bailey talked to the kids in an empty bay at Evidence Control, steps away from a damaged green car with three bullet holes in the windshield. As the students walked in, tactical officers, one driving something that looked like a small armored tank, were headed with lights and sirens to a man who had barricaded himself inside his house with a gun. And as the night ended, crime lab technicians unloaded large brown bags of evidence gathered from a crime scene somewhere in the city.

We didn't ask where it came from, and it didn't matter. The kids' eyes left Hebb as she talked about fingerprints to gaze at the workers hauling in whatever it was they had found. Maybe it would lead to a suspect, or solve a crime, or help answer questions from another grieving family.

The kids chatted about the bullet holes and watched the lab workers with the large brown bags. Maybe they were thinking about crime they've seen, or that happened to people they know.

It's an important reminder that these kids come to programs like this with real stories and real heartbreak, lessons learned from growing up in East Baltimore where India's cousin, a man named Smiley, can get killed for smiling in the wrong place, to the wrong person, at precisely the wrong moment.

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