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!




Carlton Lewis Exonerated Following 31 Years of Wrongful Conviction for Second-Degree Murder in Syracuse, NY (Innocence Project – 8/10/2023)

    • Carlton Lewis was exonerated today in Syracuse, New York, more than three decades after he was wrongly convicted and incarcerated for second-degree murder in 1992. New DNA testing results exclude Mr. Lewis from the scene of the crime and confirm his continued assertion of innocence. No crime scene evidence links Mr. Lewis to the murder.

      Three common contributing factors to wrongful conviction were present in the prosecution’s case against Mr. Lewis in 1992: the testimony of an incentivized witness; a false confession, and hair microscopy – a forensic technique that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has acknowledged leads to inaccurate results and wrongful convictions.

DNA Project Collects Over 2K Samples from Offenders, Helps Solve Cold Cases (KOIN6 – 8/11/2023)

    • Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s lawfully-owed DNA project has garnered more than 2,000 DNA samples since its inception, helping officials to better identify the suspects in violent and sex crimes.

      According to the Attorney General’s Office, convicted sex offenders and other violent crime offenders are required to submit DNA samples per state law — but a number of them neglect to do so. Ferguson, along with the U.S. Department of Justice and local agencies, introduced the lawfully-owed DNA project back in October 2019 as a way to prevent this from happening.



DNA Helps ID Remains of Newton Airman Shot Down in WWII (NBC10 Boston – 8/12/2023)

    • The remains of a World War II airman killed when his bomber was shot down on a mission targeting oil fields near Romania have been identified.

      On Aug. 1, 1943, the B-24 Liberator bomber on which U.S. Army Air Force 1st Lt. Alfred Pezzella of Newton, Massachusetts, 27, was serving as the bombardier was hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire and crashed during the largest bombing mission against oil fields and refineries north of Bucharest.

      Pezzella’s remains were not identified following the war. Remains that could not be identified were buried as in the Hero Section of the Civilian and Military Cemetery of Bolovan, Ploiesti, Prahova, Romania.

      To identify Pezzella’s remains, scientists from Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency used anthropological analysis. In addition, scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA analysis.



Do We Need a Nationwide DNA Database for Crime? (The Spectator – 8/13/2023)

  • The rules around DNA record-keeping came into force in 2013 after the European Court of Human Rights declared that the blanket retention of innocent people’s DNA – the policy which had existed before – breached their right to privacy. As a result, 1.7 million profiles were removed from the national database. Across the UK, it currently holds the details of 5.8 million people – that’s less than 9 per cent of the population. The database also contains 685,000 profiles from crime scenes.

    Logic suggests that the reduction in the size of the database has meant that some DNA matches which would have been picked up under the previous regime have been missed. There is also concern that police are not seeking permission to store profiles from suspects who’ve been arrested for serious offences, but not charged.


Florida Woman Doused Herself in Diet Mountain Dew to Erase DNA After Killing Roomate, 79: Cops (FOX News – 8/14/2023)

  • A blood-smudged Florida woman suspected of murder accrued additional charges after she asked police for a soda, then “poured it all over herself” in an attempt to scrub forensic evidence from her body, Daytona Beach police said.

    Nichole A. Maks, 35, was charged with tampering with evidence and resisting arrest with violence and premeditated first-degree murder in the death of 79-year-old Michael Cerasoli on Aug. 5, per a probable cause affidavit shared with Fox News Digital by police.


Montana DOJ & Butte-Silver Bow Department of Law Enforcement Partner with Othram to ID 2012 John Doe (DNASolves – 8/14/2023)

  • On June 26, 2012, human remains were found in a garbage bag on the side of Moulton Reservoir Road north of Butte, Montana. Butte-Silver Bow Department of Law Enforcement (BSBDLE) responded to the scene and discovered two human legs inside of the bag. Upon further investigation, BSBDLE detectives noted that socks and Red Wing brand hiking shoes were present on both feet and the remnants of blue jeans were present on one of the legs. While the remains were in the beginning stages of decomposition, investigators were able to determine the legs likely belonged to a white male. Detectives believe that the victim died at another location, with his remains later being left at the crime scene near Moulton Reservoir Road. In spite of an exhaustive search, no other remains for the individual were ever located.

    In March 2013, the case information was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as UP11036. Investigators pursued all leads in an effort to identify the unknown man. Despite extensive efforts from investigators, the man’s identity remained a mystery.

    In December of 2019, investigators sent forensic evidence to Othram’s laboratory in The Woodlands, Texas. Othram produced a DNA extract that was suitable for testing and then Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® was utilized to build a comprehensive DNA profile.

    The reference DNA sample was compared to the profile for the unknown man. These test results and a follow up investigation suggested that the man found in 2012 was in fact 46-year old Michael Wayne Canada. Additional reference DNA testing was completed by the Montana State Crime Lab and the man’s identity was officially established by Montana State Forensic Science Division Pathologist Dr. Willy Kemp.



Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office Partners with Othram to Identify a 2022 John Doe (DNASolves – 8/14/2023)

  • In July 2022, a kayaker found the body of a deceased individual stuck near the pilings of a structure at the mouth of the Cowlitz River where it meets the Columbia River in Longview, Washington. The body was recovered by Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Deputies, with the assistance of Cowlitz County Dive Rescue Team. The body was that of an adult male. No identification was available for the man. An examination of the body by the Cowlitz County Coroner’s Office showed no signs of trauma. Due to the condition of the remains, facial identification and fingerprints were not available. A Forensic Odontologist prepared dental records for comparison in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). Details of the unidentified person case were entered into NamUs as UP95241. Despite the efforts of law enforcement, the identity of the man remained a mystery.

    In December 2022, the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office partnered with Othram to determine if advanced DNA testing could help to identify the man. Skeletal remains were sent to Othram’s laboratory in The Woodlands, Texas. Othram scientists developed a suitable DNA extract from the forensic evidence and then used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to generate a comprehensive DNA profile. The profile was used by Othram’s in-house forensic genetic genealogy team to produce investigative leads that were returned to law enforcement.

    Armed with these new leads, Detectives conducted a follow-up investigation to locate family members of the unidentified man. The man’s brother was identified and he was able to positively identify a tattoo on the man’s upper left arm. The tattoo was also identified by a subject who had a past relationship and children with the individual. The man is now known to be Bryan M. Heinrich, Sr. Heinrich had been living in local homeless shelters and was last seen by family in March of 2022. Heinrich was 55 years old when his body was found.



Saline County Coroner’s Office and Southwest Missouri State University Team with Othram to Identify 2022 Saline County Jane Doe (DNASolves – 8/15/2023)

  • In April 2022, a hunter discovered human remains near a Missouri River levee in Miami, Missouri. The area of discovery is prone to flooding and the levee had been breached in 2020. Anthropologists estimated that the remains belong to a female who was in her teens or early twenties at the time of her death. Bomb-pulse radiocarbon dating suggests that the unknown woman may have been born in the early 1960s, and may have died in the mid-to-late 1970s or early 1980s. Due to the condition of the remains, the individual’s height, weight, or any other physical characteristics could not be determined. No clothing, accessories, or other identifying information were discovered.

    A metric and morphoscopic analysis of the skull could not determine the individual’s ancestry. Under the supervision of Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO) Anthropology professor Dr. Jennifer Bengtson, SEMO Anthropology students (pictured at right) continue to apply anthropological analyses to refine their estimates of the individual’s age-at-death and ancestry. In June 2022, the case was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as #UP92925. Despite continuous efforts by law enforcement to identify the woman, no leads have yielded a match. With insufficient leads to investigate, the woman’s identity has remained a mystery.

    In 2023, the Saline County Coroner’s Office and Southeast Missouri State University partnered with Othram in hopes that advanced DNA testing can help to identify the woman. Using non-destructive testing, SEMO students selected the most promising samples for advanced DNA testing and submitted these to Othram to generate new leads in the case.



3 Men Who Have Spent Over Two Decades in Prison Appeal Murder Convictions on New DNA Evidence (CNN – 8/15/2023)

  • Three men who have served over two decades in prison for the murder of a 70-year-old woman in her home outside Philadelphia asked a judge to throw out their convictions, citing new DNA evidence they say points to an unknown man as the killer.

    However, prosecutors say the three men were convicted based on other evidence and the DNA evidence does not absolve them of the crime.

    The case concerns Derrick Chappell, 41, Morton Johnson, 44, and Samuel Grasty, 47, who each were convicted in separate trials of second-degree murder and other charges in 2000 and 2001 and sentenced to life in prison.



DNA Evidence on Dogs Can Help Track Down Offenders (PhysOrg – 8/15/2023)

  • The new Australian study, by researchers in Victorian and South Australia, expands the opportunities for DNA to assist investigations of criminal activities by expanding knowledge about the presence and transfer of human DNA on pets such as cats and dogs.

    Flinders University researcher Heidi Monkman in collaboration with Roland van Ooorschot from the Victoria Police Forensic Services Department and Bianca Szkuta from Deakin University collected human DNA from 20 pet dogs of various breeds from multiple households.

    This preliminary study conducted at Deakin showed that human DNA can be retrieved from all areas of the dogs that were sampled, although some areas consistently provided more DNA than others, such as the head and back.



Reanalysis of Iceman’s Genome Due to Contaminated DNA Reveals Anatolian Ancestry (Forensic – 8/16/2023)

  • The genetic makeup of most present-day Europeans has resulted mainly from the admixture of three ancestral groups: western hunter-gatherers gradually merged with early farmers who migrated from Anatolia about 8,000 years ago and who were later on joined by Steppe Herders from Eastern Europe, approximately 4,900 years ago.

    The initial analysis of the Iceman’s genome revealed genetic traces of these Steppe Herders. However, the refined new results no longer support this finding. The reason for the inaccuracy: the original sample had been contaminated with modern DNA.

    Since that first study, not only have sequencing technologies advanced enormously, but many more genomes of other prehistoric Europeans have been fully decoded, often from skeletal finds. This has made it possible to compare the Neolithic Tyrolean Iceman Ötzi’s genetic code with his contemporaries. The result: among the hundreds of early European people who lived at the same time as Ötzi and whose genomes are now available, Ötzi’s genome has more ancestry in common with early Anatolian farmers than any of his European counterparts. The research is published in Cell Genomics.



Mobile Morgue Units Arrive in Hawaii as Death Toll Exceeds 100 (Forensic – 8/16/2023)

  • A mobile morgue unit arrived Tuesday to help Hawaii officials working painstakingly to identify the remains of people killed in wildfires that ravaged Maui, as the death rose above 100 and teams intensified the search for more dead in neighborhoods reduced to ash.

    Gov. Josh Green announced the confirmed death toll had risen from 99 to 101 in an afternoon video address, saying, “We are heartsick that we’ve had such loss.” On Wednesday morning, the death toll was announced as 106.

    The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services deployed a team of coroners, pathologists and technicians along with exam tables, X-ray units and other equipment to identify victims and process remains, said Jonathan Greene, the agency’s deputy assistant secretary for response.



Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Teams with Othram to Identify 1981 Homicide Victim (DNASolves – 8/16/2023)

  • In October 1981, skeletal remains were discovered at what was then the county’s old landfill, on Highway 249 in Ashland City. TBI agents began working alongside the Cheatham County Sheriff’s Office in investigating the death. Forensic anthropologists at the University of Tennessee determined that the skeletal remains were those of a young, white female, originally estimated to be between 14 and 17 years old.

    According to the UT Anthropology Department, the girl was estimated to have been deceased for three to nine months prior to the discovery of her remains. After exhausting all leads, investigators could not determine the victim’s identity, and she was classified as a Jane Doe. It would be many years later before DNA technology would catch up and aid in providing information in this case. In 2007, the UT Forensic Anthropology Center submitted a sample of the woman’s remains to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification (UNTCHI). A DNA profile was developed and entered in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System as UP1582, in hopes that the girl would eventually be identified.

    In December of 2022, as part of the Unidentified Human Remains DNA Initiative, TBI agents submitted a sample of the girl’s skeletal remains to Othram Inc., a private lab based in Texas, for forensic genetic genealogical DNA testing. Othram scientists developed a suitable DNA extract and the used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to build a comprehensive DNA profile for the unknown girl. The profile was used by Othram’s in-house forensic genetic genealogy team to develop investigative leads that were returned to law enforcement investigators.

    The investigative leads provided information about possible relatives connected to the girl. A TBI intelligence analyst used that information to locate potential family members in Middle Tennessee and Florida. Agents made contact with several of those family members and confirmed they had a family member they had not heard from in more than four decades. Agents were able to obtain a DNA standard from family members to be compared against the victim’s DNA. This month, the team positively identified the woman as Linda Sue Karnes, born August 10, 1965. Linda was originally from Cleveland, Ohio, but grew up in Cunningham, Tennessee. Prior to her death, she spent time in the Montgomery County Girls Home in Clarksville.