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!




New Maryland Law Protects Decades-Old DNA Evidence (CBS News – 9/29/2023)

    • Before DNA profiling existed, a doctor trained as a forensic pathologist had the foresight to preserve physical evidence from incidents of sexual violence on microscope slides.

      The late Dr. Rudiger Breitenecker worked at Greater Baltimore Medical Center when he began the collection of DNA evidence during the 1970s into the 1990s when standardized Sexual Assault Forensic Exam or ‘SAFE’ kits emerged.

      Decades later, the trove of samples will now be given the same protections as the modern-day kits under a new Maryland law that goes into effect on Sunday, Oct. 1.

      The new law mandates evidence from a sexual assault exam be stored for 75 years from the date of collection, an increase from the current requirement of 20 years. It also requires the microscope slides be transferred to a law enforcement agency for testing.



Volusia County Sheriff’s Office and District 7 Medical Examiner Team with Othram to Identify 1990 Homicide Victim (DNASolves – 9/29/2023)

    • In April 1990, the remains of an unidentified woman were found in a wooded area east of Clyde Morris Boulevard in Ormond Beach, Florida which is located north of Daytona Beach in Volusia County. An individual discovered the remains while walking along a trail that leads from Clyde Morris Boulevard to Avenue D in the Daytona Pines subdivision. Law enforcement later found additional skeletonized portions of the woman’s body scattered throughout the wooded area, but no clothing or personal property was ever recovered. The woman’s death was ruled a homicide. She could not be identified and became known as Volusia County Jane Doe.

      In 2000, a forensic facial reconstruction was created to depict how the woman have looked during her life. Later, in 2015 an updated, digital forensic sketch was created to represent the woman’s likely appearance more accurately. Despite the investigative work of detectives, the woman’s identity remained unknown. Details of the unidentified person case were entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as UP923.

      In June 2023, the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office in collaboration with the District 7 Medical Examiner’s Office teamed with Othram to determine if advanced DNA testing could help to identify the woman. Skeletal remains were sent to Othram’s laboratory in The Woodlands, Texas. Othram scientists successfully developed a DNA extract from the skeletal evidence and used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to develop a comprehensive DNA profile. Othram’s in-house forensic genetic genealogy team then used the profile in a genealogical search to generate new investigative leads, including information about a Missouri woman, who was likely a close relative of the unidentified woman.

      Volusia County Sheriff’s Detectives conducted a follow-up investigation and spoke to the Missouri woman who confirmed that she had not seen her sister since 1989. Detectives also identified the likely children of the unidentified woman who confirmed that they had not seen their mother since 1989. Reference DNA samples were provided by the potential sister and daughter of the unidentified woman. DNA comparisons revealed a match and Volusia County Jane Doe was positively identified as Roberta “Bobbie” Lynn Headley Weber.



Latest Search for Remains of the Tulsa Race Massacre Victims Ends with Seven Sets of Remains Exhumed (AP News – 9/30/2023)

  • The latest search for the remains of victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre has ended with 59 graves found and seven sets of remains exhumed, according to Oklahoma state archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck.

    The excavation ended Friday, Stackelbeck said, and 57 of the 59 graves were unmarked and previously unknown.

    The seven that were exhumed were found in simple, wooden boxes that Stackelbeck has said investigators were searching for because they were described in newspaper articles at the time, death certificates and funeral home records as the type used for burials of massacre victims.


Bill to Store ‘Anonymous’ Sexual Assault Kits is Not Met with Support (Forensic – 10/02/2023)

  • In Washington, D.C., under current law, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) is only required to collect and deliver sexual assault kits to the Department of Forensic Sciences (DFS) if an assault has been reported to MPD. That leaves a huge gap for all the survivors that choose not to report—or at least not to report yet.

    These “anonymous kits” are then at greater risk of getting lost, damaged or destroyed. With no where to go, these kits are generally stored on an ad hoc basis by the D.C. Forensic Nurse Examiners, regional hospitals, or even another jurisdiction.

    Even for survivors who do report, the law states the kits only have to be stored for up to three years. Thanks to advancements in DNA technology, tools like M-Vac, and forensic genetic genealogy, we’ve repeatedly seen how cold cases can be solved decades years later if the original DNA evidence is available.

    This past summer, Councilmember Charles Allen introduced legislation to require the District and DFS to preserve all sexual assault kits indefinitely, including the anonymous ones. The Bill was introduced on September 19 during a public hearing, but support was not overwhelming.


Genealogy Finds Match to DNA from Cigarette Butts Left at 2003 Crime Scene (Forensic – 10/02/2023)

  • Today, Hamilton County (Ohio) Prosecutor Melissa Powers announced the indictment of Robert Stewart for the 2003 murder of Herman Brown.

    Stewart (DOB 3/28/59) was indicted for two counts of murder and one count of felonious assault. If convicted on all charges, he faces a maximum possible sentence of life in prison.

    On Feb.15, 2003, Cincinnati Police were dispatched to 2572 Sarvis Court to conduct a wellness check. The 911 caller reported a strong odor coming from the apartment.

    Upon entering the apartment, Cincinnati officers discovered the victim lying naked on the floor, deceased. The victim had an extension cord wrapped around his neck and had suffered numerous stab wounds. Blood was found in the victim’s bathroom sink.

    Among other evidence, investigators collected 6 cigarette butts, a DNA swab of the victim’s genitals, and a blood lift from the bathroom sink. Two DNA profiles were found in the blood from the bathroom sink – the victim’s and an unknown individual. That unknown DNA profile also matched the DNA found on the victim’s genitals and some of the cigarette butts collected from the scene.

    However, investigators were not able to match the unknown DNA profile to a suspect. After exhausting all leads, the investigation into the homicide of Herman Brown went cold.

    Recently, the unknown DNA profile from the cigarette butts was re-extracted and entered into a forensic genetic genealogy search. That search returned a possible suspect of Robert Stewart. Further DNA analysis confirmed Robert Stewart was the source of DNA located at the crime scene.



Wichita Police Department & the FBI Partner with Othram to Identify the Suspect in the 1989 Murder of Krista Martin (DNASolves – 10/02/2023)

  • In October 1989, the body of twenty-year-old Krista Martin was found beaten to death in her Wichita, Kansas apartment located on South Osage Street. A concerned friend visited her home in the early hours of October 2, 1989, and discovered Krista. Wichita Police Department responded to the scene of the crime and began their investigation. It was determined that Krista died from blunt force trauma to the back, left side of her head. Initial investigative efforts included the collection of DNA evidence. Although DNA testing and the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) systems were not available at the time, the DNA evidence was carefully preserved.

    Despite conducting numerous interviews and analyzing the available evidence, investigators were unable to identify a suspect. Undeterred, investigators continued to scrutinize the evidence and gather new leads. DNA samples were collected from multiple individuals for comparison with the evidence from the scene, but no match was found. In 2009, DNA evidence from the crime scene was submitted to the Sedgwick County Regional Forensic Science Center, resulting in the development of a potential suspect profile. This profile was uploaded to CODIS, but it did not lead to any matches. Further DNA sampling from potential suspects also proved unsuccessful. Despite law enforcement’s extensive efforts to identify the suspect, the case went cold.

    In 2020, the Wichita Police Department in collaboration with the FBI, teamed with Othram to determine if advanced DNA testing could help to identify the person responsible and forensic evidence was sent to Othram’s laboratory in The Woodlands, Texas for advanced DNA testing. Using Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing®, Othram’s scientists developed a comprehensive DNA profile for the unknown individual. After successfully completing the process, the DNA profile was delivered to the FBI’s forensic genetic genealogy team and the FBI team performed the necessary work to generate new investigative leads.

    In 2021, a team consisting of a Wichita Police Homicide Detective and an FBI Special Agent embarked on a journey to Alabama and Arkansas, collaborating with additional Federal Agents working in Maryland. Their mission was to conduct extensive interviews and gather additional evidence to break the case. Finally, in April 2023, a possible suspect, Paul Hart, was identified. It was discovered that Hart died in a traffic collision in Memphis, Tennessee in March of 1999. In June of 2023, the Wichita Police Department homicide detective and FBI Special Agent traveled to Arkansas, where they collected additional DNA samples from direct relatives of Paul Hart for further analysis.

    In collaboration with the FBI, Othram and the Sedgwick County Regional Forensic Science Center, Wichita Police Department investigators were able to utilize forensic genetic genealogy techniques to confirm that Paul Hart was the suspect in the 1989 homicide of Krista Martin. Upon presenting the facts of the case to Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett, it was determined that charges would be filed if Mr. Hart were still alive. As he is deceased, this case is now considered cleared.



Hennepin County Jane Doe “Susan Watkins” Identified Through Forensic Genetic Genealogy (Yahoo! Finance – 10/02/2023)

  • Identifinders International is pleased to have assisted the Hennepin County Medical Examinerto identify the remains of a 1996 Jane Doe formerly known as “Susan Watkins”. “Susan” has been positively identified as Sally Green.

    “Susan Watkins” was the name given by an unidentified woman who was killed after jumping off a parking ramp in Minneapolis, MN on August 23rd 1996. Prior to her death she had checked into the Regency Plaza Hotel and claimed she was from Texas. She had no identification or photographs in her billfold at the time of death, and the name “Susan Watkins” that she used to check in proved to be false.

    In 2022, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office partnered with Identifinders International to find Susan’s real identity. Through crowdfunding, Identifinders was able to raise enough funds through our Daniel Paul Armantrout Memorial Fund to extract and sequence her remains. In April of 2023, a lead was generated by Senior Forensic Genetic Genealogist Misty Gillis, that the true name of the decedent was Sally Green. Her identity was confirmed in September of 2023.

    Sally Green was born in Daytona Beach, Florida and lost touch with her family at some point in the 1970’s. Not much is known about her whereabouts up to the time of her death.



District 1 Medical Examiner’s Office & Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office Teams with Othram to Identify a 1994 Homicide Victim (DNASolves – 10/03/2023)

  • In September 1994, the skeletal remains of an unidentified female were found by a road crew near Interstate 10 in Holt, a community located in Okaloosa County, Florida. The District 1 Medical Examiner’s Office (D1MEO) launched an investigation and determined that the death was likely due to foul play. During the initial investigation, the remains were sent to the University of Florida C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory in Gainesville and samples were sent for entomological examination for estimation of time since death. An osteological examination showed the remains to be that of a white female who was between the ages of 35 to 55 years at her time of death.

    At the time of her discovery, the woman was wearing a full-length floral pattern button-up dress and a floral print jacket. The jacket had a drawstring and zipper with sequins in a pattern on the upper shoulder, nit cuffs, and collar. The woman was wearing several pieces of jewelry including a black cord bracelet with multicolored beads, silver colored ring that was described as being inexpensive, a heart-shaped silver ring, a charm bracelet without charms, a plain silver band, and a simple cord necklace with triangle, square, and two circle pendants. Serial killer Keith Jesperson (also known as “Happy Face Killer”) later admitted to killing a woman in Tampa and disposing of her remains in the Holt area. He said that she called herself Susanne. As such, the unidentified woman in this case became known as “Suzanne” and “Suzanne Jane Doe”.

    Early on, a clay facial reconstruction was created, but it did not generate any leads about the woman’s identity. In 2007, a forensic artist completed a new facial reconstruction in hopes of identifying the woman. In 2008, the woman’s remains were sent for additional anthropological examination at the University of West Florida. DNA was also analyzed and entered into CODIS. In 2018, specimens were sent for isotope analysis at the University of Florida. Specimens were sent to the FBI Laboratory for DNA analysis and subsequent entry into the National Missing and Unidentified Person (NamUs) database as UP1129. Despite the extensive efforts of law enforcement, the woman’s identity could not be determined.

    In late 2022, the District 1 Medical Examiner’s Office teamed with Othram to use advanced DNA testing to help identify the woman. Using these leads, the District 1 Medical Examiner’s Office, in conjunction with the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office identified the unknown woman Suzanne L. Kjellenberg. Kjellenberg was born on October 8, 1959. She would have been 34 years of age at the time of her death.



Fort Worth Police Department Secures Grant to Tackle DNA Backlog (CBS Texas – 10/04/2023)

  • Three organizations in Tarrant County were awarded more than $2 million in grants to help reduce the DNA and rape kit backlog.

    While DNA evidence is collected with most every report of a rape, the number of kits continues to  overwhelm police departments across the country, including those in Texas.

    The Fort Worth Police Department, Tarrant County and the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth received the grants as part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Capacity Enhancement for Backlog Reduction Program.

    The program was authorized by the Debbie Smith Act, which U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) helped introduce. It was signed into law in 2004 to provide local and state crime laboratories with resources to end the backlog of untested DNA evidence from unsolved crimes, analyze DNA samples and increase the capacity to process DNA in order to guard against future backlogs.



Revealed: Police to Trial Controversial DNA Tool for Two of the Country’s Most High-Profile Cold Case Murders (NZ Herald – 10/04/2023)

  • Police will use a controversial DNA tool in a bid to solve two of the country’s most high-profile cold case murders, the Herald can reveal.

    Law enforcement agencies overseas have had success comparing the DNA of unidentified suspects with genetic profiles uploaded to popular genealogy websites, most famously leading the FBI to catch the so-called “Golden State Killer”.

    The Herald earlier revealed detectives hoped to use a genetic investigative tool for two cold cases – the murder of Alicia O’Reilly in 1980, dubbed Operation Sturbridge, and Operation Dallington, the inquiry into the murder of Mellory Manning in 2008.

    Detective Superintendent Ross McKay has now confirmed to the Herald that New Zealand Police and the Institute of Environmental Science Research (ESR) would trial the use of the genetic investigative tool in both inquiries.



University to Launch Forensic Studies Minor Thanks to NSF Grant (Forensic – 10/04/2023)

  • Central State University has received a grant of approximately $400,000 to enhance its criminal justice program over the next three years, the National Science Foundation announced. Most significantly, the funds will be used to create a Forensic Studies minor.

    Genevieve Ritchie-Ewing, an assistant professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Central State, spearheaded the grant application and will largely guide the Forensics Studies minor development process along with the creation of its classes.

    “While CSU had a Criminal Justice program, there wasn’t really any forensics in the same area,” Ritchie-Ewing said. “The Chemistry program has a forensics science class, but it focuses on the chemistry side of things.

    “I wanted to focus more on evidence collection and how that works, as well as some of what we’ll be able to do with the National Science Foundation grant to help us look at the social science of forensics.”