Archive for the ‘Forensics in The News’ Category
Tuesday, January 10th, 2012
by Ashling Gabig, Guest Blogger
When I began my forensic science training and education many years ago, one topic was voiced again and again: Britain’s Forensic Science Services was to be admired, modeled, and respected. The agency’s quality of work was something to strive for as the FSS has led the world in crime scene management and techniques for thirty years. For example, led by Sir Alec Jeffreys, the FSS pioneered DNA profiling. I’ve often dreamed of what it would be like to work for them. Unfortunately, that dream has recently been dashed for many people around the world. In December of 2010, the British government decided to disband the service, opting to contract out to private labs. They claimed that the upkeep for this public sector service was creating a monthly loss of £2 million, and that private labs were more cost effective and time efficient. Three of the initial seven labs that once served England and Wales have already been closed since 2009, with a loss of about 750 forensic personnel.
What started the public versus private sector forensic laboratories debate was a document called the McFarland Review. This 2002 formal review of the FSS was used to analyze the following points: The role that the FSS plays in the criminal justice system, the need to deliver high quality and cost-effective forensic science services, and the future organizational status of the FSS. The Review formally suggested to the British government that the FSS should be turned into a government-run private sector business with the ultimate goal of contracting out to private businesses altogether.
Those of us with any involvement in police services and forensic science understand the gravity of evidentiary support in criminal cases. Many agencies throughout the United States have had to deal with massive backlogs due to lack of funds and personnel. Slowly, many agencies are clearing their way through the evidence, often with a joint effort between public and private forensic labs. Now imagine this same scenario for the FSS. Former FSS scientist Peter Gill said the following about the situation in Britain: “I have moved to Oslo, Norway where I am a professor of forensic genetics. I moved because the position in the UK is so dire. I worked there until three years ago. I left because I could not see a future. As far as I am concerned there is not much to save. It is five years too late. A lot of good scientists have already left because they see absolutely no future in the UK.”
Meanwhile, the other side of the debate says that the closure of the FSS is necessary. The claim is that the FSS does have its own faults that cannot be overlooked. Aside from the cost and upkeep of labs and personnel, the agency does not necessarily offer everything the criminal justice system needs. For example, some say that the FSS is not growing along with the changing times. It is said that they have failed mainly in the areas of digital forensics, which is a rapidly developing field.
Unless the situation changes, the full closure of Britain’s FSS is expected to be complete by March of 2012. Roughly 1,600 forensic personnel will either be unemployed, or their talents lost to another agency.
For more on this issue, go here or here.
Check out all our entries relating to forensic science
Friday, December 9th, 2011
by Ashling Gabig
John Wayne Gacy’s
On the night of December 22nd 1978, the police made a grisly discovery in the crawl space of John Wayne Gacy’s Chicago home. Twenty nine bodies in all were excavated from the property of the “Killer Clown,” with four others found discarded at a nearby river. Gacy admitted to raping and murdering local males over a period of about six years, with the most recent victim being killed just ten days prior to Gacy’s arrest. For his horrific crimes, Gacy was sentenced to death and finally executed in May of 1994. The man who once dressed up as a clown for children’s parties, violently took the lives of thirty-three young men and boys. While Gacy was ultimately brought to justice, at least eight of his victims had yet to be identified, thus leaving cases unsolved. Many families and friends of local missing persons in Chicago have been left wondering if their loved one has fallen prey to Gacy’s murderous rampage. For excavated Victim #19, one such family has finally found their closure.
On October 27th 1976, nineteen year old William George Bundy was reported missing by his family in the Chicago area. William never returned home, and his body was never officially found. According to his family, missing person cases during that time were not aggressively pursued. Two years later, the Gacy murder case was blown wide open, and given worldwide notoriety. The Bundy family suspected that William was a victim of Gacy’s, but had no way to identify the body. DNA technology was not available as it is today, and all dental records had been unfortunately destroyed by William’s dentist. Once involved in construction, William’s family surmised that he must have had contact with Gacy, who was also a construction worker.
Fueled by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s renewed effort to identify the remaining eight victims in the Gacy murders, William’s sister, Laura, recently supplied her DNA sample to authorities. Laura had no proof of her brother’s link to the infamous murder case, but she could not shake the feeling that Gacy was involved in William’s disappearance. Thanks to improvements in DNA technology, genetic testing was able to confirm that Victim #19 was indeed her long missing brother. William disappeared when Laura was only fifteen, and over thirty years later, she has found the brother she loved and missed.
Currently, there are still seven unidentified victims that were found on John Wayne Gacy’s property. While William Bundy’s missing persons case can now be closed, Sheriff Tom Dart wants to bring that same closure to other families. Whether some families have simply moved on, or never thought to link their missing loved one to Gacy, the authorities are asking people to still come forward and provide DNA samples anyway. In the case of William Bundy, his mother never came forward to provide a DNA sample prior to her death because, as Laura said, she was in denial of that possibility. Sheriff Dart acknowledges that it is not a comfortable situation to be associated with the infamous Gacy murders, but believes it will ultimately bring closure to friends and families of any missing persons. More importantly, it will allow people to lay their loved ones to rest, and finally close the chapter on John Wayne Gacy for good.
For more on the story, go here, and stay tuned for news on the Crime Museum’s upcoming exhibit on John Wayne Gacy!
Read all our entries about John Wayne Gacy
Monday, November 7th, 2011
by Tara Wright, Guest Blogger
On Monday, the Supreme Court reinstated the conviction of Shirley Ree Smith for shaking her grandson to death which the federal appeals court in San Francisco overturned.
Shirley Ree Smith was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison in December 1997 for the murder of her 7-week-old grandson. In 2006, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned her conviction by stating the case was a “miscarriage of justice.”
On Monday, the Supreme Court Justices voted 6-3 to reverse the ruling in favor of Smith and to reinstate her conviction. Although the high court agreed that the doubts of Smith’s guilt are “understandable,” they believe the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals should have upheld the state’s conviction.
These “understandable” doubts about the guilt of Shirley Ree Smith are the result of an ongoing controversy about the existence of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS). SBS is a phrase used to describe child abuse involving head trauma that could be the result of shaking. The three main symptoms of SBS include subdural hemorrhage, retinal hemorrhage, and brain swelling or damage. These symptoms are believed to be caused by an adult holding a child by their body and shaking them rigorously back and forth, causing their head to rock as well. This theory is generally accepted due to the lack of evidence of an impact-induced injury.
Those who disregard the existence of SBS believe that shaking alone is not enough to cause such injuries that lead to death. They believe some sort of impact against a surface is necessary to cause this sort of damage. Many people have their own beliefs about the existence of SBS. An autopsy has proven that there was enough damage done to Smith’s grandson to tear his brainstem. Also, there was bleeding into his optic nerves as a result of contusions to the brain. These contusions are the result of “violent shaking.”
As you can see, there is a lot of evidence supporting the existence of SBS especially in the Smith case. However, the Supreme Court did not reinstate her conviction as a matter of opinion concerning her guilt or the existence of SBS. They reinstated her conviction on the basis that it is not their job, nor the job of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, to determine whether the state was correct in their theory about Smith’s guilt. That was the jury’s job.
For more information, go here or here.
Read our entry about the case of an infant abandoned in DC
Wednesday, October 12th, 2011
A recent death investigation from Galway, Ireland has resulted in a bit of controversy, and a lot of conversation. Almost a year after Michael Faherty’s death in this quaint seaside town, the county’s coroner has deemed the cause of his death to be spontaneous human combustion (SHC). Both the investigators and the coroner were baffled as to the cause of Faherty’s burned body, and eventually settled on SHC due to the lack of accelerant present. A statement from Coroner Ciaran McLoughlin highlights the mystery and confusion behind the death: “This fire was thoroughly investigated, and I’m left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation.” This case is now causing controversy in the forensic science world because SHC is considered to be improbable as it has not been officially recreated or witnessed. So exactly what did happen to Mr. Faherty on December 2010?
Spontaneous human combustion is the concept that an intense fire erupts internally from a human being, causing them to rapidly burn to ashes. In some cases, a few limbs or a head remains, but the majority of the body is gone. Supposedly this occurs within a matter of seconds, often without a clear accelerant or heat source. The fire is concentrated to the immediate area the body is found in with little to no damage to anything else in the vicinity. Usually a fire will cause more structural damage than what is seen in SHC cases, which only adds to the mystery and confusion. Some forensic science professionals consider SHC to be illogical based on these facts. Is it possible to inexplicably be reduced to ashes, or is it just a poorly placed cigarette? Former deputy chief medical examiner of Broward County, Fla., Stephen Cina was asked about the Faherty case, and said that the problem lies with the fact that “it’s not well-documented that you could generate enough focal energy inside the body and burst into flame. It would have to start at some focus point, somewhere.”
This inevitably leads to the science behind the notion of SHC. The human body is mostly water, although one could argue that gases and fat may potentially be an accelerant. At a crematorium, it takes roughly 1600 degrees Fahrenheit for a few hours to turn a body to ash, sometimes still with the presence of bones that require higher temperatures. There are several hypotheses as to how SHC can be achieved outside of controlled conditions. One theory is called the “Wick Effect,” wherein the clothing worn by the victim soaks up the fat as the body burns, thus creating a human candle. The most common theory is “Self-Induced,” either by the person dying of natural causes while near a fire source, or medicating themselves heavily without safely putting out a fire or cigarette. A final theory posits that bacteria growth can cause a spike in heat, as in the case of dry haystacks. However, such great microbial growth would not occur in a human being to cause an internal fire, but rather infection and inevitable death.
Despite these facts, there are still websites listing case after case of mysterious burning deaths. From the mention of a character in a Charles Dickens’s novel, to the case of Mary Reeser (1951) which led the FBI to create the “Wick Effect” theory, there are hundreds of accounts of SHC. Whether SHC exists or not, it is certainly fascinating and worth investigating when studying forensic science and death investigations.
The Michael Faherty case can be found here.
A website listing multiple SHC cases can be found here.
Read our entries on what happens at a crime scene
Wednesday, September 7th, 2011
Everyone knows humidity can affect your hair, but can it affect the decomposition of the body? Body farms are placed in different climate regions to study how these things affect decomposition rates.
A body farm is a facility where decomposition can be studied in various settings. The first farm was established in 1981 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Other body farms have since been established across the nation in North Carolina and Texas. In these various farms, the climates are somewhat different. In Tennessee, it’s not too cold in the winter and the summers aren’t too humid. And in Texas, as you know, it’s hot and humid all year long.
A fifth farm should be opening sometime this year in southern Pennsylvania. This is going to be interesting to study since the humid continental climate is a lot different from the others. Colder weather generally slows decomposition, so we are expecting the decomposition rates to be lower in the winter. But how exactly are the hot, humid summers in Pennsylvania going to affect the bodies? It’s not quite the same humidity level as in Texas, but it’s not the perfect Tennessee weather either. The research on these bodies should produce intriguing results and will further our knowledge on decomposition in the Northeast.
From watching various crime shows and whatnot, I’m sure you know that outside factors, such as precipitation and temperature, affect crime scenes and dead bodies. It’s not too hard to understand how the rain may wash away evidence from a crime scene. These body farms are designed to help us study exactly how these climate changes affect the rate of decomposition. Whether the body is buried or in direct sunlight affects the decomposition. Higher acidity and moisture levels in the soil may also speed up this process.
Body decomposition is affected by many factors, such as cause of death or the site in which the body was dumped. Research is more useful if a pattern can be formed concerning what is affecting the rate of decomposition. These body farms focus on how their climate conditions in their area alter the decomposition rates. In general, cooler weather slows the rate of decomposition and warmer temperatures increase it. This is why these farms have been spreading out across the nation, and hopefully soon the Northeast will know how exactly the humidity affects decomposition of the human body.
Go here for more information.
Read an earlier entry on decomposition and body farms here