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!




How Should Scientists Navigate the Ethics of Ancient Human DNA Research? (Smithsonian Magazine – 2/2/2023)

    • The 2022 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine has brought fresh attention to paleogenomics, the sequencing of DNA of ancient specimens. Swedish geneticist Svante Pääbo won the coveted prize “for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution.” In addition to sequencing the Neanderthal genome and identifying a previously unknown early human called Denisova, Pääbo also found that genetic material of these now extinct hominins had mixed with those of our own Homo sapiens after our ancestor migrated from Africa some 70,000 years ago.

      The study of ancient DNA has also shed light on other migrations, as well as the evolution of genes involved in regulating our immune system and the origin of our tolerance to lactose, among many other things. The research has also ignited ethical questions. Clinical research on living people requires the informed consent of participants and compliance with federal and institutional rules.

      But what do you do when you’re studying the DNA of people who died a long time ago? That gets complicated, says anthropologist Alyssa Bader, coauthor of an article about ethics in human paleogenomics in the 2022 Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics.



Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office Partners with Othram to Identify a Man Found in 2020 (DNASolves – 2/2/2023)

  • In February 2020, human skeletal remains were found by a longshoreman at the Weyerhaeuser dock in Longview, Washington. Detectives with the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office and members of the Cowlitz County Coroner’s Office searched the area and found a nearly complete skeleton buried in thick blackberry bushes. The skeleton was collected, and the scene was processed. The skeletal remains were sent to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office for a full forensic examination. The examination showed no signs of trauma, and the cause of death is unknown. Forensic Odontologist made a dental record for comparison with the National Missing Person’s Database. Anthropological analysis suggested that the skeletal remains belonged to an adult Caucasian or Hispanic male.

    In November of 2021 Detectives began working with Othram, a private DNA lab that specializes in advanced forensic DNA testing. The casework was funded by a DNASolves® Crowfund and we appreciate everyone that helped fund this case. Using Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® and genetic genealogy, they were able to identify potential family members of the unidentified subject. Othram’s in-house genealogy team delivered leads back to law enforcement and detectives contacted the family, learning that they had a missing family member. Jade David Feigert was 22 years old and living in Columbia County, OR when he went missing in February 2017. Feigert was last seen when he was dropped off in Kelso, WA by his mother.


Skull Found in Alaska is Linked to New York Man Missing Since 1976 (New York Times – 2/5/2023)

  • In 1976, Gary Frank Sotherden’s appetite for adventure and the outdoors led him to the Arctic Circle, where he and a friend planned to walk on opposite sides of the Porcupine River in northeastern Alaska, reuniting when the cold set in and the river froze, his brother said.

    The friend made it out, but Mr. Sotherden was never heard from again.

    Planes flew above the remote, winding river in search of Mr. Sotherden, who was from Clay, N.Y., which is about a dozen miles northwest of Syracuse. The police and mountain guides also searched on land, but their efforts were unsuccessful.

    What happened to Mr. Sotherden was a mystery that endured for nearly 50 years — until Thursday.

    Relying on genetic testing and genealogy research, state troopers in Alaska confirmed that a skull found by the Porcupine River in 1997 was that of Mr. Sotherden. Troopers said in a news release that the suspected cause of death was a bear mauling, but they did not elaborate.



DNA Ties Serial Rapist to 3 Attacks, Possibly More (Forensic – 2/6/2023)

  • Genetic genealogy has helped identify a serial rapist who was committing crimes for at least 40 years of his life, varying his location and even changing his MO as he got older and became plagued with medical issues.

    Late last week, Capt. Jack Kennedy, commander of the Tuscaloosa (Alabama) Violent Crimes Unit, announced Elliot Higgins as the suspected perpetrator in two cold case rapes that occurred in 1991 and 2001 in Tuscaloosa, as well as an attempted rape in Colorado.

    Higgins, who died in 2014, lived in New Mexico, but originally hailed from Cleveland, Ohio. It was there, in the 1970s, he accumulated an extensive rap sheet of heinous sexual crimes as a young man, including indecent exposure to a minor under 16, assault on a minor, prowling, corruption of a minor, gross sexual imposition and more.

    Higgins did jail time in Ohio, but Kennedy says he most likely used the experience to adapt his crimes and evade future detection as he continued to assault women. Higgins was a locally famous musician—a fact that afforded him the opportunity to travel and offend in areas outside his home.


DNA Doe Project Investigative Genetic Genealogists Identify Man Found Along Interstate 65 in 2006 (DNA Doe Project – 2/6/2023)

    • The DNA Doe Project and the Hardin County Coroner’s Office have identified a man discovered in 2006 on the side of the road along northbound Interstate 65 east of Elizabethtown, Kentucky as Ricky Allen Leslie. He was believed to have died of natural causes weeks prior to being found without any identification.

      In 2021, the Hardin County Coroner’s Office contacted the DNA Doe Project to request help identifying the man and a biological sample from his remains was sent to the lab for processing. After seven months of complex, specialized laboratory testing, volunteer investigative genetic genealogists began the work to identify the man by analyzing his genetic matches and building his family tree.

      Despite the challenges, the team was able to identify Ricky Allen Leslie as a potential candidate by mid-July, and his identity was confirmed by local authorities using a DNA match to a family member. Mr Leslie, whose previous address was near where his body was found, had been living in Elizabethtown prior to his death.


Closure After 58 Years: Forensic DNA Helps Identify Skeleton in John Day River Cold Case (KATU2 – 2/6/2023)

    • Forensic DNA sequencing has helped give a name back to the skeleton found by the John Day River in 1989, said the Oregon State Police.

      On March 26, 1989, the remains of a body were found on the Sherman County side of the John Day River. The sheriff’s office recovered the incomplete skeletal remains, which included long bones and a skull with dental work.

      Nothing was initially known about the possible identity of the deceased, despite local interest. The bones were taken to the Oregon State Medical Examiner’s Office (SMEO) for examination.

      The examination determined the deceased had most likely been a white male in his 40s or 50s, around 5’6″ – 5’9″ tall. Dental work on the skull’s teeth was also noted for identification purposes.

      In April 2022, the SMEO “recognized the effectiveness of investigative genetic genealogy on cold unidentified remains cases,” and the forensic DNA sample was given to Othram, a lab specializing in advanced forensic DNA testing. Othram’s genome sequencing revealed the names of two biological relatives of David West Jr. as being genetically connected to the bone samples.


Vegas Police: Dead Man’s DNA Linked to 2 Killings from 1990s (US News & World Report – 2/6/2023)

    • A cold case review using DNA evidence collected from the bodies of two Las Vegas women who were sexually attacked and strangled in the 1990s points to a man who died six years ago as their killer, police in Las Vegas said Monday.



In 1959, the Walker Family was Found Murdered in their Florida Home. Now DNA Could Crack the Notorious Cold Case. (CBS News – 2/6/2023)

    • A family of four was killed in Florida five weeks after the murder of the Kansas family featured in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” More than six decades later, a brother fights for answers.



NC State Bureau of Investigation and Lexington PD Team with Othram to Identify the 1987 Rapist and Murderer of Mary Mathis Davis (DNA Solves – 2/7/2023)

    • In May 1987, 29-year-old mother of two, Mary Davis, was reported missing, being last seen at Lanier Hardware where she worked. Shortly after, Mary Davis’s body was found behind 802 East Center Street in Lexington, North Carolina. In 1987, there was a Winn-Dixie grocery store at this location.

      Investigators in 1987 collected evidence that not until recently was viable in assisting in the case. As with all homicide investigations, Mary Davis’s case has remained open and assigned to investigators throughout the years. In reviewing the evidence and knowing that technology has been evolving, current investigators submitted physical evidence to the NC State Crime Lab for examination. Based on those findings, contact was made with the NC State Bureau of Investigation to review possibilities of moving forward with the newest findings. Through the advancement of DNA technology, the NC State Bureau of Investigation, in partnership with Othram, undertook the complex process of utilizing the most recent advancements in DNA to provide evidence that led to identifying the offender in the murder of Mary Davis.

      DNA evidence from the case was sent to Othram and their scientists used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to develop a comprehensive genealogical profile for an unknown male suspect. Othram built a comprehensive genealogy profile from the remaining DNA extract and then Othram’s in-house genealogical team used the profile to produce investigative leads. Othram then returned investigative leads to Investigators. As part of a follow-up investigation, law enforcement investigators were able to identify the suspect.


Georgia Sailor Who Died in Pearl Harbor Attack Identified through DNA Testing (FOX News – 2/7/2023)

    • A Georgia sailor will be laid to rest on Thursday, more than 82 years after he was killed during the attack on Pear Harbor.

      Shipfitter 3rd Class John Donald was one of the 429 sailors lost on the USS Oklahoma on Dec. 7, 1941, according to Fox 5 Atlanta. The station reported that the 28-year-old, from Marietta, was identified on April 11, 2018.

      The attack took the lives of 2,403 U.S. personnel and destroyed or damaged 19 U.S. Navy ships. While the majority of the sailors who were lost were marked as unidentified and laid to rest in caskets, the USS Oklahoma Project by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has worked with genealogists to track down relatives of those killed on the USS Oklahoma.



Law Students Help Free Man Wrongly Convicted of Murder 40 Years Ago (Forensic – 2/8/2023)

    • As part of their studies at the University of Montana, students in the Alexander Blewett III School of Law get hands-on experience working for clinics practicing law in a variety of fields. For most, these clinics provide valuable experience in the legal arena, but for some they become transformative, sparking a passion they will carry well into their future careers.

      This year, Brandy Keesee a first-generation college student and first-year law student, and third-year law student Annabelle Smith were part of a cohort working with the Montana Innocence Project (MTIP) to free Bernard Pease, a Billings man wrongly convicted 40 years ago for murder.

      “I came to [UM Law] because of its smaller community where people care,” said Keesee. “Students at other schools will get to write papers about people like Bernard Pease; we get to actually help.”

      Pease was incarcerated based on forensic testing methods deemed invalid with modern DNA testing, explained MTIP Legal Director Caiti Carpenter.



Othram and Sorenson Forensics Partner to Develop Genetic Genealogy Workflow (Forensic – 2/8/2023)

    • Othram develops best-in-class forensic DNA technology that combines genome sequencing with advanced human identification applications such as FGG. The company has helped law enforcement solve cases locally and nationally throughout the United States and Canada, many of which had been unsolved for decades.

      Sorenson Forensics operates one of the largest private forensic DNA laboratories and has successfully completed DNA testing for more than 100,000 cases. In 2021, the company opened a new forensic laboratory facility to scale its laboratory services.

      The new partnership will enable cutting-edge FGG tools for previously tested casework and will also establish a combined workflow for current cases or cases that have not been entered into CODIS yet. Starting today, clients of Sorenson Forensics will now be able to easily leverage forensic genetic genealogy (FGG) technology, through Othram, if their case or cases have not been solved through traditional forensic DNA testing.



Oslo Police Use Genetic Genealogy for the First Time to ID Murder Suspect (Forensic – 2/8/2023)

    • Knut Kristiansen, a 71-year-old linguist, was found murdered in his apartment in Sandaker, Norway on July 20, 1999. There were no traces at the scene that indicated a break-in or illegal entry into the apartment. Based on the investigation, police believe that only Kristiansen and the perpetrator were present, and that Kristiansen let the person in.

      Police had a difficult starting point, as Knut was found about two weeks after the assumed day the murder took place—July 4, 1999. At the time, police secured DNA traces at the crime scene, which they believed must have come from one perpetrator. Analysis never produced a match in the DNA register, though.

      In recent years, investigators made several attempts to identify the unknown DNA profile, but still no name. When the police reviewed the case again in 2020, they had already started investigating the possibility of using genealogy databases for more indications of who the unknown DNA profile could belong to.

      When the method was to be tested in a pilot project at Kripos, following a mandate from the Attorney General, the case was incorporated into a collaborative project with Oslo University Hospital and the National Archives.

      Through genealogy and other investigative steps, the police finally managed to arrive at a likely suspect. The genetic investigation pointed in the right direction, and the actual breakthrough came when police found a match between the DNA left at the murder crime scene and that left of another case. It turns out the suspect was involved in another case of violence in a different police district. When they compared the DNA between the two scenes, it matched.