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!




Identifying Fire Victims Through DNA Analysis Can Be Challenging – A Geneticist Explains What Forensics is Learning from Archaeology (The Conversation – 8/18/2023)

    • Fire devastates communities and families, and it makes identification of victims challenging. In the aftermath of the wildfire that swept through Lahaina, Hawaii, officials are collecting DNA samples from relatives of missing persons in the hope that this can aid in identifying those who died in the fire.

      But how well does DNA hold up under such extreme conditions, and what is the best way to recover DNA from fire victims?

      I am an anthropological geneticist who studies degraded DNA in archaeological and forensic contexts. My research group applies ancient DNA and forensic analysis methods to optimize DNA recovery from burned bones. Retrieving DNA from severely burned remains in order to identify victims is a particular challenge.

DNA Evidence Spawns Nationwide Manhunt for Rachel Morin’s Killer (CBS News Baltimore – 8/18/2023)

    • Police were visible along the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail in Harford County on Friday. They said they will be there until they catch Rachel Morin’s killer.

      Morin’s body was found along the trail almost two weeks ago. There was a major break came in the case on Thursday evening. That’s when the Harford County Sheriff’s Office released a video of a possible suspect.

      Investigators said DNA tied Morin’s suspected killer to a home invasion and assault on a young girl on March 26 in Los Angeles, California.



Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and Othram Partner to Identify 1986 John Doe (DNASolves – 8/20/2023)

    • In September 1986, skeletal remains were discovered by fishermen in the Long Island Sound several miles off the coast of Westbrook, Connecticut. Forensic anthropologists determined that the remains belonged to a White man who was between 18 and 30 years old at his time of death. Investigators were unable to determine the man’s cause of death or other identifying characteristics such as weight, height, eye color, or hair color due to the condition of the remains. Investigators estimate that the man had been dead for five years prior to the discovery of his remains. Since discovery, law enforcement investigators have diligently pursued various leads about the unknown man’s identity.

      In October 2015, the case was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as #UP14439. Despite exhaustive efforts, the case eventually went cold and the man’s identity has remained a mystery.

      In 2023, as part of an ongoing collaboration aimed at solving the backlog of cold cases in Connecticut, the Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner partnered with Othram in The Woodlands, Texas. Othram will use Forensic-Grade Genomic Sequencing® to build a comprehensive DNA profile to generate new investigative leads for the case.



Genealogy, Cold Case Unit ID Body Pulled from Water in 1997 (Forensic – 8/21/2023)

  • In September 1997, Flagler County Sheriff’s Office (FCSO) deputies were notified of a body floating in the intracoastal waterway (ICW) near Flagler Beach. FCSO deputies arrived and recovered the body of an unknown white male from the water. When the body was recovered from the water, deputies determined the male had been bound, shot, and stabbed multiple times before being dumped in the water.

    At the time, investigators from FCSO and the Medical Examiner’s Office estimated the victim to be between 30-50 years old, approximately 5’8” and 170 pounds following a forensic anthropology exam. Since 1997, the victim had been unidentifiable.The case was entered into NamUs as UP3055. A facial approximation of McPhail was created by Betty Pat Gatliff of Skullpture Inc., in 1997.

    In 2020 Sheriff Rick Staly created the Cold Case Unit with a dedicated full-time detective. In 2021, the Cold Case Unit submitted skeletal remains to Othram. Othram scientists developed a suitable DNA extract from the skeletal remains and then used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing to build a comprehensive DNA profile for the homicide victim. Othram’s in-house forensic genetic genealogy team used the profile in a genetic genealogy search to produce investigative leads. These leads were returned to the Cold Case Unit investigators and through a continued investigation and the efforts of Detective Scalia, the victim was eventually identified as Robert Bruce McPhail.


Using Science to Enhance Equity (National Institute of Justice – 8/21/2023)

  • One way we can use science to enhance equity in the justice system through research that informs better ways to detect and document bruising on victims with dark skin pigmentation.

    The final plenary of the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ) 2023 National Research Conference focused on this important topic. The plenary featured Dr. Katherine Scafide’s research on the use of alternate light sources on various skin tones, which successfully identified the best wavelengths of light to detect bruising in highly pigmented individuals. Her work exemplifies how innovation in scientific research can promote greater equity, and it advances the NIJ’s goals in this area.


Hawaii Fire Survivors Urged to Submit DNA to Help Identify Victims (The Guardian – 8/23/2023)

  • Hawaii’s governor, Josh Green, has warned residents to prepare for “a lot more loss of life”, as officials ask for DNA submissions and fingerprints from survivors to help identify relatives who were killed by the Maui wildfires, as huge numbers are still missing.

    Green urged Hawaiians to brace for a higher death toll from the destruction on the second largest island in the Hawaiian chain, as police still work to find those unaccounted for.



New Person of Interest in 1993 Homicide of AC/DC Manager after DNA is Finally Tested (Forensic – 8/23/2023)

  • On Dec. 23, 1993, hours after celebrating the release of his first solo album, Crispin Dye—the former AC/DC manager—was beaten to death in an inner-city Sydney suburb in Australia.

    No one was ever arrested for his murder but now, 30 years later, a special investigation into potential gay hate crime-related deaths has revealed a person of interest after DNA was found on Dye’s clothes—which were not tested in 1993 or any of the years following.

    Australia’s Special Commission on Inquiry into LGBTIQ Hate Crimes was established in April 2022 after the Australian Institute of Criminology noted the abundance of—likely gang-related—violence against gay men dating from the late-1970s to 2000. Specifically, the institute counted 80 deaths or disappearances potentially fitting the description of a gay hate crime. Of those, 30 remain unsolved, including Dye’s murder.



NCMEC Uses FIGG to ID 1999 Jane Doe (Forensic – 8/23/2023)

  • 24 years after she was discovered in North Carolina, Sampson County Jane Doe finally has a name: Victoria Dolores Mejia Paredes.

    On July 20, 1999, an unidentified female was found in a heavily wooded area in Sampson County, North Carolina. She was believed to be Caucasian or Hispanic and between 17 and 24 years old. Investigators estimated she died about two months prior to being found.

    Although her name was unknown at the time, there were a few clues to her identity. She had long red hair and a slim build. She was found wearing a black tank top, green Calvin Klein jeans, white sandals and an Elle wristwatch. Her fingernails were painted with blue-green nail polish.

    Yet, despite clues, her name was still a mystery.

    Until today.



New Forensic Lab in New Mexico is 4x the Size of Previous Facility (Forensic – 8/23/2023)

  • Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham celebrated the opening today of the state’s new forensic laboratory.

    “This new facility empowers law enforcement to solve more crimes more quickly. Put simply: this is life-saving work,” Lujan Grisham said. “Violent crime is down across our state overall, but we must continue working to ensure every New Mexican is safe in their community. The forensic laboratory is just one component of an all-of-the-above strategy to drive down crime in our state.

    The new 44,000 square foot laboratory is four times the size of the existing laboratory, which is situated in a repurposed office building. Gov. Lujan Grisham and the Legislature secured funding for the $29 million facility in 2019. It will support more than 300 agencies, including local, state and federal law enforcement and criminal justice and court systems by analyzing forensic evidence collected at crime scenes; scientists will present their scientific findings in court. It will be the largest of the state’s three forensic laboratories and the only one to process non-drug-related evidence like DNA, firearms and fingerprints.



Man Facing Execution in Missouri Despite DNA Evidence Supporting Innocence (Forensic – 8/23/2023)

  • On June 29, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson lifted the stay of 53-year-old Marcellus Williams’ execution. Williams has spent 24 years of his life on death row for a murder DNA evidence proves someone else committed. Parson terminated a board comprising five former judges appointed to examine the case of Williams, lifting the stay instituted by then-governor Eric Greitens minutes before Williams’ scheduled execution in 2017.

    In 1998, Felicia Gayle, a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter in St. Louis, was stabbed to death 43 times in her own home.

    Two years later, Williams was convicted of the first-degree murder, robbery and burglary of Gayle. His conviction primarily relied upon the inconsistent testimonies of two incentivized witnesses, with no concrete physical evidence linking him to the crime scene. Specifically, one of the witnesses, Henry Cole, told police on June 4, 1999, 10 months after the murder, that Williams had admitted to the crime while they were both in prison.

    In 2016, testing of DNA samples retrieved from the crime scene entirely excluded Williams as a contributor, contradicting the testimony-based evidence used to convict him.

    Though no new execution date has been set, one could be scheduled at any time, and Williams’ life remains at risk for a crime he did not commit.



Dutch Forensic Investigators Identify Jewish Resistance Hero 80 Years After Execution (The Times of Israel – 8/23/2023)

  • Eighty years after his execution by Nazi occupiers, Dutch forensic investigators have finally identified the mysterious remains of a man as that of a Jewish resistance hero named Bernard Luza, investigators said Wednesday.

    Luza, 39, was shot by firing squad in 1943 after he and hundreds of other Jews and their relatives were arrested following a raid on a factory in northern Amsterdam on November 11, 1942.

    His body was discovered in 1945 in a grave with four others, buried at a shooting range near Schiphol Airport. “Now, through the use of DNA technology employed in a relationship study, his (Luza’s) remains were finally identified,” said Geert Jonker, head of the Dutch defence ministry’s forensic unit specializing in identifying human remains.



Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office Teams with Othram to Identify a 2023 John Doe (DNASolves – 8/23/2023)

  • In January 2023, the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office responded to a call from the Atlanta Police Department regarding the discovery of human remains inside a vacant house in Atlanta, Georgia. The house was under construction and had not been visited by construction workers for several weeks, due to the cold weather conditions. Upon arrival at the home, Fulton County Medical Examiner Investigators found an unidentified African-American man. Due to the condition of his remains and the scene, he could not be positively identified.

    In March 2023, the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office teamed with Othram to use advanced DNA testing to assist in identifying the unknown man. Othram has assisted the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office in the identification in other cases, including Zachary Wells and Lola Thomas. Forensic evidence was sent to Othram’s laboratory in The Woodlands, Texas. Othram scientists successfully extracted DNA from the unknown man’s forensic evidence and used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to develop a comprehensive DNA profile for the man.

    Following an investigative lead from the agency, Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office investigators were able to collect a reference DNA sample from a potential relative of the man. Using KinSNP® rapid familial testing, Othram compared the profile of the unknown man with that of the potential relative profile. This provided supporting evidence that eventually enabled investigators to confirm that the man discovered in the house was Harold Hammons. Harold Hammons was born December 14, 1950 and his manner of death was ruled as natural, with the cause of death being coronary artery disease.



New DNA Evidence Indicates 3 Men Convicted of Murder Did Not Do It, Forensic Expert Testifies (CBS News Philadelphia – 8/24/2023)

  • Newly tested DNA evidence from the 1997 killing of a 70-year-old Pennsylvania woman indicates she was sexually assaulted and fatally beaten by an unknown man – and not by the three men who have spent over two decades behind bars for her murder, a forensics expert testified Tuesday.

    Timothy Palmbach, an expert in crime scene reconstruction, testified in a Delaware County, Pennsylvania, courtroom about the new DNA evidence, in particular a mixture of the unknown man’s semen, the victim’s blood, and urine on her bedsheet. The commingling of those bodily fluids shows that the beating and sex occurred at about the same time, he testified, rebutting a key prosecution argument that they were unrelated.

    The mixture “fundamentally changes the nature of the crime scene and the conclusion to be drawn from it,” Palmbach said in court and wrote in a forensic report.


Denton Police Arrest Suspect in a 30-Year-Old Sexual Assault Cold Case through DNA Testing (NBCDFW – 8/23/2023)

  • Since 1993 Denton Police have been investigating two sexual assaults that happened in a park on West Windsor Drive.

    “There was a 15-year-old child who was waiting in the park for other members of her cross-country team and that is when an unknown suspect violently sexually assaulted her,” Denton Police Public Information Officer Allison Beckwith said.

    The second happened in 1997 while a woman was walking in the park.

    Over the years there were no hits on DNA evidence until a state-wide search this year through the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

    “It was found during that search that a reasonable probability that the unknown serial sexual assault suspect that our agency was looking for was related to an individual who was already in the criminal justice system,” Beckwith said. “In other words, a familial match.”

    This led to 53-year-old Marcus Deshaun Johnson being arrested and indicted for two counts of aggravated sexual assault.

    For advocate organizations that work with sexual assault survivors, this case brings encouragement.