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Category Archives: Forensic History

Book Review: Silent Witnesses by Nigel McCrery

SW Cover

Chicago Review Press

September 1, 2014

ISBN-10: 1613730020

ISBN-13: 978-1613730027

288 pages

. . . an easily accessible and well-written primer on the history of forensic science

Silent Witnesses is an easily accessible and well-written primer on the history of forensic science. It reads like a work of fiction but offers the reader a clear history of many of the most important advances in forensic investigative techniques. The topics are covered in chapters titled: Identity, Ballistics, Blood, Trace Evidence, The Body, Poisons, and DNA. Each subject is reviewed chronologically and numerous milestone cases in the development and growth of forensic science are presented.

For example, in the Identity chapter, the war between Alphonse Bertillon and his anthropometric ID system known as “bertillonage” and those who favored fingerprinting as the gold standard for identification of an individual is documented. In Blood, the development of the ABO blood typing system is well presented as well as the methods for identifying a stain as blood and determining that it is human and not animal, both extremely important in crimes where blood is shed. In Trace Evidence, the discovery and development of the microscope as a forensic tool is covered in great detail. Poisons have been around almost as long as civilization and in the chapter Poisons this long and sordid history is chronicled as are the steps in the creation of the fascinating field of forensic toxicology, including the development of the famous Marsh and Reinsch tests for identifying the “inheritance powder” arsenic.

Perhaps the most enjoyable parts of Silent Witnesses are the discussions of famous cases that helped develop forensic science as a viable entity. Silent Witnesses opens with the famous Colin Pitchfork case—-the first time DNA profiling was used to solve a murder. Other seminal cases include: the Francisca Rojas case (the first time fingerprints solved a murder); the St. Valentine’s Day massacre (which put firearm’s examinations in the public eye); the Sam Sheppard case (where blood spatter analysis proved crucial in the retrial of the famous physician); the Parkman-Webster case (one of the first to employ dental examinations to identify a partially destroyed corpse); the Murder at the Crumbles case (involving the great medical detective Sir Bernard Spilsbury and leading to the creation of the police officer’s “murder bag”); the more modern “radiological” poisoning of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko; and many more that will keep the reader enthralled.

Silent Witnesses is a delightful journey through the evolution of forensic science and is a very useful introduction to the subject. Highly recommended.

Originally posted at NY Journal of Books: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/silent-witnesses-often-gruesome-always-fascinating-history-forensic-science

 

Jack The Ripper Identified?

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A new book titled Naming Jack The Ripper by Russell Edwards presents information that the author feels solves the famous Jack The Ripper case. The five murder-mutilations that occurred in London’s East End during 1888 have baffled criminologists for over a century. Several suspects have been identified but none have been proven to be the real Ripper. So who is Jack? According to Edwards, it’s Aaron Kosminski, a Polish immigrant who had “mental issues,” was 23 years old at the time of the killings, and who ultimately died in an insane asylum many years later at the age of 53. He never confessed or anything convenient like that, but he has long been one to the prime suspects.

So is he really Jack? Maybe. Here are some articles. Make up your own mind.

Daily Mail UK: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2746321/Jack-Ripper-unmasked-How-amateur-sleuth-used-DNA-breakthrough-identify-Britains-notorious-criminal-126-years-string-terrible-murders.html

Independent UK: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/has-jack-the-rippers-identity-really-been-revealed-using-dna-evidence-9717036.html

Mirror UK: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/jack-ripper-murder-mystery-solved-4177665

 

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Guest Blogger: Daphne Holmes: How DNA Testing Helps Determine Paternity

DNA

 

How DNA Testing Helps Determine Paternity

The impetus for determining the paternity of a child likely dates back to the most primitive tribal cultures. Particularly in patriarchal cultures where females were regarded as the property of males, it was deemed important to ensure that a man’s “property” had not been shared, and that the virtue of the female was beyond question. As societies became more sophisticated, the need to establish paternity became as much an economic issue as a moral one. In modern cultures, paternity testing is used primarily to establish whether or not a man is responsible for providing financial support to a child, as well as determining whether the child carries any of the father’s genetic predispositions for health challenges.

Physical appearance – In more primitive cultures (some of which continue to flourish), the objectives behind determining the paternity of a child were culturally and/or emotionally based. If a child was born who lacked identifying characteristics of either parent, it was frequently assumed that the father was someone other than the woman’s mate. The repercussions to the mother were quite severe, often culminating in her death. Unfortunately – especially for the women – the comparison of obvious physical traits was highly subjective, and many women suffered dire consequences, even if their husband/mate was indeed the biological father.

Blood typing – With the early 20th century discovery that different individuals had different blood types, and the recognition in the 1920s that those blood types were genetically inherited, a more accurate means of determining paternity came into common use. It was discovered that by comparing the parents’ blood types, it was possible to determine the most likely blood type of the child. While this was admittedly a step above the “he has his father’s eyes” paternity test, it was still only about 30% accurate.

Serological testing – It was discovered in the 1930s that specific proteins not considered during blood typing could establish the presence of genetically inherited antigens that would more accurately identify the child’s biological father. Unfortunately, serological testing only improved the accuracy of paternity testing to about 40%. Hardly conclusive evidence.

Tissue typing – In the 1970s, the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) was discovered in abundance within white blood cells. When samples of this genetically inherited antigen taken from the mother and child were compared to the sample taken from the father, paternity could be established with roughly 80% accuracy. While this was a significant improvement over previous methods, the collection procedure itself was unpleasant, and the size of the sample required made it hazardous to the child, particularly if the child was less than six months old. Obviously, more work needed to be done.

DNA testing (RFLP) – In the 1980s, the technique called restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP) was discovered that looked at a significantly wider spectrum of variables in the blood than had been analyzed with earlier techniques. It was discovered that the offspring of two parents would have half the unique characteristics of each parent. This technique elevated the accuracy of paternity testing to the level of statistical certainty. Unfortunately, the amount of blood required for accurate sampling was, like tissue sampling, large, posing potential problems for the child. In addition, the potential for genetic mutations in the child could render a false negative, indicating that neither the woman or the man was the child’s biological parents. For these reasons, RFLP testing has been all but abandoned.

DNA Testing (PCR) – By the 1990s, the RFLP testing was replaced by the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique. This technique involves the computerized replication of DNA collected from even a minuscule sample that is collected anywhere on the individual’s body, then comparing the subjects’ profiles. In addition to requiring a very small sample (typically via an oral swab), the subject is not submitted to discomfort as in earlier test techniques, and the computerized analysis takes far less time, while still providing accuracy at the level of statistical certainty, 99.99%.

Author: Daphne Holmes contributed this guest post. She is a writer from www.ArrestRecords.com and you can reach her at daphneholmes9@gmail.com.

 

 

Cat DNA Solves Another Homicide

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TINKER

 

Tinker doesn’t look like a snitch. But then again, neither did Snowball. Snowball is a very famous cat. It was Snowball’s DNA that led to the solution of a 1994 murder and it represented the first time cat DNA had been used to solve a crime.

From HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS:

FORENSIC CASE FILES: SNOWBALL THE CAT

In 1994, Shirley Duguay of Prince Edward Island disappeared. A few days later her corpse was discovered in a shallow grave along with a leather jacket, which was soaked with her blood and dotted with white cat hairs. Her estranged husband, Douglas Beamish, owned a white cat named Snowball. DNA in blood taken from Snowball matched that of the cat hairs found at the burial site, proving that those hairs came from Snowball and no other white cat. Beamish was convicted, marking this case the first time that animal DNA was used to gain a conviction.

Tinker has now followed suit in a very interesting case from Britain.

 

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The Writers Forensics Blog: 100 Top Websites to Bookmark

The crew over at FornesicScienceDegrees.org have listed The Writers Forensics Blog as one of their Top 100 Websites to Bookmark, which they describe as a “list of great sites to present practical, real-world information on the subject.” Many great sources here.

Thanks. I’m flattered.

 

 

Crime & Science Radio: The Body Tells the Tale: DP Lyle and Jan Burke Interview Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

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The Body Tells the Tale: DP Lyle and Jan Burke Interview Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

Join DP Lyle and Jan Burke as they explore the world of death, corpses, and decay with Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson. Dr. Bass is the founder of the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, the so called Body Farm. Jon Jefferson is a journalist, writer, and documentary film maker. Together they write fiction as Jefferson Bass. This will be a lively, or is it deadly, interview.

LISTENhttp://www.blogtalkradio.com/suspensemagazine/2013/11/20/crime-and-science-radio–jon-jefferson-and-bill-bass

LINKS:

The Body Farm-Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_farm

Tour The Body Farm: http://www.jeffersonbass.com/videos.html

Video Tour of The Body Farm: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSDCiOW81mk

WBIR Interview: http://www.wbir.com/news/article/139066/190/Your-Stories-Dr-Bill

JeffersonBass Website: http://www.jeffersonbass.com/index.php

Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales: http://www.amazon.com/Deaths-Acre-Inside-Legendary-Forensic/dp/0425198324

Metro Pulse: The Cult of Forensics Expert Dr. Bill Bass: http://www.metropulse.com/news/2009/feb/25/cult-forensics-expert-dr-bill-bass/

Peter Breslow’s 2004 NPR Profile of The Body Farm: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1906569

Taphonomy-Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taphonomy

 

Eyes of the Beholder: An Old Myth Resurfaces, Sort Of.

eye-reflection

A century ago it was widely believed that the image of a killer was forever imprinted in the eyes of the victim. Sort of stamped on their retinas. This has been termed Optography and was a fiction staple in the 1800s and early 1900s. Of course, this isn’t the case. Not possible. Not yet, anyway but who knows what the future will hold.

However, in some situations a photo of the victim just might retain the killer’s image and this might be useful in tracking down the bad guy.

 
 
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