Identifying a Legend vs A Legendary Fail – Interesting Cases from ISHI

Each year, nearly one thousand people attend the International Symposium on Human Identification. Their titles vary from criminalists and analysts to research and sales professionals to those in the legal profession, and the reasons they attend differ as well, but there seems to be one thing that they all have in common.

After the conference, a survey is sent out to attendees, and there is one comment that ISHI organizers can be sure to see repeated – “add more interesting cases!” Maybe it’s because of a growing interest in true crime documentaries, or maybe attendees simply appreciate the break from the denser topics, but it seems that they can’t get enough!

Since we have a long wait until next year’s cases, we thought sharing interesting cases from past conferences might help bridge the gap. This time, we’re recounting two cases from ISHI 26 in Grapevine, Texas


Interesting Cases from ISHI 26 Header

Written by: Tara Luther, Promega


Identifying Nicolaus Copernicus 


As DNA technology improves, so does our ability to use this technology to identify historical remains. Such was the case with astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, as Marie Allen of Uppsala University presented.

Copernicus died in 1543 and was buried below the floor in Frombork Cathedral, which houses over 100 unnamed tombs. For 200+ years, there were many attempts to find his grave, including one by Napoleon in 1807, but none were successful. In 2004, Polish scientists decided to try again.

Copernicus had been in charge of the St. Cross Altar in the Cathedral, so it was thought to be likely that his grave would be near the Altar. Using below-ground scanning devices, 16 graves were found, but tomb number 13 proved to be the most interesting.

An archaeological investigation was performed on the tomb, which held the remains of an older man with a wound above the eye. Copernicus had died at the age of 70 and had received a battle wound in the same location of the skull found.

Teeth and pieces of bone from the remains were taking for DNA sampling. To confirm that this was in fact Copernicus, a reference sample was needed. Copernicus did not have children, and though his maternal uncle is also buried in the Cathedral, it is not known where.

Looking for a new avenue, researchers turned to books in the Museum of Uppsala University in Gustavianum that had once been a part of Copernicus’ personal library, and they were able to find nine hairs. These hairs were discovered to be shed hairs, and were difficult to amplify as they were possibly over 400 years old.

Four of the nine hairs were able to be analyzed. Two of them revealed different mtDNA profiles from the remains, but the other two had one common mtDNA profile that was identical to the remains. After performing an EMPOP search, it was discovered that this particular profile occurred in four out of 3,830 West Eurasians (three Germans and one Danish individual).

Marie concluded her talk by explaining that they were unable to exclude that the two hairs and the remains originate from the same source. Further, historical files, anthropological data, and facial reconstruction of the remains were consistent with the hypothesis that the remains were in fact Copernicus, and after all this time, his remains were finally identified.


Finding All the Pieces, and Then Some… 


Switching gears, Daniel Román of the Madison Police Department described a case where the suspect thought they could out-smart law enforcement. The case began on a bitterly cold Wisconsin morning with a shattered glass patio door. Police officers entered the apartment to discover the living room and bedroom in disarray, and a victim of a brutal attack lying on the bed.

After detectives and Crime Scene Investigators inspected the scene, they were left with evidence that pointed in many different directions. Some allowed for a story to begin to take shape, but others led the investigation down a confusing path. Ultimately, it was a divorce hearing notice lead investigators to look closer at the victim’s husband.

The suspect’s co-workers reported that he had claimed to be able to outsmart the police, and described him as arrogant. He had prior military training and access to weapons, and had an unsavory obsession that his wife refused to indulge.

The suspect was later found deceased of apparent suicide. During his autopsy, it was revealed that he had a recent cut on his pinky finger. Piecing this together with bloodstains found on the bed sheet and the victim’s body along with other evidentiary items allowed the investigators to conclude that the husband was indeed the perpetrator of the crime, and all his attempts to fool the police had ultimately failed.

These are just a few examples of how powerful DNA analysis can be. Stay tuned future parts of this series with more examples of how DNA-typing is being used.


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