When most people learn of James Wurster's past jobs, they immediately think of CSI. The Kent State University at Salem part-time adjunct faculty member retired as the crime laboratory director for the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation (BCI). Prior to this, he was a forensic scientist at the bureau.
"When I started out, I applied for three jobs. One was removing viruses from pepper plants; another was removing testicles from rats. The third job was in firearms at BCI," Wurster says. "And that's the one I got."
During his more than 25 years at the bureau, Wurster worked in various departments including firearms, trace evidence, serology and DNA. In trace evidence he examined everything from hair, fiber, glass, and paint to shoe impressions, soil, explosives, flammable substances, primer residue and tool marks.
"When something enters a room, something is brought in, something is left behind," he says. "This could be a hair, latent print or a single fiber."
"You watch the 11 o'clock news and you know what is going to be on your desk the next morning," he says of the job, which at times is very gruesome and unforgiving. One week involved three rapes of children by their fathers, all which resulted in deaths.
"You can never make it right," he says. "You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. The best we can hope for is closure." Taking this approach Wurster says he always appreciated a well-controlled, well-organized crime scene. This includes the crime scene of Jeffrey Dahmer's basement, where he was brought in to help investigate this individual's first murder.
Wurster's former work went beyond the crime scene and the lab, as he was often asked to testify at trials. Although retired, a few cases still remain open, and he will be called to present in court. "I'm on deck; I'm charged," he says of testifying. In court he is normally asked to explain his reports.
In the case of the murder of Trina Bowser, whose corpse was found bound in the trunk of her vehicle, Wurster testified against the defendant, Glenn Benner. Building a case on trace evidence, Wurster testified that four different fibers and a single layered paint chip collected from the clothing, vacuum sweepings and dryer lint seized by police while executing search warrants to search Benner's two homes and work vehicle had the same microscopic, chemical and polarizing light characteristics as the fibers and paint found on the victim's body and clothing.
In 2003, the defendant challenged the court's ruling and asked that his DNA was tested. An independent test conducted by a private laboratory indicated that his DNA was a perfect match to the DNA found on the victim.
Occasionally when testifying, Wurster is asked to examine evidence on the spot. During one trial he was asked if he could re-examine the evidence right then. He said "Sure."
"So there I am, in my dress shirt and tie, down on the floor looking at blood spatters," he says of the incident. Wurster said he re-examined the blood covered comforter and explained that it looked like the cloth had been folded. He later learned that testimony provided earlier verified his claim. The victim had been covered by the blanket while being beaten to death.
When stating his observations, Wurster tries to explain his finding to the jury in a clear and concise manner. "I'm trying to make sure people understand what happened," he says. "I'm trying to explain a complicated subject and educate them."
Wurster teaches a variety of classes in the biology department at Kent State Salem and has done so since the summer of 2007. "I get a sense of energy from the students," he says of his new post. "I'm impacting someone else's life and making a difference."