New program pairs Western students with MSP to bring justice in unsolved murders

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Cracking cold case murders will be part of a new program at Western Michigan University. In partnership with Michigan State Police, criminal justice students are getting unprecedented access to case files from unsolved murders in southwest Michigan.

Chuck Christensen shows DNA swabs to students.

Michigan State Police Detective First Lieutenant Chuck Christensen, center, talks with students in a lab on campus.

"With us augmenting our resources with the criminal justice program (at Western), it's going to alleviate some of the heavy lifting from the front end of this," says Detective First Lieutenant Chuck Christensen. "I'm excited to get started."

Christensen estimates there are more than 20 unsolved homicide cases in his district that are more than a decade old. Western students will help organize and catalog cases for detectives, looking for potential new leads or evidence that could be revisited with technology that's developed since the crime happened.

"It's going to be a phenomenal opportunity for students to utilize their education while in college, gain some extremely valuable skills and experience for the job market, help them to investigate and discover a career that best suits their talents and give back to their community by assisting police in their investigation efforts," says Dr. Ashlyn Kuersten, professor of sociology and director of the new Cold Case Program.

"It's one thing to sit in the classroom and hear about (a case). It's another thing to get your hands dirty and review it from inception all the way to what detectives were doing 20 years later that the primary detectives didn't do, identifying some of the holes they didn't catch," says Carl Huber, who is working with Kuersten on the program alongside fellow doctoral student Ashley Chlebek.

The first cohort of undergraduates will join in fall 2021. Students in the program will spend time in the classroom and the lab, learning new forensic techniques and technology. They will then be assigned a case to investigate, working with Michigan State Police detectives, state crime labs, genetic testing facilities and other entities to identify potential leads—some may even have the chance to visit crime scenes. Select individuals assigned to the program will undergo a full background check and sign non-disclosure agreements to protect information.

"It's not just the technology; it's really hands-on stuff," says Kuersten, who is also director of Western's Wrongful Conviction Program, which gives students the chance to research cases of potential innocence and exoneration for people who have been convicted of felonies in Michigan. "It's really emotional when you actually get in there with the evidence and you're handling it and talking to people who knew the victim and their family. It becomes so real."

A student sits next to a microscope.

Ashley Chlebek is one of two doctoral students involved in the program.

It's an invaluable experience rarely afforded to undergraduate students.

"The reality is, even if you get into law enforcement, many people never work a full case like this or get that experience," Christensen says. "So to get it even on the front end from an organizational standpoint and being in on some of the strategy is an unbelievable experience for anybody that is looking to get into the field."

The program also fulfills a sense of purpose for students involved.

"Looking at a cold case that eventually leads to the apprehension of a suspect, providing closure to a family that never had that wound closed for all those years is a really rewarding aspect," Huber says.

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