Familial Searching Solves Cold Cases—At What Cost?

A cold case that had stumped investigators for nearly 41 years was solved last month. The 1976 sexual assault and murder of Karen Klass, ex-wife of Righteous Brother’s singer Bill Medley, shocked her Hermosa Beach, CA community and captured the public interest. Failing to make any arrests for decades, detectives were able to use DNA evidence to eliminate suspects in 1999 but were unable to find a database match. In 2011, investigators decided to try a new technique called a familial search and, after a few attempts, successfully identified the perpetrator.

Familial searching (FS) involves taking a DNA profile obtained from a crime scene and comparing it to profiles in CODIS and other databases to identify male relatives. The DNA profile of an immediate family member, such as a sibling, parent or child, can provide a match that generates new leads for law enforcement. Detectives can then collect additional evidence to narrow down that new pool of individuals to a single suspect.DNA-Handcuffs-double-exposure-R2

Last May I wrote a blog featuring a Q & A about FS provided by Mr. Rockne Harmon, a respected member of the forensic community and passionate advocate for FS. Supporters, like Harmon, and opponents agree that this method of obtaining matches to DNA evidence has demonstrated scientific precision and successful outcomes, as in the Klass case. However, it is still considered controversial and most states have not implemented specific policies regarding the application of FS to criminal investigations. So why isn’t the use of FS more widespread?

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Peering into the Future of Forensic Science

Crystal Ball_SmallForensic analysis and law enforcement officers have many tools at their disposal to help solve crimes, including fingerprint analysis, ballistics, DNA typing and, more recently, forensic phenotyping of simple physical traits such as human eye and hair color. The forensic toolbox is ever evolving and capitalizing on new discoveries in genetics and molecular biology, allowing analysts to gather more information from a biological sample left at a crime scene and ultimately increasing our chance of catching criminals. What are some of the new technologies that we can expect to see in the not-too-distant future?

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DNA Typing: Useful Tool to Solve Crimes or Invasion of Privacy?

DNA in a test tubeThis year marks the tenth anniversary of the complete human genome sequence. The Human Genome Project revealed a surprising fact: Only 1% of our genome encodes proteins. This equates to a paltry 20,000–25,000 genes. The function of the other 99% of our DNA remained a mystery. Shortly after the sequencing was completed, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) launched a new research project, termed the Encyclopedia Of DNA Elements (ENCODE), to identify DNA elements and try to find a purpose for the other 99% of our DNA. This project has contributed greatly to our understanding of the human genome, as documented in the 30 ENCODE-related papers published in Nature, Genome Research and Genome Biology in 2012 (see the Nature web site. However, the ENCODE project is being used in an unforeseen way: to support an appeal to the recent US Supreme Court decision about the constitutionality of collection and analysis of DNA from arrestees.

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Toilet Paper: The Newest Tool in the Fight Against Crime

A roll of toilet paperIn July of 2009, the bodies of 43-year-old Alan Grna and his 85-year-old mother Julianna were discovered in their Ohio home—both victims of a violent assault. The lead detective in the case called in the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation (BCI) to collect evidence from the crime scene, evidence that would lead them to the man who was eventually convicted of their murders. One of the key pieces of evidence was a roll of toilet paper.
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Poisoners and Scientists

If you eat enough silver, you will turn blue, but it probably won’t kill you.

In the 1920s, you could buy energy drinks and cosmetics containing radium. Because of its beneficial effects on tumors, it was believed to be healthy.

Arsenic was once known as “the inheritance powder”, because it was so commonly used to eliminate relatives who stayed alive too long.

In the 1930s the poison thallium was used in depilatory creams, because of its excellent ability to make hair fall out, but also because of its ability to lend a beautiful pale luster to the skin.

These are just a few of the fascinating facts and stories you can find in “The Poisoner’s Handbook”, by Deborah Blum Continue reading

A Scientific Explanation for Spontaneous Human Combustion

FlamesThe phenomenon dubbed “spontaneous human combustion” (SHC) has been described in the medical and scientific literature for centuries, dating back to the late 17th century. SHC also has appeared in fictional literature by authors such as Charles Dickens and Herman Melville. There has been no conclusive scientific proof to explain how SHC happens—how human bodies, which are about 75% water, can ignite (supposedly spontaneously, hence the name) and burn at temperatures high enough to destroy bones, muscles and other soft tissues while leaving material in the immediate vicinity relatively untouched by the fire. Cases of SHC are rare, making it difficult to determine a cause. In a 2002 Journal of Forensic Science paper (1), the author estimated that there were only approximately 200 cases worldwide since the 17th century.

Recently, a case that has all of the hallmarks of SHC was reported in the Journal of Forensic Science (2), causing the authors to revisit the topic, list the commonalities of apparent SHC cases and re-iterate the current hypothesis that might explain this bizarre phenomenon. Continue reading

Not My Shade of DNA

LipstickDNA testing is providing some answers in a nine-month campaign of hate and revenge involving two British women: a wife and her husband’s mistress. Between May of 2010 and February of 2011, the wife was stabbed in the stomach with a screwdriver, had bleach thrown in her face, received death threats in the mail, been the victim of an arson attack and had a threatening message written on her apartment window in lipstick. She blamed the mistress in her reports to police. As a result, the mistress had been arrested numerous times and spent 20 hours in police custody despite her assertions that she was not involved in any of the attacks. The situation became so maddening that her family started a diary of her whereabouts to help prove her innocence.

Hoping to find some physical evidence that might shed some light on the events, police examined the evidence in the case more closely. This included DNA analysis of the lipstick used to write the threatening message and saliva used to seal the envelope containing the death threats. The results of the DNA analysis were shocking. Continue reading

How to Catch a Serial Killer

A Lear jet“[I]deas about who killed whom does not come to the criminal profiler in flashes of insight, nor does a group of FBI profilers fly around the country in a Lear jet and solve heinous murders within a few days with the help of a computer genius back in Quantico who seemingly has unlimited resources and who admittedly conducts illegal hacking into data banks that are highly confidential.”

This excerpt from a recent Forensic Science International paper (1) pokes fun at criminal profiling as portrayed on television shows such as Criminal Minds. However, this is just another example of Hollywood producers embellishing reality and stretching the truth to try to increase the entertainment value. [To learn about how the television show CSI has warped public perception of the forensic sciences, check out The Reality of Crime Scene Investigation. Part I: Common Myths].

So, if these Criminal Minds and CSI approaches to catching murderers aren’t accurate, how do law enforcement officers identify killers and bring them to justice? Continue reading

Was Dr. Crippen Innocent After All? New Forensic Evidence 100 Years After his Execution

PoisonThe past few decades have seen amazing advances in forensic science that are instrumental in analyzing DNA evidence to put perpetrators of crimes behind bars and exonerate people convicted of crimes that they did not commit. [Read William Dillon’s story of wrongful conviction].

Unfortunately for some people, these techniques were developed too late. One of those people was Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, who was accused and convicted of killing his wife Cora in 1910 using the forensic techniques available at the time. Until the very day of his execution, Dr. Crippen insisted that he was innocent, and now there is strong DNA evidence to support his claim. Recently, forensic scientists from Michigan State University analyzed DNA evidence in this case and published their results in the Journal of Forensic Science (1): The human remains that were so instrumental in Dr. Crippen’s conviction were not those of his wife.
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Synthetic DNA and Fluorescent Criminals

DNA in a test tubeA high-tech crime-fighting tool that uses synthetic DNA and a fluorescent dye to label would-be criminals is being implemented in the United Kingdom (UK), Europe and elsewhere and may be making its way to America soon. The system consists of a container of fluorescent dye and synthetic DNA with a nozzle that emits a fine spray. If a someone attempts to rob the store, the clerk can activate a panic button, which alerts police and causes a mist of the harmless solution to be sprayed over the everything in the shop, including the robber. This spray is not easily washed away, especially in hard-to-reach areas like nostrils and under fingernails, and can be detected for weeks after the crime. The robber may not even know he has been marked because the droplets are so fine. However, law enforcements agents will know. Continue reading