The Dead Zone

Thanks to TV, crime scene investigating is the new hot profession, but Max Courtney knows it's more science than art

Dr. Barry Fookes, who oversees the forensics department at Central Florida, estimates as many as 7,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students are now enrolled in forensic science studies nationwide, double the number of five years ago. "Recently," he says, "I've had calls from the University of Texas at El Paso and the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, expressing interest in beginning forensic programs." Already, Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth has added forensic science to its curriculum.

"There's no question," Fookes says, "that there has been a new interest generated by the successful television programs. Which is fine. On the other hand, we make our students aware that what they'll be dealing with here is a hard-nosed science, not glamorous fantasy.

"At the same time, I want them to know it is a fascinating pursuit. I tell them that it is a little like going to the library, finding a good murder mystery and reading only the last page. What their job as a forensic scientist becomes is to determine what the plot was."

Jason Allison runs tests on some crystal meth.
Mark Graham
Jason Allison runs tests on some crystal meth.

While it was once primarily Florida residents working toward bachelor's degrees in forensic science or a master's in DNA analysis at Central Florida, students are now arriving in large numbers from out of state, Dr. Fookes notes. "Eighty-five percent of our graduates are currently working in the forensic profession," he adds.

One, he points out, is Emily Dawson, a drug analyst who did her internship in Max Courtney's lab. Now working for the National Forensic Science Technical Center in Largo, Florida, Dawson applied to Courtney's lab in 2000 because of its reputation. "I learned a great deal while I was there," she says. "The most remarkable thing about Max is the fact he is so well-versed in virtually all of the forensic disciplines.

"When I first decided this was a career I wanted to pursue, the field wasn't really that big," she says. "Here in Florida, at least, it has really grown."

Indeed. The Orlando Sentinel recently reported that a half-dozen high schools in Orange County, Florida, have added forensic study to their curriculums. At West Orange High in Winter Garden, Florida, 65 students now attend two forensic science classes, and a third will be added next year to meet the growing interest.

In Texas, at Arlington's The Oakridge School, science instructor Lori Lane has included forensic science for the 65 students enrolled in her middle school biology classes for the past six years. And last year she began a popular crime scene course in the prep school's summer enrichment program.

"The kids love it," Lane says. And, she adds, the recent flood of TV shows has created a new level of enthusiasm and a steady stream of questions from her students. "I've made it clear to them that crimes aren't generally solved so quickly and by so few people," she says. "What I've tried to give them is a real-world look at what forensic investigation is about. We deal with everything from latent fingerprint analysis to grid-searching a crime scene to identifying the race and sex of skeletal remains. What I'm trying to do is help to improve their skills at critical thinking and problem solving."

An intern under Eddings at the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office for two years, Lane found the work fascinating but the openings for certified, full-time positions scarce. "Another thing I point out is that it is a difficult field to break into," she says.

Still, applications for internships offered by Max Courtney's lab, the Fort Worth-based Forensic Consultant Services, have increased dramatically. "The first thing I tell them," says owner and lab director Courtney, "is that it isn't like what they've seen on TV." In real life, he insists, the work he and his team of experienced scientists do is more tedium than thrill.


There is nothing on the exterior of the long-abandoned old brick mortuary located in Fort Worth's Hospital District that suggests the manner of work that goes on inside. Only the steady stream of law enforcement officers who appear at the always-locked front door, bringing with them bags of evidence to be analyzed or picking up reports needed to make their cases, provides a sign that it is the headquarters of the biggest privately owned forensic laboratory in the state.

Inside, Courtney, 57, is puffing on his ever-present pipe as he begins another day of gathering and interpreting evidence that will ultimately help determine the guilt or innocence of those accused of crimes ranging from murder to drunken driving--without cameras rolling or scripts to follow. Only on those days when he is scheduled to appear in court as an expert witness does he bother with a suit and tie.

He and his staff work amid a montage of microscopes and computers, ballistic testing equipment, scales, high-tech cameras and bulging filing cabinets. Currently, Forensic Consultant Services does lab work, aids in crime scene investigations and conducts teaching seminars for dozens of neighboring police departments (Arlington, Grand Prairie, Burleson, Mansfield, Cleburne, Hurst, North Richland Hills, etc.). As its reputation has grown, calls have come from as far away as Florida, Louisiana, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado and California.

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