This Week in Forensic Science

No one has hours to scour the papers to keep up with the latest news, so we’ve curated the top news stories in the field of Forensic Science for this week. Here’s what you need to know to get out the door!




Rapid DNA Testing Terminals Being Used to Track Down Criminals More Efficiently than Ever (WFSB3 – 3/28/2024)

    • A quick swab of evidence, and into this machine the sample goes.

      If the DNA from evidence matches a person in the convicted offender database, investigators may have a lead.

      “Getting that lead is a very good feeling. We have cases where maybe we have low level of cooperation, or a low amount of physical evidence, being able to utilize the evidence we do have with the DNA terminal is a game changer for us,” said Jarrod Boyce, the Sergeant of the Bureau of Identification for New Haven police.

      New Haven police investigators have been using the tool in house for about a year now. Prior to that, they had to go to the state lab in Meriden to test samples. Now, they’re seeing how much quicker they’re able to process evidence.




Sailor Killed in Pearl Harbor Attack Identified by DNA More than 80 Years Later (WLBT3 – 3/29/2024)

    • A World War II-era sailor has been identified more than 80 years after he was killed at Pearl Harbor.

      Nineteen-year-old David Walker was presumed dead when torpedoes and bombs hit the battleship USS California.

      He was among 103 crewmen who died when that ship was attacked.

      The Virginia native’s remains were exhumed with two dozen others from a cemetery in Hawaii in 2018. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency used DNA analysis to identify him.



Lincoln County Coroner’s Office and Southeast Missouri State University Partner with Othram to Identify a 1978 Jane Doe (DNASolves – 4/1/2024)

    • In March 1978, a hunter spotted a body in the Mississippi River near Elsberry, Missouri. Lincoln County authorities responded to the scene and the individual’s remains were transported to the St. Louis County Medical Examiner for autopsy. It was determined that the remains were that of a white female whose cause of death was drowning. No signs of trauma were observed, and the manner of death was classified as undetermined. The medical examiner estimated that she had died about four months prior to the discovery of her remains.

      In November 2023, Lincoln County Jane Doe’s remains were exhumed by the Lincoln County Coroner’s Office and their local and regional partners, with assistance from Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO) Anthropology faculty and students. The remains were brought to SEMO for an updated anthropological analysis and sampling for specialized testing. SEMO’s osteological and dental analysis revealed that Lincoln County Jane Doe was likely in her teens when she died, rather than being 30-40 years old as suggested in her case file and autopsy report from 1978. The remains were poorly preserved, but under the supervision of SEMO Anthropology professor Jennifer Bengtson, advanced SEMO anthropology and chemistry students applied chemical analyses and used published literature to choose the most promising samples for DNA extraction and advanced DNA testing.

      In late November 2023, Southeast Missouri State University sent these samples to Othram in The Woodlands, Texas. Despite the poor condition of the remains, Othram scientists successfully developed a DNA extract from the evidence and built a comprehensive DNA profile using Forensic Grade Genome Sequencing®. Othram’s in-house forensic genetic genealogy team then used this profile to conduct a genetic genealogy search, ultimately providing new investigative leads to law enforcement.

      Lincoln County authorities launched a follow-up investigation and spoke to a person who stated that they had a close family member who had been missing since late 1977. The missing person matched the general physical description of the Jane Doe as reported in the original autopsy report as well as the recently-revised age-at-death estimate. A familial reference sample was collected and further DNA testing was performed, confirming the identity of Lincoln County Jane Doe as Helen Renee Groomes. Helen was just 15 years old in October of 1977, and some information suggests that she may have been last seen in Ottumwa, Iowa.



DNA Funding for Forensics Labs Eases Case Backlogs (BJA – 4/2/2024)

    • DNA evidence has become an increasingly important tool for solving crimes, particularly violent crimes. Yet forensic crime laboratories across the country often struggle to keep up with the volume of requests for evidence analysis due to shortages in staff and equipment. A Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) grant program is helping fix these shortages.

      BJA’s Formula DNA Capacity Enhancement for Backlog Reduction (CEBR) Program helps forensic laboratories increase their capacity to process DNA samples by adding staff or upgrading equipment. The goal is to increase the number of forensic DNA and DNA database samples processed for entry into the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), which will help agencies across the country solve crimes. In 2023, BJA introduced a new Competitive CEBR program with the aim to maximize the effective utilization of DNA technology to solve crime and protect public safety.


Postconviction Testing of DNA Evidence Exonerates Texas Man Imprisoned for 25 Years (BJA– 4/2/2024)

    • Around 1:30 in the morning on July 14, 1997, Damond Wittman was shot and killed outside a nightclub in Dallas, Texas. Wittman had been standing in the parking lot smoking with friends when a Hispanic male approached the group and asked for a cigarette. After Wittman gave him a cigarette, the Hispanic male produced a gun and demanded money. While attempting to fight off the gunman, Wittman was shot multiple times. The perpetrator ran from the scene.

      A few blocks away, investigators from the Dallas Police Department recovered a bloody Dallas Stars jersey that matched the description of what the gunman was wearing. A lone witness identified Martin Santillan as the shooter in a photo lineup. Despite the fact that Santillan had an alibi and none of the other three eyewitnesses identified Santillan as the gunman, the then-23-year-old was charged with and convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison.

      In 2008, Centurion—an innocence organization based in Princeton, New Jersey—brought the case to the attention of the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. At that time and again in 2014, DNA testing was conducted on the Dallas Stars jersey found at the scene. However, forensic limitations prevented any new conclusions from being made.

      Finally, in 2021, CIU agreed to submit the jersey for testing using a newer, more sensitive DNA testing kit, which finally yielded results. Biological deposits found on the cuffs of the jersey sleeves revealed DNA profiles of two unknown individuals. A hit in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) identified one of the individuals, who provided investigators with information that led to the possible identity of the assailant. The DNA results also excluded Santillan as a contributor.

      In February 2023, the Texas Court of Appeals vacated Santillan’s conviction and ruled that he should receive a new trial. Prosecutors dismissed the case against Santillan in March 2023.


32 Years Later, Familial DNA IDs Man who Went Over Niagra Falls (Forensic – 4/3/2024)

  • On April 8, 1992, the Oswego County (NY) Sheriff’s Office responded to a body that had washed up on the shore of Lake Ontario, near what is now the Novelis Plant. The remains were badly decomposed and mostly skeletal. According to the Medical Examiner’s office, the individual had died between 6 months and 5 years prior to the discovery of the body. At the time, efforts to identify the remains by comparing them to missing person cases were unsuccessful. In 2008, a DNA profile of the remains was uploaded to the CODIS database without generating any additional leads.

    In April 2022, the Oswego County Sheriff’s Office renewed efforts to identify the remains, and the Niagara Regional Police Service in Ontario was contacted to begin to compare with unsolved cases in Canada. At this time, Detective Constable Sara Mummery entered the case and she assisted with obtaining a new DNA sample from the remains for further comparison in the Lake Ontario area in both the United States and Canada.

    In February 2024, the new DNA sample was found to be a familial match to DNA collected from family members of Vincent C. Stack, who was from Buffalo, NY. Stack went missing in the Niagara Falls State Park on or around Dec. 4, 1990, and was believed to have gone over the falls. Over the following year and 4 months, his remains would have traveled approximately 15 miles to the mouth of the river, and then over 130 miles across Lake Ontario before being discovered on the shore just outside the city of Oswego.


DNA Database Match Solves 1987 Cold Case (Forensic – 4/3/2024)

    • A 1987 case that went cold has been solved, resulting in charges being brought against Richard Lee Gibson after advancements in DNA technology provided crucial evidence to complete a suspect profile. Gibson was indicted by a Williamsburg/James City County Grand Jury for numerous charges stemming from an abduction/rape case that occurred in 1987. The department has relentlessly pursued this case, and police encourage anyone who may have been victimized by Gibson to come forward and seek justice.

      On Dec. 10, 1987, an unknown assailant abducted an individual and committed various sexual offenses in a section of the Midlands Apartment Complex that was under construction. Despite diligent investigation, a suspect profile was not established, and the case reached an impasse after exhausting all investigative leads.

      In February 2019, Detective Rice was assigned to the case, thoroughly reviewing all documentation and re-submitting the evidence to the Virginia Department of Forensic Services (DFS). With advancements in forensic technology, there was renewed hope for a breakthrough. In October 2019, the submitted DNA mixture profile produced no matches in the Virginia DNA Data Bank, prompting periodic searches against both the Virginia and National DNA Data Banks.

      On Aug. 4, 2023, DFS contacted the James City County Police to report that the suspect’s DNA profile developed in the case matched the DNA profile of Richard Lee Gibson, which was found in the National DNA Data Bank. Gibson was already incarcerated at the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail for a 2022 sexual offense in the City of Williamsburg; Gibson’s DNA profile was entered into the DNA database following this arrest and would trigger a match.

      Following this lead, investigators obtained and executed a search warrant for known DNA from Gibson and sent it to DFS for comparison. On Sep. 7, 2023, DFS confirmed the DNA match. After nearly four decades, the suspect profile was complete, and an offender was identified.



Mississippi Office of the State Medical Examiner and MBI Team with Othram to Identify a 2022 John Doe (DNASolves – 4/3/2024)

  • In January 2022, the partial skeletal remains of an unidentified individual were discovered in Lafayette County, Mississippi. The discovery was made when a homeowner’s dog brought a human skull to their residence located just northeast of Oxford, Mississippi on the east side of Highway 7. Investigators arrived at the scene and were told this address is approximately a quarter mile from the location where the homeowner’s uncle had gone missing six years previously. Investigators determined that the individual was a black male between the ages of 45 and 65 years. No other identifying characteristics could be determined. Details of the case were entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as UP92933.

    In 2023, the Mississippi Office of the State Medical Examiner once again submitted forensic evidence to Othram in The Woodlands, Texas to determine if advanced DNA testing could help identify the man. Funding to support this case was provided by Mississippi native and philanthropist Carla Davis, who is committed to resolving the backlog of cold cases in Mississippi. Othram scientists successfully developed a DNA extract from the forensic evidence, and then used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to build a comprehensive genealogical profile for the unknown man. Othram’s in-house forensic genetic genealogy team then used this profile to conduct extensive genetic genealogy research, ultimately providing new investigative leads to law enforcement.

    A follow-up investigation led law enforcement to potential relatives of the unknown man. Additional DNA reference testing was performed, confirming the identity of the man as James Wadley, born in 1950. The circumstances around Wadley’s death are not available at this time.

San Bernadino County Sheriff-Coroner Department Teams with Othram to Identify 1979 Homicide Victim (DNASolves – 4/3/2024)

  • In June 1979, the remains of an unidentified individual were discovered in Rancho Cucamonga, a city in San Bernardino County, California. While working in a vineyard near 8th Street and Rochester Avenue, a worker made the discovery at around 12:20 in the afternoon. Homicide investigators responded to the scene and found the body of what appeared to be a white female, between the ages of 18 and 30 years old. She had shoulder length light brown hair and brown eyes. No identifying marks, scars, or tattoos were noted. The woman was found to have sustained traumatic injuries and the manner of death was determined to be a homicide.

    In 2023, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s Cold Case Homicide Team, with the assistance of the San Bernardino County Coroner Division, reopened the investigation in hopes of identifying the murdered woman. Funding for the advanced DNA testing and forensic genetic genealogy used in this case was provided by Roads to Justice (RTJ). We are grateful for the support funding this case and many other cases. DNA samples collected from the victim were sent to Othram in The Woodlands, Texas to determine if advanced DNA testing could help to identify the woman. Othram scientists developed a suitable DNA extract and used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing to build a comprehensive DNA profile. Othram’s in-house forensic genetic genealogy team used the profile in a genealogical search to produce investigative leads.

    Using these leads, the Sheriff’s Cold Case Homicide Team and the Sheriff’s Coroner Division conducted a follow up investigation. This investigation led to the positive identification of the victim as 17-year-old Karen Marie Heverly. Heverly was born January 27, 1962, and was originally from Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania. Heverly left her parents’ home in 1979 under unknown circumstances at the age of 16 years old.



Researchers Investigate Possibility of Collecting DNA from Air-Conditioning Units at Crime Scenes (Phys Org – 4/4/2024)

  • new study led by Flinders University forensic science researchers and published in Electrophoresis puts the new method to the test with conventional  units as well as a portable, commercially available air collection device regularly used to test for COVID19 and other airborne viruses in hospitals, schools and nursing homes.

    “Human DNA can be found in the air after people have spoken or breathed (via saliva droplets), shed skin cells or dislodged and aerosolized from surfaces and collected for DNA analysis,” says Emily Bibbo, a Ph.D. candidate at Flinders University’s College of Science and Engineering.

    “We may be able to use this as evidence to prove if someone has been in the room, even if they wore gloves or wiped surfaces clean to remove the evidence.”

    Collection of trace DNA, comprising just a few human cells, is commonly used in criminal investigations. For example, 62% of all samples processed by Forensic Science SA in 2020 were trace or touch evidence, yet success rates with this type of evidence remain poor.

    However, new technologies are providing new avenues for evidence collection—including the emerging field of eDNA (environmental DNA) from solid surfaces, soil, water and air.