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Teaching the language of the dead

New course at North Georgia College and State University geared toward forensics

POSTED: March 13, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Joe Morgan, a former investigator with the Fulton County Medical Examiner's Office, teaches a death investigation class Wednesday night at North Georgia College and State University.

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DAHLONEGA — Professor Joe Morgan’s PowerPoint presentation isn’t for those with weak stomachs.In a semi-darkened classroom of 30 students at North Georgia College and State University, Morgan projected image after image of grisly death scenes on a large screen. The pictures are an integral part of the new death investigation class taught by Morgan, a former senior investigator for the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office. They are captioned according to what they depict: "blunt force trauma," "asphyxia due to hanging," "gunshot wound to the head," "decapitation," and "sharp force and penetrating injuries."

Only once did a student have to leave the room — when Morgan recounted his "worst-ever" case, with the photos to go along with it.

"Uh-oh," Morgan said, as the young lady bolted for the door with a grimace.

Morgan’s students, mostly criminal justice majors, knew what they were in for when they signed up for the 17-week course, which meets one night a week for three hours. He tries his best to diffuse the impact of ghastly images with humor, but feels it’s important these young men and women are exposed to what their future careers might entail.

"I saw a lot of horrible things in my 20 years and was subjected to a lot of horrible things in my career," Morgan said. "I look at it from this perspective: I don’t want those experiences to have been wasted. Those things I remember that affected me so deeply, I try to share those with the class to emphasize how important it is to what we’re learning."

Morgan said his show-and-tell is "demonstrative of the points I’m trying to get across," whether they be the difference between laceration and penetration injuries or the importance of preserving all evidence around, and in, a body.

For their part, students interviewed during breaks in last week’s class had no problem with Morgan’s in-your-face teaching style.

Confronting those images is part of preparing for a career in public safety, said Creston Warner, a 23-year-old senior in criminal justice.

"Whether you’re planning to be a death investigator or coroner or a police officer, you’re going to run into something along those lines," Warner said. "You’re going to see it. You need to see it now and decide if it’s something you want to do, and if you can handle it."

Said Jessica Wallace, a 21-year-old pre-law junior, "I’m not one of those squeamish types. Professor Morgan’s class is probably my favorite. His Powerpoint presentations are really interesting. He can take our lecture material and apply it to real-life experiences."

The death investigation class is part of a new forensics concentration started by North Georgia this semester that devotes more instruction to the scientific and medical side of criminal justice, from crime scene investigation and evidence collection to victim examination and identification.

Only Albany State College, with a forensics program geared primarily for aspiring crime lab scientists, teaches similar courses in Georgia’s public university system.

The difference at North Georgia, Morgan said, is the forensic concentration is focused on in-the-field practitioners who examine, document and collect the evidence before it’s handed over to forensic pathologists and crime lab scientists.

"You have to have the bright people in the field who have the ability to process a scene and recognize the importance of what they physically do at a scene, relative to one piece of evidence that can make an entire case succeed or completely go south," Morgan said.

‘You can learn a lot’

Morgan has been on the scene of countless deaths as a senior investigator for the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office, Jefferson Parish Coroner’s office in New Orleans and Georgia Bureau of Investigation and brought years of experience, as well as a down-to-earth, colorful style when he came to teach at North Georgia three years ago.

He sprinkles his lectures with humorous euphemisms for death, like "gone to meet Jesus," "gone to see the silver shore," "dead as Julius Caesar," and "falls over graveyard dead."

"I’ve got a million of ‘em," he said.

If an investigative method isn’t valid in his book, very likely it’s "not worth the gunpowder to blow it to hell."

And don’t ever, ever use the term "murder" in his presence. If it’s a death caused by another, it’s a homicide.

"Murder is a lawyer’s word," Morgan said.

Besides clicking through a montage of bloody images, Morgan is apt to act out at the classroom dias the scene of a defense lawyer cross-examining a crime scene investigator, or the bellowing of a bereaved family member who demands, "why haven’t you gotten my son up off the ground yet?" while law officers casually drink coffee and smoke cigarettes.

He’ll engage students in a lively discussion on whether death by Russian roulette is suicide or accidental, two of the five manners of death listed in what he calls "the umbrella of death."

Student Mike Bray, a 35-year-old corrections officer for Hall County completing his criminal justice degree, said of Morgan’s teaching style, "I love it."

"He keeps your attention," Bray said. "With him, you have no problem staying awake. I wish I could have taken more of his classes."

"Professor Morgan is well-known across the campus as being a very good teacher," said Dathan Harbart, a senior in business management. Harbart said he and his fellow students were forewarned by Morgan, "I’m going to show you this, and if you can’t handle it, there’s the door."

Mostly they have taken it all in with faces of stone and stomachs of iron. Every student was required to lift the arm of a dead body — a donated, embalmed cadaver used in the college’s physicial therapy program — as part of their initiation into death.

"That was a great way to kind of kick things off this semester," Morgan said.

He noted that he never touched a dead body when he was in college, but that the "tactile" relationship with the dead is a big part of forensics field work.

"I feel as though this small exercise gives them a leg up on a lot of other criminal justice students that might go directly into practice after college," Morgan said. "My students handled it great. They actually handled it far better than I think I would have at their age. I was really expecting folks to get queasy, but it never happened."

Morgan is promoting a new series of lectures through North Georgia’s continuing education program for public safety professionals, which will debut with a four-day forensic symposium on sex crimes and deviant behavior, to be held March 16-18 and feature reknowned FBI profiler Roy Hazelwood, among others. He hopes the college can become a center for what he calls a "marriage between academia and training."

"We’re going to be able to bring law enforcement officers and nurses and attorneys into this great academic environment here and share in the learning," he said.

As for his undergraduate students, Morgan said he is trying to teach them a new language, "where they can literally speak for the dead."

"We speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves," Morgan said. "If you’re willing to listen and willing to learn from the dead, you can learn a lot."


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