Stories tagged forensics

Yup, still not Friday, but posting a few Science Friday videos that I've missed lately.

Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday

From 3/25,

"Artist Angela Strassheim began her career as a forensic photographer in a crime lab. She soon left to focus on art full-time, but she didn’t entirely leave the field behind. Her body of work, Evidence, is a documentary art project created using forensic techniques she learned on the job. The striking, sometimes disturbing images ask the question: after a tragic event, what remains?"

Fingerprint errors: Fingerprint "science" is sometimes mistaken
Fingerprint errors: Fingerprint "science" is sometimes mistakenCourtesy blvesboy

Forensic science not always scientific

"The CSI Effect," is a reference to the popular television show CSI -- Crime Scene Investigation and its spin-offs.

In reality, our forensic science system, upon which criminal and civil litigation depends, has been found to be far from meeting scientific standards.

A National Research Council report, "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward," stated:

"The forensic science system in the United States has serious problems that can only be addressed by a national commitment to overhaul the current structure that supports the forensic science community,"

The report urges Congress to authorize and fund a new federal entity, the National Institute of Forensic Science, or NIFS, to oversee how forensic science is practiced in the United States.

232 wrongfully convicted prisoners found to be innocent

The report was welcomed by lawyers for the Innocence Project, which has employed DNA evidence to help free 232 wrongly convicted defendants.

For example, it mentions the case of attorney Brandon Mayfield who in 2004 was erroneously linked by digital fingerprint images to train bombing in Madrid that year. Mayfield was arrested and subsequently released when the FBI acknowledged that it had made a mistake.

Scientific standards needed

Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said "many forensic disciplines lack the standards necessary to ensure their scientific reliability in court (and) that forensic laboratories and their experts do not have uniform, mandatory accreditation policies."

Forensic Science System In U.S. Needs Overhaul, Information Week
Crime labs are seriously deficient, report says MSNBC


DNA model
DNA modelCourtesy Ynse
Britain’s current process of collection and storage of DNA and fingerprints faces a major upheaval. The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Thursday that storing such information was a violation of people’s privacy rights. Britain now has until March to destroy almost 1 million of the DNA samples they have stored or make a case for keeping them.
Seven years ago, a man and a teenager were arrested for two unrelated crimes and both charges were later dropped. Both requested that their DNA samples be destroyed, but police refused, keeping the samples on file. Britain previously stored DNA samples of anyone arrested even if they were not convicted of a crime. They keep the samples until the person’s death or until they are 100 years old.
Britain has over 4.5 million samples of DNA, one of the largest databases in the world. Many officials are unhappy with the court ruling, noting that the information has been valuable in solving many recent cases. Human rights groups contend that the court’s decision respects the privacy rights of innocent citizens.
The United States currently allows collection of DNA from convicted felons. However, they have announced plans to collect DNA from people arrested by federal agencies as well as foreigners who have been detained.
Do you think that storing DNA samples is a violation of privacy rights or is it necessary to solving criminal cases? What do you think are fair standards for collection and storage?
You can read more about this at European court makes landmark ruling on DNA rights


It's a darn feast!: When I die, my stomach will be so full of moss, scientists of the future will be ecstatic.
It's a darn feast!: When I die, my stomach will be so full of moss, scientists of the future will be ecstatic.Courtesy Martin LaBar
That little devil Otzi is in the news again.

I readily acknowledge the fact that I haven’t lived my life quite up to Otzi standards—I don’t have any tattoos (that I know of), I’ve never killed anybody (that I know of), I don’t own a cape…the list goes on—but I hope that when hikers find my frozen corpse, thousands of years in the future, they’ll be as thrilled with it as they are with Otzi. Honestly, every millimeter of our leathery friend is getting the once over and the double take.

Scientists figured out what Otzi’s last meal was years ago (they practically dove into his stomach), but they’re still going over the most minute of minutia of the iceman’s guts. And, you know what? I’m into it.

Archaeobotanists and moss-experts are the last to have taken a swing at Otzi. They have found trace remains of six different kinds of moss in Otzi’s intestines, and were able to identify them under a microscope. None of those moss varieties, interestingly, are the kinds of moss that you’d eat (if there are any kinds of moss you’d eat). They do, nonetheless, add to the details of Otzi’s life.

One of the kinds of moss, the scientists guess, was used to wrap one of Otzi’s last meals (sort of a fuzzy saran wrap, I guess), another probably got into his water, and another was most likely used as a dressing for a wound (he probably chewed it up and swallowed a little). At least one of the mosses, however it got into him, isn’t known to grow in the region where Otzi was found, adding another location to Otzi’s travel diary. So cross that off your bucket list, little dude.

None of this information is insulating my attic, or buying me dinner, but I still think it’s pretty cool. The same sort of forensic techniques we might use to solve a murder today are being used to learn about the life of a guy who died 53 centuries ago. I like it.


Did you ever wonder what those pesky moths ate before they ate your clothes in your closet? Clothes moths were known previously to feed on dead animals. Recently, scientists also discovered that the casemaking clothes moth, one of the two most common closet menaces, can be helpful in forensic work as well!

The casemaking clothes moth, so named because it makes a fuzzy case-like home for itself as a young caterpillar, will eat human hair and can even feed on corpses. The caterpillars can eat enough hair to identify a body with DNA.

These moths can be particularly helpful if a body is moved to a new location. The caterpillar will move to a nearby spot, away from the body, to make its cocoon. Then, if the body is moved, DNA evidence from the caterpillar in the cocoon can tie the victim to the original location.

More information on this can be found at Science News.


Map of British Columbia: Georgia Strait where the majority of the feet were found.
Map of British Columbia: Georgia Strait where the majority of the feet were found.Courtesy Puget Sound Partnership
A mystery has been unfolding in British Columbia over the past year. Since August 2007, seven body-less feet have been found washed up on the banks of the Frasier River and Georgia Strait. The most recent foot was discovered on November 11 by a couple walking along the Frasier River. One of the feet has been identified by DNA as belonging to a missing man. Investigators are looking to missing persons reports in an attempt to identify the other feet.
Some people have found the fact that many of the feet were in tennis shoes and were right feet to be suspicious, but authorities believe that the body parts are most likely from natural deaths and have travelled by ocean currents to the shore. Forensic analysts agree with a scenario in which the feet disarticulated naturally from the bodies, with the tennis shoes keeping the feet afloat while other body parts likely sank. Is this a hoax, a serial killer who has a big problem with sneakers or just an odd and icky manifestation of natural deaths? You can find more information in this article Another severed foot washes up on B.C. coast. And, to see what local British Columbians think is going on, or if you enjoy some morbid humor and a foot pun or twelve, check out the comments section of this article.


Crime Scene: That elephant seems strangely out of place...suspicious...
Crime Scene: That elephant seems strangely out of place...suspicious...Courtesy matt coats
Imagine a crime scene that has hundreds of crime scene investigators. All of the students at Arlington High School in St. Paul, MN are working together to crack the case! As part of the school’s BioSMART program, intended to expose students sciences, engineering, business, etc., this school-wide lesson is drawing on a variety of different disciplines. Art students have become sketch artists, English language learners are questioning “persons of interest”, other students are working to determine the angles of blood spatter. I think this lesson is really a neat way to highlight how crime scene investigation draws on many different subjects and specialists. It is also a cool way to get students interested in subjects that maybe they would not have thought about before. What do you think?


What can messages on your cell phone say about you? They can potentially reveal your age, gender or even your identity. Linguistic forensics is being increasingly used as an investigation tool and as evidence in court, including in cases where suspects claimed text messages as alibis. In a recent case, text messages from a missing woman’s phone were used in the conviction of her ex-boyfriend for her murder. Experts determined that the style of suspicious text messages from her phone pointed toward him as the author rather than her. They looked at, among several differences, her consistent use of the spelling “myself” versus the use of “meself” in the questioned texts.

Dr. Tim Grant is researching the linguistic analysis of text messaging and has developed a method to quantify stylistic differences between two texts. He also has put together a database of 7000 texts so far. He hopes his research will determine the base rate for specific texting features and show similarities among groups of individuals that frequently text each other. You can contribute your text messages to his research at a link in the article below.

Txt Crimes, Sex Crimes And Murder: The Science Of Forensic Linguistics


CSI: The Experience will open here at SMM on October 15.

One aspect of crime scene investigation is forensic entomology: the use of insects found on or near a body to help determine the time, manner, and location of death.

And we're fortunate that Valerie Cervenka, the first female board certified forensic entomologist, lives here in St. Paul. She's our Scientist on the Spot right now, so you can read about her work and get her answers to your questions.

And, Buzzketeers, do we have something "special" for you... Lots of forensic entomology studies are done using pigs, because (according to Jessica Snyder Sach's Corpse:

"The soft, near-hairless skin of a domestic pig closely duplicates that of a human, and that the torso of a luau-size porker parallels that of a 160-pound man."

Pig, @2pm, 9-18-08: Our pig, fresh from the freezer.
Pig, @2pm, 9-18-08: Our pig, fresh from the freezer.Courtesy Liza Pryor

That is, the skin, muscle/fat ratio, and other characteristics of pigs are reasonably good approximations of humans'. In death, what happens to a pig, and when, is pretty similar to what happens to human corpses. (If you think that's unpalatable, consider that the other way we can calibrate insect evidence is to do controlled studies at places like Tennessee's "Body Farm," where researchers observe what happens to people instead of pigs. You can search Buzz for the term "body farm" if you're interested in that: we've done a few stories.)

So we've obtained a young pig. (Don't worry: the pig died of natural causes.) And we've put it in a cage, with a webcam, and we're letting it decompose. The camera records a still image every 15 seconds, and we'll eventually turn all those photos into a time lapse, which Val Cervenka will help us interpret. Pretty cool. Pretty gross. And all in the interest of science.

Why didn't we wait for the exhibit? Well, insect activity slows dramatically or even drops off to nothing once the outside temperature gets to about 50 degrees. To follow the pig through most of its stages of decomposition, we had to get it going now.

Want to see what's going on with the decomposing pig right now? Click here. But don't say we didn't warn you. It's graphic.


Metal musician: This statue of Ludwig Von Beethoven in his hometown of Bonn, Germany, remembers the great composer. New research is showing that he might have died from medical treatments containing high levels of lead. (Flickr photo by Gauis Caecilius)
Metal musician: This statue of Ludwig Von Beethoven in his hometown of Bonn, Germany, remembers the great composer. New research is showing that he might have died from medical treatments containing high levels of lead. (Flickr photo by Gauis Caecilius)
Beethoven may have had a good ear for music, but he might have had bad judgment when it came to selecting a doctor.

Further forensic tests on hair samples of the classical music giant are showing that he received unusually high levels of lead in his system over the final one-third of a year of his life. And researchers think that lead likely came from treatments from his doctor.

Several years ago, CSI-type studies of Beethoven’s hair and bones revealed that he died of lead poisoning. But new findings this year, based on further samplings of his hair, show that he had huge spikes in lead levels in his system following visits from his doctor.

At the end of his life, Beethoven was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver and other abdominal ailments. To treat him for the stomach ailments, Beethoven’s doctor would repeatedly puncture the abdominal cavity and then seal up the wound with a lead-laced poultice.

Even back in the early 1800s, medical professionals knew lead was a dangerous element to the body. But it was believed that the low dosages in the stomach treatments were non-poisonous for someone in Beethoven’s state. What the doctor’s didn’t know was that the composer’s liver was already reeling from high levels of lead that he consumed in wines and water that he had drank earlier in his life. In effect, the final treatments were just making the problem worse.

My editorial comment: The one thing we can be sure about was that Beethoven wasn’t playing with toys made in China at the time of his death.