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Forensic News


By External Source 18 Jul, 2016

Efforts are underway to track down the international syndicates involved in the rhino horn trade, thanks to a new DNA system.

This meant a rhino horn confiscated in Vietnam could be linked back to a crime scene in the Kruger National Park.

“With this it will be possible to identify smuggling routes and more role players than just the poachers,” says Dr Cindy Harper, developer of RhODIS Rhino DNA system. She is also a director at the University of Pretoria’s veterinary genetics laboratory at Onderstepoort.

DNA profiling would help law enforcement agencies find the trafficking route, the couriers, kingpins, and end users.  One prosecutor dealing with rhino horn poaching cases welcomed the development.

“The kingpin and the mastermind are the ones we should be prosecuting, and with RhODIS becoming available to international forensic scientists and investigators, we are getting closer,” Ansie Venter said.

"We might soon be able to connect a horn in Vietnam to a poached rhino in the Kruger National Park. What an immense breakthrough.”

Harper said it was introduced in 2010. The database contained information about more than 20 000 individual rhino. Countries using the system included Namibia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia, and Botswana.

At a RhODIS Scientific Workshop held in the Kruger National Park recently, it was agreed that the system would form the basis for the international DNA testing of rhino and rhino products.   DNA forensic scientists, law enforcement officers and investigators from countries including Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and India attended the workshop.

They were taken to a poaching crime scene in the park, allowing them to see first-hand the savagery inflicted on two rhino killed for their horns.  Scientists participated in DNA sample collection training at the crime scene using the forensic sample kits developed for RhODIS.   SANParks spokesperson Isaac Phaahla said they supported the collection of DNA as it was part of the criminal investigation.

“We think our colleagues in the NGO sector concentrating on user markets are doing a sterling job,” he said.

By External Source 12 Jul, 2016

The news that convicted murderer Colin Pitchfork was denied parole was shocking. Not that he was denied, but that he was still alive. Certainly, the first case in history that utilized DNA evidence in a forensic context had to be a very long time ago. In truth, Pitchfork was put away 28 years ago. Back then, there wasn’t a single offender DNA database in the world. Now, they are standard in over 50 countries and expanding almost on a daily basis. We’ve gone through RFLP, Castro and the admissibility wars, Budowle and Lander and   Nature Magazine , NRC I (and II), Dotson and Bloodsworth, and Simpson. We are even looking at the reality of performing DNA analysis in 90 minutes in police stations. DNA databases have been used to help convict Lonnie Franklin Jr., known as the Grim Sleeper, using familial testing, and have also been used to exonerate 300 innocent people and counting in the US alone.

On this odd recognition of the Pitchfork conviction, it’s important to realize that the changes brought about by the integration of DNA technology into the world’s criminal justice systems have been systemic. Statutes of limitations have been altered and even eliminated to allow for more exonerations and to crack cold cases. The passage of legislation to create DNA databases has created one of our more effective crime fighting tools. But, the broadest impact of DNA technology has been conceptual.

What started as a better piece of evidence has become a better understanding of the weaknesses in our system. Our concepts of quality forensic science, reliable evidence and trustworthy convictions have changed dramatically. Ultimately, that’s a very good change. I would even argue that our sense of responsibility to that system has changed. We can do more to protect the wrongly accused and the innocent victim, therefore we have the responsibility to do more. While original claims of DNA-based exonerations were met with skepticism and automatic objection, prosecutors now take a more thoughtful approach.

But, while we should appreciate the relative lightening-like speed with which we have leveraged the benefits of DNA in a criminal justice system designed to move slowly, we should also recognize how far we have to go. Four hundred thousand untested rape kits nationwide? Seriously? It shouldn’t be news that the Grim Sleeper was convicted with familial DNA analysis. It should be standard operating procedure.

Somewhat ironically I’ve spent the week in Manila, the Philippines with forensic DNA pioneer George Sensabaugh speaking to law and forensic science students about the impact that DNA has had on criminal justice systems since its introduction. In other words, none of my audience was alive for the Pitchfork conviction, and many weren’t even around when O.J. Simpson was declared not guilty. As I looked at the picture of Pitchfork on my PowerPoint slide, and talked about all the future applications of DNA technology that were contained in that one case, it struck me that our next responsibility is to keep the next generation of forensic scientists, prosecutors and defense attorneys inspired. Newness and novelty were great motivators for the scientists and attorneys responsible for DNA’s seismic impact over the last two decades. But DNA has been around long enough now for Colin pitchfork to qualify for, and be denied, parole.

As a new generation of scientists and lawyers integrate into criminal justice systems throughout the world, it’s important to ensure that they are not just good scientists and lawyers. As emphasized at our conference in Manila, “science in the service of society,” must remain the core message of our educational efforts.

By External Source 07 Jul, 2016

In late summer of 2012, police officers in a small, Midwestern town were called to the scene of a homicide. The caller indicated they had been exploring the creek in a wooded area on the north end of town and located a deceased male weighted down by rocks in the creek.

The victim had significant wounds to the neck that appeared consistent with a large, edged weapon. Further examination of the area revealed an approximately 20-yard blood trail that led back to a large pool of blood in a homeless camp next to the creek. Police located a machete in between two trees near the blood trail. Investigators did the best they could to document the trail of blood in the daylight; however, due to the length of the trail, they were unable to show it in its entirety.
 
Investigators returned to the scene after dark in an effort to obtain a photograph of the blood trail utilizing Bluestar Forensic latent bloodstain reagent, a luminol-based blood-visualizing chemical that causes trace amounts of blood to luminesce. The process of photographing bloodstains in an outdoor crime scene requires several important pieces of equipment and adequate personnel in order to capture the luminescence after the application of the chemical, while at the same time illuminating the scene adequately enough for the viewer to appreciate the composition of the crime scene. This list includes:
  • Digital SLR camera with a minimum of f/3.5 capability
  • Tripod
  • Cable shutter release cable or remote (for extended shutter times required)
  • One or more external flashes
  • Bluestar Forensic latent bloodstain reagent, minimum of two bottles of prepared solution in spray bottles
  • Enough personnel to operate camera, flashes, and spray bottles
Several factors about the use of a DSLR in low-light scenes should be kept in mind when utilizing this technique. First and foremost, the camera settings must be set to the widest aperture possible and the lens must be in manual focus mode—otherwise, in near total darkness, the camera will attempt to focus itself by emitting light from the LED on the camera, which in turn can ruin the image. Second, a tripod and a cable shutter release or remote shutter release must be used in an effort to eliminate movement from holding the camera by hand or even by depressing the shutter for an extended period of time. In this case, because the scene was located in a wooded ravine with very little ambient light and no moon, the final exposure required a 255-second time frame. Without the tripod and cable release, the image would likely have been blurry due to movement of the camera. Prior to beginning the exposure, ensure your focus is correct by illuminating the scene with a light source.
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