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!




DNA Hit of the Year: Lessons in Terrorism and Criminal Law (Forensic Magazine – 5/25/2023)

    • Earlier this week, GTH-DNA revealed the six finalists for the 2023 DNA Hit of the Year, including two U.S. entries—the identification of a burglary ring that escalated to the murder of a member of the U.S. Coast Guard and the identification of a serial killer who terrorized Denver in the 1970s.

      The DNA Hit of the Year program, now in its seventh year, is a global program established to demonstrate the power of forensic DNA databases to solve crime and identify missing persons. Every year, GTH-DNA partners with a group of international judges to determine which submitted case will be recognized as the official hit of the year—but this year was different.

      At the HIDS Conference on Tuesday, GTH-DNA surprised everyone by revealing all six finalists would be considered the 2023 Hit(s) of the Year.

      In addition to recognizing the incredible work forensic scientists and investigators perform, another goal of the DNA Hit of the Year program is to showcase the benefits of a forensic DNA database, when constructed correctly and ethically. This fact was highlighted—even more than in years past—by two specific Hit of the Year cases submitted from outside the United States.

TBI Announces Initiative to Solve 10 Unidentified Remains Cases (WATE6 – 5/25/2023)

    • The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has submitted samples from 10 unidentified skeletal remains to an organization to assist in finding out who they are.

      The TBI published the information on their website, sharing that the remains were submitted to Othram Inc, a private lab based in Woodlands, Texas, to conduct DNA extraction and sequencing processes in December as a part of the Unidentified Human Remains Initiative. The funding for this came from the Tennessee General Assembly, which approved a one-time funding of $100,000 specifically for specialized forensic genetic genealogy testing in TBI cold cases in 2022.

      There are 14 potential cases involving unidentified human remains that met the criteria for the Unidentified Human Remains Initiative. Of those, 10 were submitted, and more may be submitted before July 2023, the TBI said.




New National Protocol for Intimate Partner Violence Medical Forensic Examinations (Forensic Magazine – 5/26/2023)

    • The Justice Department today announced the release of the National Protocol for Intimate Partner Violence Medical Forensic Examinations. The protocol will guide the clinical practice of conducting comprehensive assessments for patients experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV) that prioritize the patient’s health and well-being. Acting Director Allison Randall of  the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women made the announcement at the 2023 Conference on Crimes Against Women in Dallas.

      IPV is a significant issue that poses considerable health, social, and legal challenges within the United States. It impacts individuals of all ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, abilities and socioeconomic statuses.

      Conducting medical forensic exams within a trauma-informed framework is crucial to our nation’s response to IPV. They play a vital role not just in providing immediate medical attention, but also in supporting the long-term recovery, safety and well-being of victims. These examinations offer prompt and necessary medical care to victims, identifying even non-apparent injuries. They also collect critical evidence that can be used in legal proceedings. During the exam, victims are also given access to essential resources such as counseling and safety planning services. This provides a crucial lifeline of support, aiding their journey toward recovery and safety.



New Police Forensic Lab Will Focus on High-Throughput DNA Testing (Forensic Magazine – 5/26/2023)

  • Illinois State Police (ISP) Director Brendan F. Kelly announced ISP has received final accreditation for the new ISP Decatur Forensic Science Laboratory and is now officially open for business. The new four-story facility located along U.S. Route 51 on the south side of Decatur houses12,200-square feet of laboratory space and will serve law enforcement agencies across the state.

    “This top-tier facility will increase capacity to significantly reduce turnaround time for DNA testing, produce rapid results, and further reduce the case backlog,” said Governor JB Pritzker. “Since day one, my administration has been committed to delivering justice for every Illinoisan, and this new Decatur lab will ensure we can accomplish that.”

    The new lab will focus on high-throughput DNA testing, which comprises about 20% of all ISP forensic cases in the laboratory system. Forensic scientists at the laboratory will examine evidence collected from crime scenes and analyze biological material to identify DNA profiles from suspects.


Mutilated Body Found in Alabama in 1997 Identified through ‘Genetic Genealogy’ as California Man (Los Angeles Times – 5/26/2023)

  • Decades after a mutilated body was found in a wooded area in northern Alabama, officials have identified the cold-case victim as a California man through intensive DNA technology and genetic genealogy.

    The body, found April 15, 1997, in Union Grove, Ala., was discovered along a creek, with its head, feet and hands removed, as well as other parts of the body mutilated, apparently in an attempt to make forensic identification more difficult, according to a news release this week from Alabama’s Marshall County Sheriff’s Office.

    Scientists with Parabon NanoLabs, a DNA technology company based in Virginia, were able to overcome the DNA degradation and bacterial contamination that occurred over the last 26 years to create a genetic profile for Kimzey, similar to what’s used in a genetic testing database, such as 23andMe, said CeCe Moore, Parabon NanoLab’s chief genetic genealogist. She said the next step is to test a type of genetic markers, or single-nucleotide polymorphisms, known as SNPs, to look for possible relatives in available databases.



Occupational Exposure to Traumatic Evidence and Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms in Forensic Science Professionals: Prevalence and Patterns (Journal of Forensic Sciences – 5/26/2023)

    • Forensic science professionals are routinely exposed to potentially traumatizing evidence. This study aimed to estimate the prevalence of occupational posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among forensic science professionals, identify job-related correlates of PTSD symptoms, and examine the role of social support in mitigating PTSD symptomology. In response to recruitment through the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, and Evidence Technology Magazine, 449 forensic science professionals participated in the current study. Results found that 73.5% (n = 330) of the overall sample experienced at least one work-related traumatic event consistent with meeting Criterion A for PTSD, and these rates were higher for field-based respondents (n = 203, 87.9%). The prevalence of past-month provisional PTSD was 21.6% for the full sample. Disaggregated PTSD rates were 29.0% and 14.5% for field-based and non-field-based respondents, respectively. These rates were 6- to 8-fold higher than the past-year prevalence of PTSD in the general US population, estimated to be 3.5%, and were found to be at least as high as those observed in prior epidemiological research with non-treatment seeking members of the US military deployed to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Results further showed that social support was protective against PTSD symptomology. The high rates of occupational exposure to trauma and consequent PTSD symptomology observed in this large sample of forensic science professionals highlight the under-acknowledged psychological risks of these occupations and the need for enhanced attention to mental health resources for these professionals.



Officials: ‘Jane Doe’ Identified More than 40 Years After Dying in Hospital (KKTV11 – 5/30/2023)

  • A “Jane Doe” in a 1982 cold case was identified on Tuesday, according to South Carolina officials.

    According to the Richland County Coroner, the woman was identified as Virginia Higgins Ray.

    Officials said Ray was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was a patient at Richland County state hospital when she was later transferred to the women’s ward on Bull Street, but never provided her name.

    According to medical records, Ray suffered a grand mal seizure and a subsequent fall before her death at a hospital in Columbia, South Carolina. Her death reportedly was caused by aspiration from the contents in her stomach.

    Despite exhaustive search efforts by the coroner’s office and anthropology team, Ray remained unidentified for over 40 years, WIS reports.

    The anthropology team eventually turned to genetic genealogists at FHD Forensics for help on the case. That team found almost 4,400 people in her family tree and 11 sets of ancestor couples with intermarried descendants.

    The team was eventually led to a group of surnames out of Wilmington, N.C., and the surrounding area before a targeted press release was sent out.


Native American Missing Persons: Study Details Problems, Recommendations (Forensic – 5/31/2023)

    • To improve communication between tribal and non-tribal justice agencies so that those agencies’ policies and practices are a better match for the realities of life in those communities, NIJ-funded researchers at the University of Nebraska Omaha:

      • Analyzed data on reported missing persons cases in Nebraska.
      • Identified the prevalence and context of missing Native American persons there.
      • Engaged Native American communities directly in missing-person research and solutions.


      Researchers used existing data and collected new data to examine the scope of Native American persons in Nebraska who are missing or were murdered. From that analysis, researchers aimed to:

      • Identify barriers to reporting and investigating cases of missing or murdered Native American women and children in Nebraska.
      • Identify areas to build partnerships across agencies and tribal communities in order to increase reporting and investigating of missing Native American women and children in Nebraska.
      • Make recommendations for better access to justice.




Ohio Investigators ID Two John Does from 1992, 2006 (Forensic – 5/31/2023)

    • Two sets of human remains that have long defied identification – one for 30 years, the other for 17 – now have their names back, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost and Franklin County Coroner Nathaniel Overmire announced today.

      “We work cold cases because everyone counts and everyone deserves justice,” Yost said. “Each time we crack a cold case, the emotions of empathy and anticipation are bittersweet.”

      Identifying and returning those loved ones to their families is a responsibility of county coroners. In these cases, the Franklin County Coroner’s office requested the assistance of the attorney general’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation.



San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and California DOJ Team with Othram to Identify 1970 John Doe (DNASolves – 5/31/2023)

    • In November 1970, deputies responded to the Little Sandy Creek area, regarding human skeletal remains found by a hiker. Upon arriving, deputies confirmed the skeletal remains were human. The skeletal remains were burned, due to a recent brush fire. Detectives from the Specialized Investigations responded and assumed the investigation into the identity of the unidentified remains.

      An autopsy was performed on the skeletal remains, but there was no evidence of foul play or injury to the skeletal remains. The skeletal remains were scorched post-mortem, and did not appear to be associated with the cause of death. The case was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as UP2462. Due to the lack of identity of the skeletal remains, and no other investigative leads, the case went cold.

      In November of 2022, the HCSO and the CA DOJ partnered with Othram Inc., a forensic genealogy lab, to determine if advanced forensic DNA testing could help establish an identity for the unidentified man or a close relative. With funding provided by Roads to Justice (RTJ), the CA DOJ sent Othram forensic evidence from the unknown man’s remains. Othram scientists used Forensic -Grade Genome Sequencing® to build a comprehensive DNA profile for the man. Once the profile was built, Othram’s in-house genealogy team used forensic genetic genealogy to produce investigative leads.



Police Identify Remains of Arizona Woman Strangled and Left in Trunk in Florida in 1969 (NBC News – 5/31/2023)

    • Authorities have identified the remains of an Arizona woman who was strangled and left in a trunk in St. Petersburg, Florida, more than 50 years ago, and they are seeking the public’s help in identifying her killer and finding her daughters, police said Tuesday.

      Police used genetic genealogy to identify Sylvia June Atherton — long known as the “Trunk Lady” because of where her body was found — as the victim of what the St. Petersburg Police Department called the city’s “oldest and most infamous cold case.”

      Atherton, a mother of five from Tucson, Arizona, when she died in 1969, police said. A pair of officers found her partly clothed body wrapped in a large plastic bag, strangled with what police described as “a man’s Western’s-style bolo tie,” in a black steamer trunk in woods behind a restaurant at 4200 34th St. S. on Halloween, police said on Facebook. She also had “visible injuries to her head,” the post said.



Forensic Scientists, Genealogists Make Progress in 1921 Graves Investigation (News9 – 5/31/2023)

    • Forensic scientists and genealogists from Intermountain Forensics, the laboratory assisting the City with DNA analysis for the 1921 Graves Investigation, have received nearly 50 more contacts from people who think they may have a connection to the investigation. The surnames and locations of interest were announced April 12.

      “As work continues to unearth the truth 102 years after the Tulsa Race Massacre, we are inching closer finding answers in an unprecedented identification process, the likes of which have never been undertaken before,” Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said. “I am thankful for the incredible team at Intermountain Forensics and all of the people who have come forward to share information about their family histories in this significant effort.”

      Experts from Intermountain Forensics said they are thankful for the more than 130 people who have connected and shared information with the team on this project and are hopeful more will get involved.



Lawyer Arrested in Over Decade-old Rapes After Being Identified by Genetic Genealogy (ABCNews – 5/31/2023)

    • Police have arrested 35-year-old Matthew J. Nilo, a former Boston attorney, in connection with several decades-old rapes that took place in Boston. Officials said they were able to identify the suspect using forensic genetic genealogy.

      Nilo has been charged with three counts of aggravated rape, two counts of kidnapping, one count of assault with intent to rape and one count of indecent assault and battery, according to Boston police.



Report Finds Lake County’s ‘Julie Doe’ Was Actually Male as DNA Advancements Move Case Forward (WESH2 – 5/31/2023)

    • In September 1988, a man looking for cypress wood in rural Clermont, practically to the Polk County line, found a body. With no name, they decided to call her Julie Doe. She was anywhere from 24 to 33. She had strawberry blonde hair with brown roots, well-manicured nails, and signs of a nose job and breast implants. She was wearing an acid wash jean skirt and a blue and green tank top.

      According to a timeline from the sheriff’s office, progress on the case pretty much came to a halt in 1989. But it picked up again in 2010 when new DNA samples were submitted to a university in Texas. And five years later, the medical examiner’s office received a new report from a lab at a Florida university. The results were completely unexpected.

      “Their main anthropologist at the time determined this could be a male based on a lot of advancements in technology. Eventually, they did an experiment and realized Julie Doe was actually born as a male based on the chromosomes,” Conlee said. Over the years, they’ve entered her DNA and dental records into more databases with no hits. So now, they’ve turned to the DNA Doe Project.