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!




Bill Promotes ‘Trauma-Informed’ Response to Sexual Assault (Forensic – 1/19/2024)

    • An omnibus bill to promote a victim-centered, trauma-informed response to sexual assault in Washington’s legal system was heard in the Senate Law & Justice Committee earlier this week.

      SB 5937 streamlines eligibility for crime victim benefits, covers some of victims’ costs for forensic examinations, expands protections to more victims, improves state and local teams to respond to sexual assault, and ensures that children age 13 and up can consent to forensic sexual examinations and examinations for sexually transmitted infections — consistent with current law on the age of medical consent.

      “SB 5937 draws on the recommendations of the Sexual Assault Forensic Examination (SAFE) Best Practices Advisory Group as well as the experiences of survivors and the knowledge of experts in the field,” said Dhingra, chair of the Senate Law & Justice Committee. “This legislation represents a transformation of the legal response to sexual assault in our state, so that we can build a truly victim-centered, trauma-informed system.”

      One survivor wrote of the bill: “I am pleasantly surprised how comprehensive it is, from improving access to victim compensation fund to participating in person or remotely to criminal trials, removing statute of limitation for first responder rapes to recognizing use of rape drug as force, among other things. Of many ‘victim rights’ legislations to reform criminal legal system that I have seen, this is the most thorough and trauma informed.”



9/11 Victim’s Remains Identified Nearly 23 Years Later through Advanced DNA Analysis (NBC News – 1/19/2024)

  • The remains of a Long Island man killed at the World Trade Center on 9/11 have been identified more than two decades after the 2001 attacks, the New York City medical examiner’s office announced Thursday.

    John Ballantine Niven, 44, was an executive at Aon Risk Services, an insurance firm on the 105th floor of tower two of the trade center complex, according to obituaries at the time. He and his young family split time between Manhattan and Oyster Bay, where he grew up.

    Ellen Niven, his wife, said Thursday that she and their son Jack, who was just 18 months old when his father died, are grateful for the “extraordinary efforts” of city officials continuing the difficult task of identifying victims’ remains.

    “It is certainly emotional for me, and I’m sure many others, to hear many years later that DNA has been found,” she wrote in an email. “It’s a real tribute to the City of New York and the teams working behind the scenes all these years to honor that mantra ‘Never Forget.’ My son and I are so appreciative of this tremendous endeavor.”

    Niven is the 1,650th victim identified from the deadliest act of terrorism on American soil, when hijackers crashed airplanes into the Twin Towers, killing 2,753 people.


Familial DNA Leads to Suspect in 1995 Attempted Murder (Forensic – 1/22/2024)

    • Recently, a suspect in a nearly 29-year-old Attempted Murder Cold Case was identified using advanced DNA technology known, as familial DNA.

      In May 1995, investigators from the Indiana State Police and Scott County Sheriff’s Office investigated an attempted murder, assault, and robbery that occurred at a rural Scott County residence. Evidence, including DNA evidence, was collected when the case was initially investigated. Numerous leads were followed at the time with no clear suspects being identified.

      With the advancement in DNA technology, the collected DNA was entered into the national DNA database in August 2000. This resulted in no matches to known individuals being found.

      In 2018, the use of familial DNA was being used as the latest investigative tool in cases where a DNA sample had been collected of an unidentified and unknown suspect. This technique involves comparing the DNA sample against databases of known individuals to look for family members of potential suspects. When a family member is identified, investigators can use investigative tools and genealogy to identify a suspect.

      The familial DNA testing was completed in August 2023 by Parabon Laboratories with funding from Seasons of Justice, a non-profit group that assists law enforcement in solving unsolved violent crimes. A close family relative of a suspect was initially identified by this DNA testing. An exhaustive investigation was then carried out by detectives, lab analysts, intelligence analysts, and well-known genealogist CeCe Moore to finally identify a suspect months later.



The Possibility of Identifying Criminals from a Single Cell (Forensic – 1/22/2024)

  • The latest techniques in genetics can identify an individual from just one cell. A new project is set to explore whether the justice system could use these to create DNA profiles from complex crime scene evidence.

    Led by the Earlham Institute, a consortium of researchers including a team from the University of Portsmouth, has been awarded nearly £625k to work with experts across the criminal justice system.

    They will be exploring whether cutting-edge sequencing technologies could be used by forensic scientists to identify individuals who have been involved in crimes.

    The project—single-cell and single molecule analysis for DNA identification (SCAnDi)—will examine whether new techniques in the single-cell analysis field could add valuable new DNA evidence to investigations when used by forensic investigators.



Missing Bullets Can Be Identified by Ricochet Residue at Crime Scenes (New Scientist – 1/22/2024)

  • Investigating gun crime is challenging if bullets have been removed from the scene – a tool that can identify bullets from the shavings they leave as they ricochet off surfaces could help



King County Sheriff’s Office Partners with Othram to Identify the Last Known Victim of the Green River Killer (DNASolves – 1/22/2024)

  • In April 1985, the remains of two unidentified women were located near the Tualatin Golf Course in Tigard, Oregon. Both women were suspected to be victims of Gary Ridgeway. In 1988, using dental records, investigators were able to identify one of the women as Tammy Liles. The other woman was eventually identified as Angela Girdner. Later in June 1985, the remains of two other women were found nearby off Bull Mountain Road near Tigard. Green River Detectives went to assist with the search of that site. Those two females were soon identified as Denise Bush and Shirley Sherrill. Both were on the Green River Missing Person List and had last been seen in the Seattle area in October 1982.

    In 2002-2003, Gary Ridgway was interviewed about all of these cases. Ridgway admitted responsibility for the murders of Bush and Sherrill in King County, Washington and stated that he moved the bones of each individual to the Tigard site sometime later. This was confirmed in the Bush case by the presence of remains in both Washington and Oregon. Ridgway took investigators to the location where he originally left Sherrill’s body, but nothing was found to confirm his claims. Ridgway at that time denied responsibility for the murders of Liles and Girdner.

    Later in 2003, Ridgway led investigators to a site near Kent-Des Moines Road in South King County, Washington where Ridgway claimed he had left a victim’s remains. A search of the area turned up partial skeletal remains. No skull was found, and most major bones were absent. Evidence was submitted to the University of North Texas where a DNA profile was obtained for the unknown victim. The DNA profile was uploaded into NDIS, a national database that contains the DNA profiles of missing people and unidentified remains. There was no match and the woman remained unidentified.

    The Jane Doe discovered in 2003 remained unidentified and investigators labeled her as “Bones 20”. Details of the case were entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as UP9930. In November 2003, Ridgway pled guilty to the murder of Bones 20, Denise Bush, Shirley Sherrill, and 45 other victims. He would later plead guilty to a 49th victim.

    Throughout the years, attempts by other laboratories to identify Bones 20 had been unsuccessful. In the fall of 2022, members of the King County Sheriff’s Office met with representatives of Othram to discuss the Bones 20 case. The King County Sheriff’s Office submitted skeletal remains to Othram in The Woodlands, Texas. Othram scientists successfully developed a DNA extract from the skeletal remains and used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to develop a comprehensive DNA profile that could be used for forensic genetic genealogy. Othram’s in-house forensic genetic genealogy team then used the DNA profile to generate new leads in the case.



Hernando County Sheriff’s Office Teams with Othram to Identify 1972 Homicide Victim (DNASolves – 1/22/2024)

  • In July 1972, the remains of an unidentified individual were discovered in the area of High Corner Road and Cortez Boulevard (State Road 50) in Brooksville, Florida. Brooksville is located in Hernando County which is situated on Florida’s west central coast. It was determined that the remains were that of a white female who was between the ages of 30 and 40 years at the time of her death. The woman had poor dental health with only six upper teeth and six lower teeth. She was approximately 5’ tall and weighed between 125 and 145 pounds. The woman’s remains were wrapped in a bedspread that had a distinctive pattern described as possibly being a “pineapple damask” print. The bedspread had three square corners and one rounded corner. The woman’s manner of death was determined to be homicide.

    At the time of her discovery, detectives believed the woman had recently traveled to Hernando County from either north Florida or Alabama. A facial reconstruction was developed and released to the public in hopes that it would generate new leads. Details of the case were entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as UP6043. The woman became known popularly as “Edna” and over the years, Hernando County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case detectives continued to investigate the case in hopes that she could be identified.

    In 2022, Hernando County Sheriff’s Office submitted forensic evidence to Othram in The Woodlands, Texas in hopes that advanced DNA testing and forensic genetic genealogy could generate new investigative leads in the case. Othram scientists successfully developed a DNA extract from the skeletal remains and used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to develop a comprehensive DNA profile. Othram’s in-house forensic genetic genealogy team then used the DNA profile to generate new leads in the case.

    In August 2022, Othram provided a possible identity of the Jane Doe to Hernando County Sheriff’s Office Detective George Loydgren who was able to collect a reference sample from a potential family member of the woman. The DNA profile of the potential family member was compared to Jane Doe’s DNA profile, leading to the positive identification of the woman as Peggy Joyce Shelton of Kentucky. Shelton was born March 30, 1943.



Orange County Sheriff’s Department & Coroner Division, and the California DOJ Team with Othram to Identify a 2017 Jane Doe (DNASolves – 1/23/2024)

  • In June 2017, the partial remains of an unidentified individual were found in San Clemente, California at a construction site. Law enforcement responded to the scene, and discovered a human skull that had been found by workers. It was determined that the remains were that of a female estimated to be between the ages of 30 and 50 years. No other identifying information for the individual could be determined.

    Details of the case were entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as UP55049. Despite law enforcement’s efforts, the woman could not be identified, and she became known as San Clemente Jane Doe (2017).

    The California Department of Justice (CA DOJ) once again partnered with Othram to determine if advanced forensic DNA testing could help establish an identity for the unidentified woman. CA DOJ has previously partnered with Othram on multiple cases, including the identification of Denise Gail Cruz and Rodney Alan Rumsey.

    In December 2022, using funding provided by the Roads to Justice (RTJ) program, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department & Coroner Division, working in conjunction with the California Department of Justice , submitted forensic evidence to Othram in The Woodlands, Texas. Othram scientists used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to build a comprehensive DNA profile for the unknown woman. Initial analysis revealed that woman’s biogeographical ancestry was largely East Asian. Othram’s in-house genealogy team used the DNA profile in conjunction with forensic genetic genealogy to produce new investigative leads, which were returned to law enforcement.

    Using these new leads, law enforcement conducted a follow-up investigation. This follow-up investigation led to relatives of the unidentified woman. Follow up confirmation testing then enabled a positive ID. The woman had been reported missing prior to the discovery of her remains. At the request of family, the identity of the woman will not be released at this time.



LIMS: Tips to Compare Apples to Oranges, and Avoid the Lemons (Forensic – 1/24/2024)

  • If you’re researching the various vendors and Lab Information Management Systems (LIMS) available for your forensic labs, you may feel like you’re wading in terminology salad. The chunky bites of proprietary code, layers of acronyms, and technical toppings can add to the overall messiness. Making fair comparisons between very different solutions isn’t easy.

    In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the challenges lab managers and IT teams encounter when making purchase decisions and offer tips for decoding the menu of capabilities available.

    Both scientists and software vendors love jargon, meaning both request for proposal (RFP) writers and responders may unintentionally contribute to ambiguity. Cynics might argue that confusing terms are intentionally used in RFPs by vendors to make comparisons between vendors difficult and to mask shortfalls. When terms are not clearly defined in the RFP, the purchaser is left to interpret vaguely worded answers. It’s also easy to miss red flags when they are buried under technical terms.