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!





Parabon Continues Cold Case Crime-Solving Spree in 2020 (Parabon Nanolabs – 1/12/2021)

  • Since introducing genetic genealogy, Parabon has assisted law enforcement in making a positive identification (perpetrator or unidentified decedent) at the astonishing rate of one per week on cases that, on average, have been cold for over 25 years.




New Method Helps Pocket-Sized DNA Sequencer Achieve Near-Perfect Accuracy (Forensic – 1/13/2021)

  • Researchers have found a simple way to eliminate almost all sequencing errors produced by a widely used portable DNA sequencer, potentially enabling scientists working outside the lab to study and track microorganisms like the SARS-CoV-2 virus more efficiently.

    Using special molecular tags, the team was able to reduce the five-to-15 per cent error rate of Oxford Nanopore Technologies’ MinION device to less than 0.005 percent—even when sequencing many long stretches of DNA at a time.



Discredited Bite Mark Evidence, DNA Tests Help Exonerate Eddie Lee Howard After 26 Years on Death Row (Forensic – 1/13/2021)

  • Eddie Lee Howard was exonerated on Friday, January 8, 2021, marking the end of his 26-year fight for innocence. Howard, a Black man, was sentenced to death in 1994 after being wrongfully convicted of murdering an elderly white woman in Columbus, Mississippi, based almost entirely on now discredited bite mark evidence. New forensic opinion regarding bite marks and powerful alibi witnesses, along with DNA testing of crime scene evidence, including blood and DNA from the murder weapon, excluded Howard, proving his innocence. He was released from Mississippi’s death row in early December 2020 ahead of Friday’s ruling.



NIST Study Will Help Labs Distinguish Between Hemp and Marijuana (NIST – 1/14/2021)

  • Hemp and marijuana both come from the Cannabis plant. But legally, they are very different. If cannabis has less than 0.3% THC — for tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical that produces a high — it is considered hemp and legal throughout the United States. Otherwise, it’s marijuana and currently treated as a controlled substance by the federal government and many states.

    But labs can have a hard time distinguishing between the two because accurately measuring THC can be difficult, especially at such low levels. Now, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is inviting labs to participate in a study that will help them get the accurate measurements they need to make a reliable call.



Researchers Visualize Quadruple-Helix DNA in Living Human Cells (SciNews – 1/14/2021)

  • A team of scientists from the United Kingdom and Spain has demonstrated that a technique called fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy in conjunction with a fluorescent probe can identify four-stranded ‘quadruple helix’ DNA structures within nuclei of live cells.



CNN Films to Develop Stranger-Than-Fiction Documentary ‘The Lost Sons’ (Variety – 1/14/2021)

  • CNN Films is developing a documentary titled “The Lost Sons,” a stranger-than-fiction account of a baby who was kidnapped from his mother’s hospital room.The non-fiction film centers on a Chicago man named Paul Fronczak. At age 10, he unintentionally discovered newspaper clippings about his parents, who made headlines for grieving their kidnapped baby and celebrating two years later when an abandoned toddler was found. Fronczak was unsure if he was the kidnapped baby mentioned in the articles — or where he may have been for those missing years. And so began a decade-spanning investigation to find answers about his true identity.



Cut the Clutter: Reimagining Evidence Collection to Improve Downstream Processing (Forensic – 1/15/2021)

  • This new path is a reimagination of evidence collection, processing, and storage. Throw out traditional evidence collection kits, each with different configurations and contents specific to an offense type (e.g. sexual assault, property crime, etc.). Instead, standardize on a common, uniform, and automation-friendly collection tube.



DOJ Pushes Back Against PCAST’s Dismissal of Forensic Comparison Methods (Forensic – 1/15/2021)

  • Today, the Justice Department published a statement on the 2016 President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) Report, Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods.  The statement is a response to PCAST’s claims regarding what it described as forensic “feature comparison methods.”



California Senator: Rape Survivors Must Be Able to Track Their Rape Kits (Forensic – 1/15/2021)

  • Senator Connie M. Leyva (D-Chino) introduced legislation requiring the addition of a new online victim portal to California’s existing rape kit tracking system to allow survivors of sexual assault to anonymously and electronically track and receive updates regarding the status, location and information regarding their rape kit.



Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Collaborates with Othram to Identify John Doe Found in North Washington River (DNASolves – 1/18/2021)

  • A young man made a tragic discovery while fly-fishing on the Stillaguamish River in July 1980. The body of an unidentified man, known as “Stilly Doe”, was found caught on a logjam in the river approximately ½ mile northwest of the Stillaguamish River Bridge on Interstate-5. Circumstances surrounding the man’s death remain unclear. An autopsy determined he was suffering from coronary heart disease but drowning could not be ruled out as his cause of death. The advanced state of decomposition of the man’s remains led investigators to determine he had been dead for approximately three months and was in the water for a significant portion of this period



OSAC’s Firearms & Toolmarks Subcommittee Develops Firearms Process Map (NIST – 1/19/2021)

  • The Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) for Forensic Science, in partnership with the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners (AFTE), has developed a process map that describes the process that most firearms examiners use when analyzing evidence.



South Sophomore Solves Cold Cases Using DNA, Forensic Genealogy (South Alabama – 1/19/2021)

  • Though just a sophomore at the University of South Alabama, where she’s studying anthropology and criminal justice, the 19-year-old is a senior intern with a Massachusetts company called Redgrave Research Forensic Services. Her team uses DNA analysis and online genealogy databases to match chromosomes, build family trees and identify suspects and victims.



Biden Taps Geneticist to be Part of His Cabinet for First Time Ever (Forensic – 1/19/2021)

  • President-elect Joseph Biden has selected two MIT faculty leaders — Broad Institute Director Eric Lander and Vice President for Research Maria Zuber — for top science and technology posts in his administration.



Police to Use New DNA Tech on Cold Case that Inspired AMBER Alerts (Forensic – 1/19/2021)

  • Twenty-five years after the AMBER Alert program began, 1,029 children have been rescued thanks to the early alert system. Some of those children were saved from the fate of Amber Hagerman, the 9-year-old girl whose 1996 kidnapping and murder inspired the creation of the system.



Cold Case Solved: Salina Teen Identified as Pecos Jane Doe After 55 Years (KSN – 1/19/2021)

  • Jolaine Hemmy, a Salina teen who went missing 55 years ago, has been identified as Pecos Jane Doe.Hemmy died after drowning a motel pool in Pecos back in July 1966. She was 17 years old when she went missing. She and another man checked into the Ropers Motel. While the man was in the room asleep, a motel maid found her unresponsive in the pool. She was pulled from the water and taken to Reeves Memorial Hospital where she was pronounced dead. The man awoke during the commotion and took everything in the room, including any possible identification. He checked out and left



UK’s Forensic Science Regulator Calls for Change in Final Report (Forensic – 1/20/2021)

  • The UK’s Forensic Science Regulator has warned that parts of the sector remain in a precarious position and there is an urgent need for fundamental change.The report highlights significant improvements over the past 6 years, including more robust testing of methods, improved reliability of results and greater evidence of competence within forensic science.