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!
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, health science experts, and law enforcement in Fort Worth announced proposed legislation — the Carla Walker Act — designed to fund DNA research and help solve cold cases. Cornyn was joined Friday by health experts and family members of victims at The University of North Texas Health Science Center, which is home to the Center for Human Identification, to discuss the legislation.
In October 1986, 29-year-old Teresa Lee Scalf, a nurse at Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center in Polk County, Florida, was found murdered in her home. Teresa lived alone with her young son at the home. On October 27, 1986, when her son was away, Teresa was attacked and brutally murdered. The Polk County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) responded to the scene of the crime and collected forensic evidence as part of their investigation. Among the evidence that was collected at the scene was blood that did not belong to the victim. PCSO detectives determined that the attack was sexually motivated. Ms. Scalf’s neck had been severely cut, and she had significant defensive wounds on her hands. There were no obvious suspects to the crime.
Throughout the course of the investigation, DNA was analyzed from the available forensic evidence and an STR profile was developed and entered into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a consortium of local, state, and national databases of DNA profiles from convicted offenders, unsolved crime scene evidence, and missing persons. There were no matches detected in the CODIS search and despite investigators’ extensive efforts and thousands of man-hours, the identity of Ms. Scalf’s murderer went undetermined for more than three decades.
In 2022, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office teamed with Othram to determine if advanced DNA testing could help identify in new leads in the case. Forensic DNA evidence from the crime was sent to Othram’s laboratory in The Woodlands, Texas. Othram scientists used Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing® to develop a comprehensive genealogical profile from the DNA of the unknown male suspect. Othram’s in-house forensic genetic genealogy team used the profile to produce new investigative leads, which were provided to PCSO detectives.
Using these leads, PCSO detectives conducted interviews with distant relatives of the unknown suspect. These interviews allowed PCSO detectives to narrow their search to a now deceased man who lived directly behind Ms. Scalf at the time of her murder. The suspect’s son cooperated with the investigation and provided a reference DNA sample that was compared with the male suspect DNA collected from the crime scene in 1986. Results of the comparison confirmed a parent-child relationship, thereby confirming that the blood found at the murder scene belonged to Donald Douglas.
Douglas was interviewed by detectives in 1986 during a routine canvass, but at that time, there was no evidence to link him to the murder. Connecting Douglas as a suspect was difficult because Douglas had no criminal history; therefore, his DNA profile was never obtained by law enforcement and was not entered into CODIS. Douglas was 33-years old at the time of Ms. Scalf’s murder. He died in 2008 from natural causes.
In October 1982, a hiker located an unidentified body on an embankment above the Moore Creek outlet within Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz County, California. An examination of the scene led investigators to conclude that the victim’s death was likely a homicide. Investigators believed the the body belonged to a white male, estimated to be between 5’6” and 5’8” tall and 150lbs. The unidentified man likely had brown/blond hair. The man also had a tattoo of a red rose with three green leaves on his left forearm and a tattoo of an Indian skull on his right forearm. The tips of the feathers and the eye sockets on the skull tattoo were red in color and the remainder of the tattoo was black ink.
An investigation was launched by the Santa Cruz Police Department and the Santa Cruz County Sheriff–Coroner’s Office. Details of the case were entered in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as UP3060. Initially investigators were hopeful that the man’s description and the tattoos would help generate leads that could identify him. However, despite the exhaustive efforts of law enforcement, the identity of the man remained unknown for decades.
In 2022, the California Department of Justice, in collaboration with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, submitted forensic evidence to Othram, in hopes that advanced DNA testing could assist with the identification of the unknown man. Othram’s costs for processing the casework were provided by the Roads to Justice (RTJ) program. With evidence in hand, Othram scientists developed a DNA extract from the forensic evidence and then developed a comprehensive DNA profile for the man, using Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing®. Once the profile was succesfully built, Othram’s in-house forensic genetic genealogy team produced new investigative leads that were provided to law enforcement.
Using these new leads, law enforcement continued the investigation reaching out to potential family members. They were then able to identify the man as Rodney Alan Rumsey of Sacramento, CA. Rumsey was born May 25, 1954, but details of his life are sparse. An investigation into the circumstances around Rumsey’s death continues.
The Scottsdale Police Department Crime Laboratory got a financial boost to help with its backlog of DNA-linked cases. It received the 2023 DNA Capacity Enhancement for Backlog Reduction grant worth $250,000. The lab has 129 total sexual assault kits in the backlog, with 67 of them being processed. Seventy-one cases involving personal crimes or weapons violations haven’t been completed, with 32 of them in the process. Also in the backlog are 37 property crimes, and 15 of them are currently being worked on.
Part of the issue is staffing issues. So Scottsdale police say they’ll use the federal grant more to hire an additional person in its Forensic Biology Unit, continue to pay a forensic scientist’s salary that relied on a previous CEBR grant, buy new DNA equipment and supplies and more. It’ll allow DNA samples to be processed more quickly in the 237 cases still in the department’s backlog and enter them into the national FBI database.
In September Omeasoo joined other researchers at a workshop of the International Symposium on Human Identification in Denver, Colo., to share new strategies for using DNA to identify missing persons. Of the human remains found in the U.S. each year, about 1,000 still remain unidentified after a year has gone by. Recent advances in rapid DNA sequencing, along with genetic genealogy that traces familial relationships, are beginning to be used to solve missing person cases that had long gone cold, Budowle, Omeasoo and other scientists reported in Denver.
In Florida, over 3,200 individuals are entered as missing/endangered in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), but only 1,726 of these are entered in NamUs.gov, and 647 are listed in the Missing Endangered Persons Information Clearinghouse (MEPIC). Only NamUs.gov and MEPIC are accessible by the public, resulting in over 2,000 Florida families being unable to access information on their loved one’s case.
There are also over 900 unidentified John or Jane Doe cases in Florida. Due to these cases not matching anyone in the missing person’s database, they remain open. This can occur because reports were not filed or entered into the system or because many cases are not up to current investigative standards and lack the essential biometric information, such as DNA, which is needed to make a match.
The purpose of “Missing in Florida Day” is not only to raise awareness of those who are missing, but to enter more missing persons cases into the current system so they may be found and identified, and offer families an opportunity to provide biometric information to bring older cases up to current standards.
Far from being the lumbering brutes that we once thought they were, a slew of recent studies suggest Neanderthals not only interacted with Homo sapiens, but also had children with them.
These sexual encounters mean Neanderthal genes have been passed down through the generations, and today most people can thank Neanderthals for about 2% of their genomes. But that proportion varies, and some people have slightly more Neanderthal DNA than others. People in East Asia, notably, tend to have more Neanderthal DNA in their genomes, but why they have more has long baffled scientists. A new study, published in the journal Science Advances Wednesday, may provide some answers.
Forensic science standardization is one way to tackle the problem, but the development of standards requires a lot of input and hands-on participation from scientists, researchers, legal practitioners, policymakers, and others. That’s why the Innocence Project has created the Handbook for the Forensic Standards Development Commenting Process to assist individuals and communities in providing commentary on key standards that can help create a more fair, just, and equitable criminal legal system.
The handbook is the first resource to provide a detailed overview of the policies and requirements of each organization involved in developing forensic standards, bringing them all together in one place and removing the need to review multiple sources. Specifically, this guide includes an overview of each organization, their objectives, structure, and public commenting and document approval procedures. It also offers tips on how to craft an effective comment, which comes from a lot of learned experience. We hope that this handbook will assist in navigating these processes and motivate more members of the public to offer their input.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE MORE ARTICLES LIKE THIS? SUBSCRIBE TO THE ISHI BLOG BELOW!