20 Headlines Making News in Forensic Science During 2020

2020 will not be a year that is soon forgotten, but there is more to look back on than just COVID-19. Forensic Genetic Genealogy continued to see numerous successes and faced challenges. Advances in ancient DNA unveiled information about humanity’s past. Rapid DNA proved to be invaluable in closing case and much more. Throughout 2020, forensic science has been top of mind in the media. Let’s take a look back on some of the biggest headlines of the year!





He Escaped from Jail After Allegedly Killing His Wife a Century Ago. Now His Headless Torso has Been Identified through DNA. (the Washington Post – 1/2/2020)

  • The story in the June 1916 Idaho newspaper was alarming: A man suspected of brutally murdering his wife “escaped on May 18 from custody and has not been caught.”

    He was never seen again.

    Now authorities say that dismembered remains found in a remote cave 40 years ago have been identified as those of the suspected murderer — apparently a victim of frontier justice.


Country’s First Non-Profit DNA Lab Prepares for April Opening in Utah (KJZZ – 1/7/2020)

  • A small group of professionals affiliated with the non-profit Utah Cold Case Coalition donated money to help found Intermountain Forensics, said Danny Hellwig, a founder and forensic DNA analyst. He says it’s the first non-profit DNA forensics lab in the U.S.



About Half of Americans are OK with DNA Testing Companies Sharing User Data with Law Enforcement (Pew Research Center – 2/4/2020)

  • Roughly half of Americans (48%) say it is acceptable for DNA testing companies to share customers’ genetic data with law enforcement agencies to help solve crimes, according to a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults conducted June 3-17, 2019. Fewer – a third – say this is unacceptable, while 18% are unsure.



DNA, Genetic Genealogy Identifying Bodies in Decades-Old John and Jane Doe Cold Cases (FOX News – 2/14/2020)

  • DNA and genetic genealogy has been transforming the way cold case murders are solved since its introduction in 2018.

    It also has transformed the way skeletal remains are identified in cases that have stumped investigators for decades.

    The nonprofit DNA Doe Project is focused solely on these types of cases and in the past 22 months their genealogist volunteers have named about two dozen John and Jane Doe victims. Recently, the list has grown with each passing week.



Genealogy Websites Help to Solve Crimes, Raise Questions about Ethics (NPR – 3/6/2020)

  • An Iowa man has been found guilty of a 40-year-old murder after he was tracked down through a family genealogy website. Many privacy concerns have been raised, and politicians are weighing in.



UC Berkeley Lab Pivots from Editing DNA to Processing COVID-19 Tests (Berkeleyside – 3/30/2020)

  • In a matter of days, a UC Berkeley science building has converted to a COVID-19 test processing center, with researchers hoping to enable up to thousands more coronavirus tests per day in the East Bay.

    The Innovative Genomics Institute at Berkeley Way and Oxford Street — founded by Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of gene-editing technology CRISPR — houses robots that will process samples from nearby medical centers and return the results in 12-24 hours instead of the usual several days, scientists say. The initiative is set to begin processing samples from UC Berkeley’s Tang Center by the end of the week, but the researchers hope to expand the effort to other medical clinics in the region too.



Researchers Obtain Oldest-Ever Human DNA from Ancient Tooth (ZME Science – 4/2/2020)

  • Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have successfully isolated the oldest human genetic material to date, from an 800,000-year-old human fossil. The study gives us insight into humanity’s past going back much farther than previously considered possible. It could also help us get a better understanding of the different (now extinct) branches in the human family and how they related to one another, the team adds.



Clackamas Co. Sheriff’s Office Forensics Team Sews Masks for First Responders (KATU2 – 4/9/2020)

  • During a normal shift, they study genetic evidence from crime scenes. But now, the forensics team at the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office has a new mission – making masks.

    Tuesday, they stitched together 70 cloth masks during a 10-hour shift. Wednesday, they sewed more than 100 more.



Crime-Solving Genetic Genealogist CeCe Moore Stars in New ABC Series, ‘The Genetic Detective’ (People.com – 5/4/2020)

  • Genetic supersleuth CeCe Moore has solved some of the country’s most notorious cold cases from the comfort of her home. Starting Tuesday, May 19, the renowned investigative genetic genealogist will show viewers exactly how she solves decades-old murder cases on ABC News’ new primetime series, The Genetic Detective. The series follows Moore, the Chief Genetic Genealogist at Parabon NanoLabs in Virginia, and her team, who’ve helped solve more than 100 cold cases using crime scene DNA, state-of-the-art technology and Moore’s genealogy tracking skills.



Professor’s Groundbreaking Work Helps Set Free Man Wrongly Convicted of Murder (University of New Haven – 5/7/2020)

  • The lead forensic DNA consultant on the case of a Texas man who spent nearly a decade in prison for a crime he did not commit, Angie Ambers, Ph.D., says the cutting-edge DNA technology she applied to set him free could lead to many more people who have been wrongly convicted being released from prison.



Two New Forensic DNA Standards Added to the OSAC Registry (NIST – 5/12/2020)

  • The Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) for Forensic Science has placed two new standards covering the interpretation of DNA evidence on its registry of approved standards. This stamp of approval from OSAC, which is administered by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), indicates that these standards are technically sound and will help forensic laboratories improve their processes and methods.



Golden State Killer Suspect Agrees to Guilty Plea in a Deal that Spares Him the Death Penalty (Los Angeles Times – 6/15/2020)

  • The former police officer accused of terrorizing California during a series of rapes and killings nearly a half-century ago attributed to the Golden State Killer is expected to plead guilty this month in a deal that will spare him the death penalty, according to multiple sources.

    Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., 74, is set to enter a guilty plea to 13 murders and kidnapping charges from as many rapes in a yet-to-be determined Sacramento County courtroom on June 29. The crimes occurred during the 1970s and ‘80s.



STRmix™ Team Launches FaSTR DNA to Rapidly Analyze DNA Profiles, Assign Number of Contributors (Yahoo! Finance – 6/16/2020)

  • The team that created STRmix™ – sophisticated forensic software used to resolve mixed DNA profiles previously thought to be too complex to interpret – is launching FaSTR™ DNA, expert forensic software that rapidly analyzes DNA profiles and assigns a Number of Contributors (NoC) estimate.

    Designed by scientists for scientists, FaSTR™ DNA expedites the analysis of raw data generated by genetic analyzers and standard profiling kits. It does this by combining an intuitive, user-friendly graphical interface with easily understandable and laboratory-customizable rules.

    FaSTR™ DNA also implements the use of artificial neural networks (ANN) for peak classification independent of and in parallel to the forensic analyst.



Study Pioneers Use of Fingerprinting Technique in Wildlife Crime (Forensic – 6/22/2020)

  • As China upgrades pangolins to the highest protected status level, an alternative approach to using long standing forensic methods is helping wildlife crime investigators disrupt poachers and animal traffickers in an effort to bring them to justice.

    A team of scientists and experienced investigators from the University of Portsmouth have joined the battle to stop the pangolin becoming extinct, by adapting forensic fingerprinting techniques that lift finger-marks from the scales of these endangered animals.



Familial DNA, Search Highlight Finalist Cases in 2020 DNA Hit of the Year Program (Forensic – 6/26/2020)

  • Gordon Thomas Honeywell reveled 2020’s DNA Hit of the Year—a wild case out of Brazil that included the generation of more than 580 DNA profiles. Out of the 50 submitted cases from 20 countries, six finalists were chosen. The criteria for submission and selection is the generation of a cold hit against a reference database in the last 60 months.

    The runner-up, a case out of France, and the 3rd place case, one from California that Forensic has previously reported on, is detailed in this article.



Genetic Genealogy Think Tank Proposes a Streamlined Approach for the Future (Forensic – 9/14/2020)

  • Investigative genetic genealogy (IGG) has officially outgrown its box, and a new team of experts is ready to work with the forensic community to advance IGG from the “OMG Era” to the “Investigative Intelligence Era.”

    Announced during a virtual presentation at the 31st annual ISHI conference, genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick and like-minded professionals have teamed to create the Operational Casework Implementation of Investigative Genetic Genealogy, or OCIG for short. OCIG seeks to create a streamlined approach to the use of IGG in law enforcement, essentially creating a framework for the popular technique to more effectively find its place in the forensic workflow.



FBI Pilots Rapid DNA at Booking Stations, ID’s Challenges for Crime Scenes (Forensic – 9/15/2020)

  • Since the passing of the Rapid DNA Act in 2017, the FBI has been working toward ensuring the technology reaches its highest potential. In a virtual presentation during the 31st annual ISHI conference, Douglas Hares, the Rapid DNA Implementation Program Advisor for the FBI, revealed the federal agency has taken a significant step forward—they conducted booking station pilot programs in four states and turned the lessons learned into a Standards and Procedure document approved by the FBI director.



NIST Launches an Updated Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science (NIST – 10/01/2020)

  • The Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) for Forensic Science has updated its structure and improved several processes. These changes will enable OSAC, which is administered by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), to more quickly make high-quality, science-based standards available to forensic laboratories.



Toronto Police Identify Killer in Cold Case of 9-Year-Old Christine Jessop (CBC – 10/15/2020)

  • Toronto police have identified the killer of nine-year-old Christine Jessop, who was abducted from Queensville, Ont., before being raped and killed in 1984 — a case that resulted in the years-long wrongful conviction of Guy Paul Morin.

    Sources say Calvin Hoover, a Toronto man who was 28 years old at the time of Jessop’s death, died by suicide.



Professor Develops New Certificate Program in Cutting-Edge Specialty of Forensic Science (University of New Haven – 10/30/2020)

  • Dr. Glynn has created a new online graduate certificate in forensic genetic genealogy at the University, a four-course, 12-credit program that will begin in the spring of 2021.Dr. Glynn hopes the new graduate certificate in forensic genetic genealogy will enable students to understand the methods used, as well as their strengths and limitations. It will teach students about the processes used, including the fundamentals of forensic biology, genetic genealogy, and documentary evidence.