A class of 32 Duquesne University students has spent the last semester conversing in letters and by phone with a self-confessed killer who was convicted of murdering eight women.
The point of the project was to gain perspective into a killer’s mind, an insight usually not available to students, said Ron Freeman, a retired Pittsburgh police commander in the homicide division who teaches Forensic Investigation 1 to fourth-year students in the Forensic Science and Law Program at Duquesne.
The class wrote to Keith Hunter Jesperson, who is serving life sentences in the Oregon State Penitentiary. Freeman learned of Jesperson by a chance reading of the book, ‘I’—The Creation of a Serial Killer.
The class composed a letter to Jesperson, saying, “We feel you could teach us a great deal about the legal system and forensic science.” Class members were surprised that Jesperson responded to the initial inquiry and that he was willing to talk by phone, said senior Lyndsie Schantz of Lower Burrell.
“Seeing as how he had talked to an author and written a book, we didn’t know if he would talk with us. He didn’t have anything to gain,” Schantz said. “We asked him, ‘What’s the value for you?’ He said, ‘Just being able to help a younger generation.’ Seeing that people were wrongly convicted for the first murder, he wants to show us how wrongful convictions can occur.”
In one letter, Jesperson instructed students to look closely at evidence in the case. His own forensic science knowledge, he said, was mostly learned from watching Perry Mason TV reruns. “I was doing it all by guesswork,” he wrote. “Only in the county jail did I learn evidence traits. How the system really worked.”
The letters present fascinating insights, according to Dean David W. Seybert of the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, who approved the unusual coursework, along with Dr. Frederick W. Fochtman, director of Duquesne’s five-year forensic science and law master’s degree program. Students’ parents also were asked for, and provided, their OK.
Besides offering information, the letters provoke emotional response, Seybert said. “It was very chilling to hold the original letters and to realize the same hands that wrote these letters committed these murders,” he observed.
Correspondence with the matter-of-fact Jesperson showed how he evaded capture, exemplified controlling and manipulative aspects of his character and revealed his thought processes, as did his later phone conversation with students.
“I think it has great value to us because you learn things through the police perspective and the good side’s view, but never from the criminal’s point of view,” Schantz said. “It will be able to help us solve crimes, knowing how criminal minds work.”
Duquesne University’s Master of Forensic Science and Law program is affiliated with The Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law, as is the Master of Science in Nursing/Forensic Nursing Track. For more information about forensic programs at Duquesne University, including the Institute’s upcoming annual conference, Where Fact Meets Fiction: A National Symposium on the Intersection of Forensic Science and Pop Culture, visit www.forensics.duq.edu.