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!




Reading the Bones of the Dead: The Painstaking, Painful Process of Returning Genocide Victims to Their Families (The Conversation – 4/16/2023)

    • One of the longest armed conflicts in Latin America, the Guatemalan Civil War raged from 1960 to 1996 (when a peace accord was signed). Of almost 200,000 people who were killed or forcibly “disappeared”, 83% of victims were indigenous. Some 93% of civilian executions were carried out by government forces.

      Similarly, in Argentina, 30,000 people were forcibly disappeared between 1976 and 1983. They are the desaparecidos Hagerty and teams of forensic anthropologists have been trying to uncover in their “work against impunity and forgetting”.

      Hagerty’s book, Still Life with Bones, is a voyage into the brutality of the genocide that took place in Guatemala, and in Argentina’s “Dirty War”. It is also about the bureaucratic violence of state institutions, unfolding in the aftermath.



East Haven Jane Doe Identified After Nearly 50 Years Using Forensic Genetic Genealogy Sister Had Made Extensive Outreach through Social Media (Yahoo! Finance – 4/17/2023)

  • Identifinders International is pleased to have assisted the East Haven Police Department (EHPD) in the identification of the East Haven Jane Doe as Patricia M. Newsom who went missing from Upstate New York in about 1974. Over the years, EHPD made extensive efforts to identify East Haven Jane, even as the Newsom family reached out through social media to locate her whereabouts.


The Scary Truth About Canada’s Wrongful Convictions (Maclean’s – 4/17/2023)

  • The Canadian Registry of Wrongful Convictions lists 83 names. They are people who were driven to make false confessions. People who were convicted based on flawed forensics. People who were named by witnesses who got it wrong. The registry, posted online in February, was co-created by Kent Roach, a law professor at the University of Toronto who has fought to right miscarriages of justice for over three decades. “These names are the tip of an iceberg whose real size we don’t know,” he says.

    With a team of volunteer law students, he combed through court records and media reports spanning decades to find people who’d been officially exonerated. The oldest case they found goes back to 1956. “This is not our judgment about who is innocent,” says Roach, “but a record of the courts admitting their mistakes.” Twenty-eight cases involve imaginary crimes—deaths that were ruled culpable homicides but in fact resulted from accidents, natural causes or self-defence—and the 83 victims are disproportionately those Roach calls “the usual suspects.” More than a fifth are Indigenous or racialized people, roughly 87 per cent are men, and many struggled with mental or cognitive issues, substance use and poverty.

    In his new book, Wrongfully Convicted: Guilty Pleas, Imagined Crimes, and What Canada Must Do to Safeguard Justice, Roach dissects the blinkered legal system that has upheld and induced these miscarriages of justice in Canada for decades. One case changed the course of his career: Donald Marshall Jr., who spent over 11 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. “Marshall was a crash course in wrongful convictions and how they happen,” Roach says. “I teach it every year, and I get mad about it again every year.”



DNA Day 2023: Five Things About DNA You Missed in Science Class (Clemson News – 4/17/2023)

  • It’s time to celebrate the molecular machinery that makes you uniquely you.

    April 25 is DNA Day, an event celebrating two seminal discoveries in genetics. Seventy years ago, American biologist James Watson and English physicist Francis Crick first described the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid molecules as a double helix resembling a twisted ladder. Exactly 50 years later, scientists completed the Human Genome Project, a landmark effort to sequence and map all the genes that compose the human genome.

    To commemorate the occasion, here are some interesting facts about DNA.


Mohave County Sheriff’s Office Teams with Othram to Identify 2021 Golden Valley John Doe (DNASolves – 4/17/2023)

    • In January 2021, a private citizen discovered human remains in the community of Golden Valley, Arizona, in the area of Fewey Road and Agua Fria Drive. Mohave County Sheriff’s Detectives were dispatched to the scene with assistance from the Mohave County Medical Examiner’s Office. Investigators could not determine the identity or determine the cause of death for the unknown man. In February 2021, the case was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as UP77898. With few leads to go on, the case soon went cold.

      In February 2023, the Special Investigations Unit Detectives with the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office, as part of an ongoing collaboration with Othram, decided to utilize advanced forensic DNA testing, in hopes that they might generate new leads in the case. Detectives sent skeletal remains to Othram’s laboratory in The Woodlands, Texas. Othram scientists developed a suitable DNA extract from the skeletal remains and then used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to build a comprehensive DNA profile. The casework costs for this case were funded by Project Grace, a philanthropic initiative to help clear backlogs of unsolved cases. We are very grateful for the funding support for this case.

      Othram’s in-house genealogy team used the profile in genetic genealogy search to identify new investigative leads. These leads were returned to investigators with the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office. The leads, along with a follow up investigation, led investigators to a potential relative of the unknown man and the confirmation that the unknown man was 56-year-old Brian Crain from Golden Valley, Arizona. Crain was previously reported missing by a family member in September 2020, after the family had not heard from Crain after several weeks.



Could Denmark’s Police Use Genealogy to Solve Crimes? (The Local – 4/18/2023)

    • The move to permit use of genealogy in police investigations has its roots in a citizens’ petition [borgerforslag], a type of official petition that can be started by Danish citizens and which parliamentarians must discuss if it gains at least 50,000 signatures.

      Such citizens’ proposals are commonly rejected once they get to parliament, but the genealogy proposal has progressed further with parliament adopting it on Tuesday. For genealogy to become a tool available to police, Minister of Justice Peter Hummelgaard must now table a bill which would change the law to that effect. A parliamentary majority would then need to vote to adopt the bill.



Investigators Trace Genealogy to 1700s to Identify Suspect in Oakland County, Penn State Golf Course Rapes (FOX2 Detroit – 4/18/2023)

    • Two sexual assaults on golf courses in Oakland County and Penn State University’s campus have been solved nearly 25 years later after digging into genealogy records led investigators to three potential suspects, authorities say.

      Kurt Alan Rillema, 51, a businessman from West Bloomfield Township, was charged with first-degree and second-degree criminal sexual conduct charges Tuesday.

      The first rape happened in September 1999 at Twin Lakes Golf Club in Oakland Township. The 22-year-old victim reported that she was working at a food stand on the course when a man came through the back employee door, demanded she take off her clothes, and then sexually assaulted her.

      Deputies were able to obtain DNA evidence from the crime but could not identify a suspect. The DNA evidence was entered into a national DNA database. The second assault happened in July 2000 when a 19-year-old woman who was jogging at a Penn State golf course was approached by a man with a knife and assaulted. DNA evidence was taken.

      The DNA database matched the samples in 2004, authorities said, but they still did not have a suspect. Eventually, the evidence from the Penn State case was destroyed after a period of time as permitted under state law. The evidence in the Oakland County case was preserved, though. In July 2021, the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office and Penn State police both began to look for new ways to identify a suspect, and they sent evidence from the Oakland County case to Parabon Nanolabs for genetic genealogy testing.



Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, HPD, and the Texas Rangers Team with Othram to Identify 1990 Female Homicide Victim (DNASolves – 4/18/2023)

    • In October 1990, the body of an unidentified woman was discovered by children who were playing near the Brays Bayou on the west side of Houston, Texas. The woman was found in a drainage ditch located under a bridge that crossed the Brays Bayou, a slow-moving river that flows through Houston. The woman’s height was estimated to be between 4’11” and 5’1”, her weight was approximately 100 to 120 pounds, and she had brown hair. Her eye color could not be determined. Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences investigators determined the woman had been struck with an object which caused a head trauma that led to her death. At time of her discovery, the woman was wearing a white, short sleeve pullover shirt with a logo that read “Marines Sport,” tie-dyed pants that were blue, black, and grey in color, a tan size 34 bra, and size five underwear. In 1991, composite sketches of the woman were created in an effort to assist in her identification. However, no one came forward with leads to the identity of the woman.

      In June 2018, there was a major break in the case when investigators identified a possible suspect in the murder of the unknown woman. Terrence Tyrone Johnson was interviewed from a Wichita Falls, Texas prison unit, where he was incarcerated because of an unrelated crime. Johnson provided a statement that led to the filing of additional murder charges for the murder of the unknown woman. Unfortunately, he was unable to tell investigators the identity of his victim. To date, Houston Police Department detectives have come to the conclusion that the woman lived in the area where her body was found and that she might have been named Cassandra. Nothing else is known at this time.

      The details of the case were entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as #UP963. Over the past twenty-three years, investigators have worked diligently to identify the woman. Despite the exhaustive efforts of law enforcement, she remains unidentified.

      In 2023, the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, in collaboration with the Houston Police Department (HPD) and the Texas Rangers Unsolved Crimes Investigation Program, partnered with Othram to generate new leads in the case using advanced DNA testing and forensic genetic genealogy.



University to Help Validate Novel Method for Estimating Postmortem Interval (Forensic – 4/19/2023)

    • The Center for Forensic Anthropology (CFA) at Northern Michigan University, which includes the Forensic Research Outdoor Station (FROST), recently received a $30,000 National Institute of Justice subaward from Colorado State University to help validate a novel method for estimating human time since death, or postmortem interval. NMU students will be involved in the research.

      The research is a collaboration between NMU Associate Professor of Biology Josh Sharp and CFA Director Jane Harris. Their job is to take samples of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa—known as the microbiome—from donors and the surrounding soil to see how human decomposition affects the soil microbiome.



Building More Reliable Forensic Sciences (Part Two) (National Institute of Justice – 4/19/2023)

    • The scientific basis of several aspects of forensic evidence was first called into question by the 2009 National Research Council report. That report had an immediate impact on law enforcement, crime labs, courtrooms, and the broader scientific community.

      David Stoney, Chief Scientist and head of Stoney Forensics in Chantilly, VA, and Greg Dutton, program manager and physical scientist with NIJ’s Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences, join host Jim Dawson to discuss the concerted effort in many fields of forensics — ballistics, trace evidence, fingerprints, and more — to improve the science underlying forensic evidence in the wake of the 2009 report.



Supreme Court Lets Rodney Reed, a Texas Death Row Inmate, Seek DNA Testing (The New York Times – 4/19/2023)

    • The Supreme Court on Wednesday sided with Rodney Reed, a death row inmate in Texas whose case has attracted wide attention, in his efforts to obtain DNA testing that he says may help prove his innocence.

      Mr. Reed was convicted of the 1996 rape and murder of Stacey Stites, who was strangled to death with her own belt in Bastrop County, Texas. DNA collected from Ms. Stites’s body matched that of Mr. Reed.

      Mr. Reed, who is Black, initially denied knowing Ms. Stites, who was white, but later said they had been romantically involved. He said another man, perhaps Ms. Stites’s fiancé, had committed the murder.

      The jury rejected Mr. Reed’s defense, and he was sentenced to death.

      His case drew intense interest from lawmakers and celebrities, including Kim Kardashian and Rihanna, and a Texas appeals court halted his execution in 2019, returning the case to a state trial court.