Gearing up for court

Success in the engineering laboratory opened an unexpected door to the world of forensic science for one undergraduate at Carolina.

Shana Mussel, who will earn her bachelor’s degree later this year, excelled in computer assisted design (CAD) in her mechanical engineering curriculum. It was a skill that her professor Joshua Tarbutton knew would carry her to success in a forensic reconstruction project he agreed to oversee last summer.

Through connections in the community, Tarbutton had learned about a death row inmate, near the end of his appeals, who needed help in the courtroom. Convicted of murder more than 20 years ago, the inmate has been trying to establish his contention that he did not know he was being confronted by a police officer and had been startled at the time of the shooting. He tried to reconstruct the shooting scene with a model to make the point, but the cardboard contraption he managed to assemble in prison didn’t do much to strengthen his argument.

At the behest of Justice 360, a non-profit that provides quality legal representation to death row inmates, Tarbutton enlisted Mussel to re-create the scene of the crime. Using forensic photographs and other evidence, she modeled the house and porch from which the police officer was shot using Sketchup, a three-dimensional modeling platform to which her CAD skills were readily transferred. They then brought the scene to life through 3-D printing, generating a scale model of the house, its porch and the two men involved.

Tarbutton and Mussel then prepared a report based on the geometry of the shooting established by the evidence. It showed that the inmate’s view of the officer was obscured when he fired, and that his gun was fired from the hip.

Those conclusions could make a difference for a man whose life hangs in the balance, and a hearing on the case is expected later this year. If a new trial takes place, both engineers likely will testify.

Mussel won’t appear as a surprise witness in court by any means, except perhaps to herself. “Possibly saving a man’s life, through being an engineer — that’s pretty cool,” Mussel says. “Definitely not something you think you’ll be doing with this kind of degree.”