As 2016 winds down, let’s celebrate all that’s happened in the world of ISHI this year! We converged on Minneapolis, Minnesota for the 27th annual International Symposium on Human Identification where we discussed new technologies, mixture interpretation, Next Generation Sequencing, and phenotyping. We also heard David O’Shea present on the amazing story of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo – those who are fighting to find their grandchildren who were stolen in the 1970’s.
Many of you also contributed stories to the ISHI blog this year! Scroll below to read the top ten posts from 2016 and subscribe to the blog in the sidebar to have future ISHI posts delivered to your email!
For more on the case and how familial searching was used to close the case of the Grim Sleeper, we interviewed Rock Harmon. Rock is a retired Senior Deputy District Attorney for Alameda County, California after 33 years. Currently, Rock is employed as a consultant to numerous law enforcement agencies dealing with such issues as cold case investigation and other issues related to forensic DNA typing.
Familial Searching has been getting a lot of attention lately, and for good reason. In the fight against crime, it is essential that law enforcement is able to use all of the tools at their disposal. In the United Kingdom, Familial Searching has been used since 2003 to help solve approximately 40 serious crimes (as of May 2011). If you’re considering implementing Familial Searching in your jurisdiction, I encourage you to read the Familial DNA Searching: Current Approaches Report published by the Forensic Technology Center of Excellence.
ISHI 26 featured Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person sentenced to death who was exonerated through DNA evidence. Twenty of the 336 people who have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing in the United States served time on death row.* The true perpetrators have been identified in 166 of those 336 exonerations, and went on to be convicted of 146 additional crimes, including 77 sexual assaults, 34 murders, and 35 other violent crimes while the innocent sat behind bars for their earlier offenses.* Post conviction DNA testing both rescues the innocent from the grips of the criminal justice system and keeps society safer by opening cases to be accurately solved.
It is easy to get excited or frightened about the predictive powers of DNA phenotyping, depending on your perspective. Knowing what genes led to higher intelligence and athletic ability was the first step towards the designer babies of GATTACA. Is this knowledge worth having given the potential for misuse? Going to such extremes with genetic selection makes for a captivating movie, but it can lead to a flawed understanding of the science. The reality of DNA phenotyping is not so scary.
The goal of forensic DNA testing of human skeletal remains is identification of the unknown individual. A variety of genetic markers can be used to achieve identification, including highly polymorphic autosomal short tandem repeat (STR) loci and lineage markers (Y-STRs and mtDNA). However, reference samples must be available for comparison for these markers to be informative. In mass disasters, missing persons cases, or cases involving historical/archaeological remains, sometimes there are no clues as to the person’s potential identity and/or there are no associations made with a reference sample or reference pedigree via a database search. In such scenarios, identification can be difficult or impossible using solely autosomal STRs and lineage markers. However, there are other genetic markers that can extend human identification capabilities, such as analysis of ancestry-informative markers and phenotype-informative single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs).
Improvised explosives will continue to be the weapon of choice for homegrown and international terrorists because they are easy to manufacture and the materials are readily accessible. The ability to identify a suspect and generate investigative leads after an explosion is critical. DNA can provide leads, but traditional genotyping methods may not best suited for analyzing these types of samples. Finding new and more advanced techniques may assist with providing investigative leads, identifying potential suspects, and hopefully prevent future attacks.
According to Entertainment Weekly, crime drama television shows accounted for 13 of the top 50 television shows watched during the 2014-2015 season. The number of viewers these television shows brought in is a staggering 159.46 million viewers. With these kinds of numbers, it’s safe to say that the average American citizen is familiar with the role that DNA plays in putting away the bad guy – or at least they THINK they are.
A basic principle of psychology says that a person’s desires and expectations will influence how they perceive and interpret what they see. Is neutrality then a myth? Will a person always be influenced by what they have observed or are told? More importantly, will this information impact the conclusion they reach? In many aspects of life, bias isn’t a big deal, but when it comes to science (and especially forensic science), where the desired outcome is linking the correct suspect to a crime, the subject of bias draws more attention. Is it possible that an analyst working on a case is experiencing bias (either with or without their knowledge), and if so, what impact does this have on the tests performed and ultimately the conclusions made?
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