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!




The Map of our DNA is Finally Complete. Here’s What That Means for Humanity. (USA Today – 3/31/2022)

  • 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 lacked it, said Michael Schatz, who participated in the research and is a professor of computer science and biology at Johns Hopkins University.



Applying Modern Investigation Methods to Cold Cases (Forensic – 4/1/2022)

  • Behind every long-term missing person or unsolved murder case is a family who continues to look for answers. As the months and years pass by, these families live in a cruel limbo of mourning and hoping for answers that may never come.

    Law enforcement agencies faced with investigating these long-unsolved cases must address both practical and philosophical considerations before doing so.


Census Records from 1950 Being Released: “This is Genealogy Heaven” (CBS News – 4/1/2022)

  • Starting Friday, genealogists and historians can get a microscopic look at those sweeping historical trends when individual records on 151 million people from the 1950 census are released.

    Researchers view the records as a gold mine, and amateur genealogists see it as a way to fill gaps in family trees, a field of research that has seen dramatic growth in recent years through the popularity of home DNA testing kits.


Who is the ‘Christmas Tree Lady’? Lab Seeks to ID Woman in 1996 Suicide. (The Washington Post – 4/1/2022)

  • For 25 years, the Fairfax County police have tried and failed to identify the “Christmas Tree Lady,” so named because she placed an eight-inch Christmas tree with gold balls and red ribbons on the clear plastic sheet she put on the ground, near the front of Pleasant Valley Memorial Park on Little River Turnpike. Her case has become an enduring mystery on the Internet, and she is the only person to die by suicide in Fairfax whom authorities have been unable to identify, before or since.

    Enter Othram Inc., a forensic laboratory outside Houston. The company launched in 2018 specifically to solve police cases with advanced tools that can create complete DNA profiles of victims, and sometimes suspects. Now, it is taking on the Christmas Tree Lady, and Othram’s founder, David Mittelman, is highly confident that his company can do the genome sequencing that can provide leads for genealogical investigations, enabling Fairfax to not only identify the woman, but perhaps also answer questions for a family whose loved one disappeared.


Man Sentenced to 650 Years in Prison in Brutal 1980s Sex Crimes (The New York Times – 4/2/2022)

  • DNA on an envelope helped to seal the fate of Steven Ray Hessler, who prosecutors said violently assaulted seven women, a 16-year-old girl and two men in Shelby County, Ind., from 1982 to 1985.



Forensic Genealogy Helped Solve Nearly 60-Year-Old Pennsylvania Murder Case. But Some Have Privacy Concerns About its Widespread Use (The Morning Call – 4/3/2022)

  • Across the country, the emerging field of investigative genetic genealogy — the practice of using direct-to-consumer DNA databases to identify victims and perpetrators of violent crimes — is quickly being adopted by law enforcement agencies that have been long stymied by cold-case investigations. But while law enforcement has seized on the technique, the practice remains controversial and has raised privacy concerns along with calls for increased regulation.



Illinois Forensic Science Commission Marks First Meeting, Reviews 72 Percent Backlog Reduction (Forensic – 4/4/2022)

  • Last week, Illinois State Police (ISP) Director Brendan Kelly kicked off the first meeting of the Forensic Science Commission (Commission) charged with ensuring the efficient delivery of forensic science to help ensure swift justice for victims as well as to exonerate the wrongly accused. The Commission builds on the work ISP has done over the past several years to improve forensic services, including reducing the total forensic backlog by 72% in two years.



Forensic Scientists Are Testing Whether Honey Bees Can Help Locate Human Bodies (Smithsonian Magazine – 4/4/2022)

  • Forensic scientists may soon have millions of tiny crime scene investigators helping recover bodies of missing persons: honey bees. Researchers at George Mason University are designing an experiment to test whether honey collected from bees foraging near human corpses will contain evidence of those remains.

    “We thought, well, if bees are feeding on flowering plants that are near decomposing bodies, would the chemical compounds of human decomposition be part of the proteins that the bees ingest?” Anthony Falsetti, a professor in the Forensic Science Program, tells Newsweek’s Shira Li Bartov.  “And if they ingest it, will they deposit it in their honey?”



Oregon State Medical Examiner’s Office and Parabon Nanolabs Assist Hood River County Sheriff’s Office in Identifying Skeletal Remains from the 2009 Cold Case (Eugene Daily News – 4/5/2022)

  • On December 24, 2009, the remains of a skeletonized human body were discovered by children playing in a wooded area west of an Oregon Department of Transportation gravel storage facility in Hood River County, Oregon. Law enforcement responded and recovered the almost-complete skeleton of a male individual, a large suitcase full of clothing, and a small backpack with toiletries.  No identification for the deceased was found within these items.

    In 2018, the Oregon State Police Medical Examiner’s Office was awarded a federal grant to perform innovative DNA techniques on unsolved unidentified skeletal remains cases.  This case was recognized as one that could potentially be resolved by DNA Phenotyping and Investigative Genetic Genealogy provided by OSP’s vendor lab, Parabon NanoLabs (“Parabon”).



University Center to Address Global Challenges in Crime, Justice (Forensic – 4/6/2022)

  • An innovative new research centre is being launched to address global challenges in crime, justice and security.

    Visitors from around the world are attending the official launch of the Centre for Crime, Justice and Security (CCJS) on April 6 at Staffordshire University’s main Stoke-on-Trent campus.

    The CCJS brings together an interdisciplinary community of experts in forensic science, policing, law, sociology, criminology, data science and computing to conduct nationally and internationally leading research, consultancy, innovation, enterprise and knowledge exchange.

    This involves academics, postgraduate researchers and students from Staffordshire University working alongside the police, forensic science providers, government organisations, private companies and NGOs on impactful, evidence-based projects in all aspects of social and criminal justice.


Unknown DNA on Weapon Could Reopen Tennessee Death Row Inmate’s Case (Forensic – 4/6/2022)

  • A Tennessee inmate scheduled to be executed this month petitioned the courts Monday to reopen his case after DNA from an unknown person was detected on one of the murder weapons.

    Oscar Smith, 71, is scheduled to die by lethal injection on April 21. He was convicted of fatally stabbing and shooting his estranged wife, Judith Smith, and her two teenage sons, Jason and Chad Burnett, 13 and 16, at their Nashville home on Oct. 1, 1989. He was sentenced to death by a Davidson County jury in July 1990 for the murders. Smith has maintained that he is innocent.

    In a Monday filing, Smith’s attorney states that newly available touch DNA technology allowed the previously impossible analysis of evidence left on an awl—a leatherworking tool similar to an icepick—that was found at the crime scene. The victims were also shot and stabbed with a knife, although those weapons were never recovered. In January, the courts released the awl to Smith’s DNA experts upon agreement between Smith and the state. The analysis found DNA from an unknown person.


Genealogy Helps ID Once-Escaped Convict as I-65 Killer (Forensic – 4/5/2022)

  • Through the use of genetic genealogy, well-preserved evidence, and the unending cooperation of the sole surviving victim, the Indiana State Police (ISP) have now linked an Iowa man to the murder of three motel clerks and the sexual assault of a fourth in Indiana and Kentucky from 1987 through 1990.

    In a press conference Tuesday, investigators named Harry Edward Greenwell as the “I-65 killer,” also known as the “Days Inn killer.” Greenwell died in January 2013, aged 68. During the announcement, ISP chose not to show Greenwell’s mugshot as to not “glamorize” him or his crimes, with a visibly choked up Doug Carter, ISP superintendent, refusing to even say Greenwell’s name.