2022 saw a greater return to normal and we were super excited to welcome over 800 people to ISHI 33 in the Washington DC area. Forensic Investigative Genetic Genealogy continued to see numerous successes in closing both cold and doe cases and experts are now looking to standardize the technique. Advances in phenotyping and ancient DNA unveiled information about humanity’s past. Rapid DNA continues to become more come and proved to be invaluable in mass disasters and identifying victims of the war in Ukraine. Throughout 2022, 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!
In what feels like the epitome of a “perfect match,” the City of Tulsa has awarded a grant to Intermountain Forensics to help identify bodies thought to be associated with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Based in Salt Lake City, Utah, Intermountain Forensics is a non-profit forensic DNA laboratory that uses cutting-edge technologies to provide results as cost effectively as possible—most often completely free of charge. This is accomplished through solid partnerships with the foremost forensic companies in the world who donate their time, money, equipment, resources and more.
In 2018, the City of Tulsa announced they would reexamine the potential of graves from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in which a white mob looted and burned Tulsa’s Black Greenwood district, often referred to as Black Wall Street. The massacre killed up to 300 Black people.
During the years-long investigation, forensic anthropologists exhumed 19 human remains from a local cemetery thought to be victims of the massacre. Before reburying the bodies, scientists removed femurs and teeth from 14 victims.
And now, those samples are making their way to Intermountain Forensics for the second phase of the 1921 Graves Investigation—forensic DNA analysis. Once the samples arrive at Intermountain Forensics, Hellwig said the team will jump on pre-processing immediately.
Nearly 58 years ago, Marise Chiverella was murdered and her body left in a hole in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. She was only 9 years old.
State police worked tirelessly over the years but were unable to identify her killer until now. Thanks to DNA and genealogy tracking, authorities announced Thursday, they have solved her case.
The case went cold until 2007 when the state’s DNA lab was able to develop the suspect’s DNA profile using fluid that was left on Chiverella’s jacket. Police were hoping this was the break in the case they needed, but the DNA didn’t return any matches.
In 2019, with help from Parabon NanoLabs, the DNA profile was uploaded to GED Match, a genealogical database. Through that, police were able the get their first genealogical match: a very distant relative, possibly a 6th cousin, according to Brutosky.
In 2020, genealogist Eric Schubert contacted the state police offering to help free of charge and lend his unique skill set of tracing down family trees to find matches. Schubert, only 18 at the time, had assisted other police departments on several cold cases.
Scientists are finally done mapping the human genome, more than two decades after the first draft was completed, researchers announced Thursday. About 8% of genetic material had been impossible to decipher with previous technology.
Completing the final pieces is like adding the continent of Africa to a map of the globe that lackedit, said Michael Schatz, who participated in the research and is a professor of computer science and biology at Johns Hopkins University.
Even missing that 8%, scientists were able to get the gist of the story of human genetics, said Jonas Korlach, chief scientific officer of Pacific Biosciences, the company whose technology was used to fill the gaps.
Axiosnotes that “war crime charges are notoriously difficult to prosecute,” but that forensic crime scene evidence, such as DNA, could help prosecutors “bring cases against some specific members of the Russian military.”
The first line in Chapter 1 of “Unmasked: My Life Solving America’s Cold Cases”tells you almost everything you need to know about author Paul Holes: “My ex-wife used to say my job was my mistress, and I chose my mistress over everyone.”
A retired California cold-case investigator, Holes’s pivotal work on the Golden State Killer (GSK) led to the 2018 arrest and subsequent conviction of Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., responsible for at least 10 murders and 50 sexual assaults. The case made popular the use of genetic genealogy — identifying suspects through familial DNA on public databases. Somewhat controversial because of privacy concerns, the practice has since led to the closing of decades-old cold cases across the country. Of late, true crime is hot, spawning documentaries, podcasts and books, and “Unmasked” has plenty to fascinate aficionados.
A changing climate is revealing decades-old items once submerged in lakes or buried in glaciers, including human remains. For forensic anthropologists, who are tasked with retrieving them, a warming world may mean more discoveries unveiled by receding water and ice. It also means recovering victims of climate change.
Las Vegas police said on Tuesday they believed the skeletal remains were of a homicide victim who died of a gunshot wound, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported. Though the victim’s identity is still unknown, they were wearing clothes and shoes that dated back to the 1970s. “The barrel was likely dropped hundreds of yards off the shore back then,” Lieutenant Ray Spencer from the Las Vegas police told CNN, adding, “That area is now considered the shoreline.” According to CBS Las Vegas affiliate KLAS-TV, the location would have been dozens of feet underwater by the 1980s.
The Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) for Forensic Science’s Human Forensic Biology Subcommittee, with contributions from the Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods (SWGDAM), has developed a Human Forensic DNA Analysis Process Map that captures details about the various procedures, methods and decision points most frequently encountered in human forensic biology/DNA analysis.
Forensic science service providers make many decisions that can impact the quality and accuracy of results. Process mapping is the visual representation of critical steps and decision points of a process and is a useful tool that can help forensic science disciplines provide insight into their specific activities. The Human Forensic DNA Analysis Process Map can benefit the discipline by providing a behind-the-scenes perspective into the various components and decision points in the human forensic biology/DNA analysis process.
This process map, which captures the diverse practices of multiple laboratories from a national perspective, provides a visual description of the various steps of the casework process currently performed by DNA analysts. It is intended to be used to help improve efficiencies while reducing errors, highlight gaps where further research or standardization would be useful, and assist with training new examiners. It may also be used to develop specific laboratory policies and identify best practices.
On the morning of Dec. 14, 1991, in a small town near Seattle, 16-year-old Sarah arrived to her high school campus early. She was waiting for a bus to take her and her classmates to a dance competition, when a stranger appeared and dragged her into a wooded area on campus.
Not long after, two young boys saw a man emerge from the woods, and when they moved closer after he left, they found Sarah’s body. She had been beaten and strangled to death with her stockings.
When police arrived, they noticed signs of sexual assault and were indeed able to recover semen from Sarah’s clothes. In the lab, a full DNA profile was developed from the crime scene evidence, and the police had two eyewitnesses who could describe the man in detail. All this evidence gave investigators hope they could solve the murder quickly.
But, the opposite happened.
“Twenty-eight years would pass before a suspect would be in custody,” said Schellberg. “Police exhausted every DNA matching strategy imaginable for nearly three decades. When the DNA profile did not match to the known offenders in the CODIS system, investigators educated themselves on other ways DNA could produce a lead. In fact, Sarah’s case was an early pioneer in phenotypic SNPs, Y-STR testing, and eventually the investigative miracle of genetic genealogy.”
The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD) announced 13 forensic laboratories as recipients of the Foresight Maximus Award, a distinction recognizing the top performing forensic laboratories in the world based on Foresight business metrics.
The 2022 Foresight Maximus award was presented to 13 participant laboratories operating at 90% or better of peak efficiency.
Arkansas State Crime Laboratory, Little Rock, AR
Bexar County Criminal Investigation Laboratory, San Antonio, TX
Chandler Police department – Forensic Services Section, Chandler, AZ
Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department Crime Lab, Charlotte, NC
Forensic Science Department, Organismo de Investigación Judicial, San Joaquín de Flores, Heredia, Costa Rica
DuPage County Forensic Science Center, Wheaton, IL
Indiana State Department of Toxicology, Indianapolis, IN
Midwest Regional Forensic Laboratory, Andover, MN
Montana Forensic Science Division, Missoula, MT
Pinellas County Forensic Lab, Largo, FL
City of Tulsa Police Department Forensic Laboratory, Tulsa, OK
St. Louis County Police Crime Laboratory, Clayton, MO
North Louisiana Criminalistics Laboratory, Shreveport, LA
The power of DNA is hard to understate, especially as technological advances continue to make DNA analysis more accurate and sensitive.
As a result, both public and private forensic labs have experienced much success. That success, however, has led to a greater number of cases than ever before—along with a greater number of samples per case. Even as automated and new techniques have shortened the processing time for DNA samples from months to days, laboratories are struggling to keep pace with the vastly increased demand.
To that end, in 2018, National Institutes of Justice (NIJ) commissioned a group of experts in forensic DNA analysis to research and write a new report—“National Best Practices for Improving DNA Laboratory Process Efficiency.” This just-released guide brings together a combination of innovative and practical concepts, recommendations, and best practices to assist DNA laboratories in increasing their productivity and capacity in a multitude of areas.
In December 1996, a groundskeeper at Pleasant Valley Memorial Park Cemetery in Annandale, Virginia discovered a woman’s body. She was found in the section designated for infant burials but not near a particular grave. The unidentified woman was found with a small 8 inch christmas tree and when her identity could not be determined, she became known as “Christmas Tree Lady”. The woman was described as being Caucasian, with red/copper hair, standing about 5 feet tall. She was believed to be between the ages of 50-70 years old at the time of her death.
In January 2022, Fairfax Police Department detectives sent physical evidence to Othram and Othram scientists used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to develop a comprehensive genealogical profile for the unknown woman. Othram worked with forensic genetic genealogist, Carla Davis, to execute the genealogical search and perform the research necessary to produce investigative leads. The costs associated with this casework were funded by a DNASolves crowdfund and a substantial contribution from an anonymous donor.
In May 2022, investigative leads were returned to the detectives and this led to a connection with one suspected family member of the unknown woman. From there, the investigation led to additional family connections across the country. A DNA sample from a close relative confirmed a match and this confirmation was further corroborated by conversations with long-lost siblings. The woman known for a quarter century as “Christmas Tree Lady” was determined to be Joyce Marilyn Meyer Sommers, originally from Davenport, Iowa. She was the oldest of 5 siblings.
A professor who has dedicated decades to solving one of Australia’s most enduring mysteries claimshe has discovered the identity of the Somerton man.
Derek Abbott, from the University of Adelaide, says the body of a man found on one of the city’s beaches in 1948 belonged to Carl “Charles” Webb, an electrical engineer and instrument maker born in Melbourne in 1905.
South Australia Police and Forensic Science South Australia have not verified the findings of Abbott, who worked with renowned American genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick to identify Webb as the Somerton man.
Using DNA sequencing, Abbott says he and Fitzpatrick were able to locate the final piece of a puzzle that has captivated historians, amateur sleuths, and conspiracy theorists for more than 70 years.
Verogen, Inc. and Gene by Gene today announced a partnership to accelerate the adoption of forensic investigative genetic genealogy. As part of the agreement, Gene by Gene, parent company of FamilyTreeDNA, will support DNA uploads generated from the Verogen ForenSeq Kintelligence kit, the only ANAB accredited technology approved for forensic investigative genetic genealogy (FIGG).
This partnership effectively doubles the number of profiles available for FIGG matching. Leveraging database knowledge, scientists from both organizations will also create superior algorithms and software that increase the probability of generating uploadable single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) profiles and lower bioinformatic costs enabling standardization of the FIGG workflow.
In a study published Tuesday in the journal Cell Reports, Dr. Esteller and his team recruited 32 pairs of look-alikes from Mr. Brunelle’s photographs to take DNA tests and complete questionnaires about their lifestyles. The researchers used facial recognition software to quantify the similarities between the participants’ faces. Sixteen of those 32 pairs achieved similar overall scores to identical twins analyzed by the same software. The researchers then compared the DNA of these 16 pairs of doppelgängers to see if their DNA was as similar as their faces.
Dr. Esteller found that the 16 pairs who were “true” look-alikes shared significantly more of their genes than the other 16 pairs that the software deemed less similar. “These people really look alike because they share important parts of the genome, or the DNA sequence,” he said. That people who look more alike have more genes in common “would seem like common sense, but never had been shown,” he added.
However, DNA alone doesn’t tell the whole story of our makeup. Our lived experiences, and those of our ancestors, influence which of our genes are switched on or off — what scientists call our epigenomes. And our microbiome, our microscopic co-pilot made up of bacteria, fungi and viruses, is further influenced by our environment. Dr. Esteller found that while the doppelgängers’ genomes were similar, their epigenomes and microbiomes were different. “Genetics put them together, and epigenetics and microbiome pulls them apart,” he said.
Uganda will become the first country in Africa to provide specialized training in forensics to security and law enforcement agencies as well as other sectors of Government and the private sector.
This was disclosed after President Museveni gave a green light to the establishment of the National Forensics Science University Campus in Uganda. The university will be affiliated to the National Forensic Sciences University (FSU) of India, a premium and the world’s first and only University with world-class training dedicated to forensic, behavioural, cybersecurity, digital forensics, and allied sciences.
It may feel like the U.S. is full steam ahead with forensic/investigative genetic genealogy (FIGG), but there are still many steps to be taken, as evidenced by ongoing legislation in Maryland, Montana and Utah.
That being said, FIGG is undoubtedly a U.S. technique, practiced often in the nation, especially when compared with little activity in other countries. Nathan Scudder, Coordinator of Research and Innovation with the Australian Federal Police, sees this as an opportunity—one that needs to be seized upon immediately.
“Genealogy is an international endeavor. You can’t contain this to one jurisdiction,” Scudder said during his presentation Tuesday at the 33rd International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI).
If countries do not work cooperatively on an FIGG framework, the forensic community could end up with a fractured system vulnerable to inadvertent legal missteps.
For example, the New Zealand Law Commission Report contains a recommendation on FIGG regulation. While the guidance hasn’t been acted on yet, if it is, it could make the system more complex than necessary. Imagine a system in which you, legally, would need a New Zealand-specific license to work a genealogy case that has a match in that nation. How would you even know your match was from New Zealand at the beginning of the case?
“There are going to be challenges for all of us unless we can really get that solid framework in place, or we’ll be carrying around hundreds of licenses to practice FIGG all around the world,” cautioned Scudder.
A new certificate program at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh is a great option for law enforcement professionals, those looking to enter the field or those in the medicolegal professions relating to both medicine and law.
The Certificate in Forensic Investigation combines coursework from anthropology, criminal justice, geology and journalism, to develop a well-rounded credential.
“This program is perfect for people who like to contribute to solving mysteries, tackling complex questions, utilizing cutting-edge science and contributing to the pursuit of justice,” said Jordan Karsten, associate professor of anthropology and department chair.
Classes are offered 100% online or 100% in person. Students can take the program on campus or from the comfort of their homes.
For online, most courses are delivered in accelerated, seven-week sessions to increase the flexibility for full-time working students. In-person courses follow the standard 15-week semester structure.
A small public liberal arts college in Bergen County, New Jersey launched the world’s first investigative genetic genealogy center on Thursday.
Ramapo College of New Jersey’s Investigative Genetic Genealogy (IGG) Center will he led by David Gurney, Ph.D., JD, and Cairenn Binder, MS. Gurney is an assistant professor of law and society at Ramapo College, and was previously a fellow with the Wrongful Conviction Clinic (now the Innocence Project of Arizona) at the University of Arizona. Binder has been with the DNA Doe Project for five years, most recently as director of education and development, and just recently founded her own company, Coast to Coast Genetic Genealogy Services with two colleagues.
The overall vision of the new center is to “secure justice through the proficient use of IGG” to help resolve cases involving wrongful convictions, unidentified human remains, and violent crime—with a special focus on doing so in an ethical manner.
The unidentified victim of one of America’s oldest unsolved murders is expectedto be named Thursday in Philadelphia, raising hopes that the boy’s shocking 1957 slaying could someday be solved. Remains of a badly beaten boy, believed to be 4 to 6 years old, were wrapped in a blanket and found in a cardboard box in Philadelphia’s Fox Chase neighborhood on Feb. 25, 1957.
And for 65 years, not only has no one ever been held accountable for the slaying, but a name has also never been attached to the victim.
He’s simply been known as the “Boy in the Box.” Generations of Philadelphia police have struggled with the case, which has also been the longtime focus of fascination for volunteers with the Vidocq Society, a Philadelphia crime-solving club.
Years of investigation and two exhumations of the boy’s body yielded DNA samples.
Bode Technology announced that it has been awarded a $437K grant (15PNIJ-21-GG-04143-MUMU) from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) under the Research and Development in Forensic Science for Criminal Justice Purposes grant program to address pressing research in the groundbreaking field of Investigative Genetic Genealogy (IGG) that enables law enforcement to solve more cold cases.