Archive for the ‘Crime Scenes’ Category


Operation: SC@T!

Monday, December 8th, 2014

SC@T means “Securing a Crime scene @ Traffic incidents”.

On June 2nd, the DNA Project launched the first of several sessions at the Gene Louw Traffic Training College in Brackenfell, Cape Town. Operation SC@T had been specially designed to combine Crime Scene Awareness concepts and actions with the activities of Traffic Officers.

Increasingly, traffic incident scenes (TIS) are found to have an underlying criminal basis – these include crimes such as motor vehicle theft (MVT), hijacking, sexual assault and human trafficking, among others.

SC@T workshop in action with Dr Rebello.

One hundred and forty two (142) experienced and trainee officers who work in the Cape Town area attended the interactive sessions.

Officers were told that it is virtually impossible to not leave evidence at a crime scene. Often the evidence is in a biological form and therefore not “obvious”.

Examples of evidence items include clothing, cigarette ends, chewing gums, empty bottles and papers found in the vehicle.  These common items contain DNA from skin cells, blood, hair and saliva cells left there by the victim and perpetrator(s).

The take-home message for the officers was clear:  DNA CSI

Traffic officers testing their knowledge in an interactive Q&A session.

DDo not touch!

NNote and Record

AAssist others

C Careful! Contamination!

S SC@T – secure the crime scene

IInsist no-one interferes

In recognition of “SECURING the crime scene”, there were discussions on the practical aspects of doing this.  Following an assessment at the end of each session, the Officers were each given a “goody-bag” containing a certificate, a lanyard and glossy information booklet.

Dr Renate Rebello - Western Cape Trainer

NOTE: If you wish would like to book one of our new SC@T workshops for your Traffic Department or College, please contact our National Co-ordinator Maya Moodley at

What Happens to a Dead Body in the Ocean?

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

Deep-sea scavengers made quick work of this pig's carcass. Credit: VENUS/Gail Anderson and Lynne Bell

When a dead body decomposes in the ocean, scientists know little about what happens to it. To find out, some researchers performed an unusual experiment that involved dropping pig carcasses into the sea and watching them on video.

Lots of human bodies end up in the sea, whether due to accidents, suicides or from being intentionally dumped there, but nobody really knows what happens to them, said Gail Anderson, a forensic entomologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada who led the unusual study.

Anderson and her team got a chance to find out, using the Victoria Experimental Network Under the Sea (VENUS), an underwater laboratory that allows scientists to take video and other measurements via the Internet. With that equipment, all they needed was a body. [See Video of Ocean Scavengers Eating the Dead Pigs]

“Pigs are the best models for humans,” Anderson told Live Science. They’re roughly the right size for a human body; they have the same kind of gut bacteria, and they’re relatively hairless, she said.

In the study, published Oct. 20 in the journal PLOS ONE, Anderson and her team used a remotely operated submarine to drop three pig carcasses into the Saanich Inlet, a body of salt water near Vancouver Island, British Columbia, at a depth of 330 feet (100 meters).

The researchers monitored what happened to the pig bodies using the live VENUS cameras, which they could control from anywhere with an Internet connection, and sensors that could measure oxygen levels, temperature, pressure, salinity and other factors. At the end of the study, the scientists collected the bones for further examination.

It didn’t take long for scavengers to find the pigs. Shrimp, Dungeness crabs and squat lobsters all arrived and started munching on the bodies; a shark even came to feed on one of the pig corpses. Scavengers ate the first two bodies down to the bones within a month, but they took months to pick the third one clean.

The third body likely took so much longer due to the levels of oxygen in the water, the researchers found.

The Saanich Inlet is a low-oxygen environment, and has no oxygen during some times of the year, Anderson said. When the researchers dropped the first two pigs into the water, the oxygen levels were about the same, but when scientists dropped the third body in, the levels were lower.

The big scavengers (Dungeness crab and shrimp) need more oxygen to smaller creatures like the squat lobsters. But the smaller animals’ mouths aren’t strong enough to break the skin of the pigs. So as long as the carcass entered the water when oxygen conditions were tolerable, the larger animals would feed, opening the bodies up for smaller critters and the squat lobsters, Anderson said. But when oxygen was low, the larger animals didn’t come, and the smaller animals couldn’t feed.

“Now we have a very good idea of how bodies break down underwater,” Anderson said. This kind of research helps solve mysteries such as the “floating feet” found wearing running shoes that have washed up along the West Coast in recent years. In fact, it’s quite normal for ocean scavengers to gnaw off feet, and the running shoes simply make the body parts float, Anderson said.

Knowing how bodies degrade in the ocean can give rescue divers a sense of what to look for, as well as manage the expectations of family members of those lost at sea, Anderson said.

SOURCE: This article was first published by Live Science on 28 October 2014 and written by Tanya Lewis –

What is Forensic Toxicology?

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

The field of forensic science has come a long way – this is particularly true in the area of forensic toxicology, which is both fascinating and important for many applications. Forensic toxicology deals with the investigation of toxic substances, environmental chemicals or poisonous products. If you have ever been asked to take a drug test for work or you know someone who has, then you are already familiar with one of the applications of forensic toxicology. The toxicology part refers to the methods used to study these substances. Forensic toxicology is actually a bit of a mix of many other scientific disciplines such as chemistry, pathology and biochemistry. It also shares ties with some of the environmental sciences.

Using Forensic Toxicology Today

Forensic toxicologists perform toxicology screens, which involve looking for unusual chemicals in the body.

Currently, this area of forensics has evolved to mean the study of illegal drugs and legal ones such as alcohol. Forensic toxicology can even identify poisons and hazardous chemicals. The chemical makeup of each substance is studied and they are also identified from different sources such as urine or hair. Forensic toxicology deals with the way that substances are absorbed, distributed or eliminated in the body – the metabolism of substances. When learning about drugs and how they act in the body, forensic toxicology will study where the drug affects the body and how this occurs.

Obtaining Samples for Toxicology Testing

Before toxicology testing can go forward, samples need to be taken. You might be surprised to know just how many parts of your body can produce samples that are effective for identifying drugs. One example is urine, which is commonly used in forensic toxicology. It’s an easy sample to obtain and relatively rapid and non-invasive. It can show substances even several weeks after their ingestion. One example would be the drug marijuana, which can be detected even two weeks following use of the drug. When a urine sample is taken, however, there are sometimes rules and regulations around how the sample is collected. If the testing was related to workplace drug testing, a person could substitute a sample from someone else that would then show a negative result. For this reason, there are sometimes parameters around reasonable supervision when a person has to provide a urine sample.

Blood samples are another body sample used for forensic toxicology. A huge range of toxic substances can be tested from a blood sample. You may already be familiar with blood alcohol testing used to assess if a person was driving under the influence of alcohol. This type of testing is important in assessing if a driver is above the legal limit and it is also used to prove a case in court.

Hair samples are a good way to test for substance abuse that has occurred over the long-term. After a person ingests a chemical, it ends up in the hair, where it can provide forensic toxicologists with an estimate of the intensity and duration of drug use. Hair testing is even offered quite widely by companies that allow you to mail in a hair sample and check off the drugs you want checked. Saliva is another way that forensic toxicologists can test for drugs. It does, however, depend on the drug in terms of identifying its concentration. One of the more unusual sounding but interesting ways that the human body can be used for forensic toxicology involves the gastric contents in a deceased person. During the autopsy, a sample of the person’s gastric contents can be analysed, which then allows the forensic toxicologist to assess if the person took any pills or liquids before their death. The brain, liver and spleen can even be used during toxicology testing.

Forensic Toxicology Applications

While there are many uses for forensic toxicology testing, the most familiar one to most people is likely to be drug and alcohol testing. This type of testing is commonly performed in the transportation industry and in workplaces. Another use is for drug overdoses, whether these are intended or accidental. People who drive with a blood alcohol concentration over the accepted legal limit can also be assessed through toxicology testing. Another application of forensic toxicology relates to sexual assault that involves the use of drugs. Various drugs are used today for the purposes of rendering the victim unable to fight the attacker, who then proceeds to sexually assault the victim. Through toxicology testing, a victim can find out what drug was given and can then be treated accordingly.

There are a lot of substances and poisons in our world – many of which impact how we function in work and society. For some people, these substances can influence their death. Fortunately, forensic toxicology testing allows forensic scientists to identify substances and determine a pattern of use. In this way, a forensic toxicologist can provide closure on the ‘what if’ of a person’s drug habits or perhaps some mystery surrounding their death.

This article first appeared on Explore Forensics on the 4th of September 2014 and was authored by Ian Murnaghan – BSc (hons), MSc.

30 years of DNA fingerprinting

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

Sir Alex holding a copy of the first DNA profile.

In 1984, Alec Jeffreys discovered the technique of genetic fingerprinting in a laboratory in the Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester.

30 years later that discovery has proved to be not just something for human identification but ‘identification’ period.

DNA Fingerprinting and subsequently DNA Profiling has revolutionised the field of Forensic Science and also the way paternity and immigration disputes are resolved.

Fascinating interview with Prof Sir Alec Jeffreys – University of Leicester.

Defence lawyer: Oscar may be in trouble

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

Speculations and opinions run high as the days count down to the release of the #OscarTrial verdict on Thursday (11 Sept). A high profile defence lawyer reveals some of his thoughts surrounding the trial and how both the State and Oscar’s defence team handled the case. Were the various pieces of forensic evidence and expert witnesses presented handled in the best way possible?

The following article was first published by the Daily Maverick on 9 September 2014 by Rebecca Davis.

In the last few days before Oscar Pistorius hears his fate in the North Gauteng High Court, any legal eagles willing to stick their necks out with semi-definitive predictions will always be guaranteed an audience. On Monday, one of South Africa’s most high-profile defence lawyers was on hand to tell the Cape Town Press Club what he thought of the Pistorius defence team’s handling of the case. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Defence lawyer William Booth says the Pistorius case dragged on for way longer than it needed to – an idea that will likely brook no argument from trial observers or journalists.

“The trial could have taken a week,” Booth told an audience in Cape Town. “The facts are not complicated. I think they’re very simple.” He suggested that perhaps the defence and prosecution could have come to an agreement before the trial about the matters in dispute. This is the purpose of pre-trial conferences in the high courts, he pointed out: to cut out evidence and shorten the trial, since it’s one of the cornerstones of justice that the accused and the victims are entitled to a speedy trial.

In Booth’s estimation, the only truly significant witness of the trial was Pistorius himself, though he conceded that the testimony of neighbours – in terms of sights seen and sounds heard on the evening in question – was also of importance.

He had harsh words for the case presented by Pistorius’ defence team, saying that the “majority of evidence” put forward by Pistorius’ side was “a smokescreen”.

In particular, Booth expressed bemusement at the amount of time taken by Barry Roux’s side in picking apart the state’s forensic evidence and the police’s handling of the crime scene.

“If Pistorius said that he was never there, that he was out jolling, that he didn’t handle the firearm”, then the question of the precautions taken by police in managing the scene would be of significance, Booth said; but not in this case.

The defence team “dragged out a lot of irrelevant evidence” and put “poor witnesses” on the stand, Booth contended. “That has to have a negative effect on the defence case,” he said. Booth suggested that there was little justification for the amount of time taken by the defence in attempting to counter state witnesses’ evidence on aspects like ballistics.

“Red herrings are all very well, but there needs to be a reason behind the way you cross-examine witnesses,” Booth said, suggesting that Judge Thokozile Masipa might well look askance at this.

Defence witness Dr Roger Dixon – who testified on everything from the quality of light in Pistorius’ bedroom to the significance of wounds on Reeva Steenkamp’s back – came in for particular criticism from Booth, who said that he could not understand why a man whose professional training was in geology would be called to testify in this matter.

“Maybe at the Marikana Commission he might have played a vital role,” Booth said.

Forensic expert Dr David Klatzow, who was present in the audience, later chipped in to suggest that Dixon was the “worst” expert witness he had seen in his entire professional career.

Booth also criticised Roux’s defence team for failing to raise the issue of Pistorius’ state of mind “right at the beginning”. The issue of Pistorius’s potential anxiety disorder was only aired mid-way through the defence’s case, by forensic psychiatrist Dr Merryl Vorster, necessitating Pistorius’s dispatching to the Weskoppies Psychiatric Hospital for a month’s worth of out-patient observation.

Pistorius’ own performance on the stand came in for a slamming, with Booth asking just how prepared the athlete had been by his defence team for questioning. It would be normal, Booth said, for a client’s lawyers to sit with the accused and meticulously prepare him for cross-examination; to clarify exactly what his defence was, and to suggest questions that prosecutors will likely ask. Pistorius’ argumentative, rambling testimony did not bear the hallmarks of his kind of preparatory work, Booth suggested.

“But maybe [Pistorius] just went off on a tangent because of the type of person he is,” Booth conceded. He later clarified that he was not “blaming” the defence team for Pistorius’ poor testimony; “I think that was probably Oscar,” he said.

Booth had praise for the state’s “clever move” at last February’s bail hearing. “I don’t believe the state had any reason to oppose bail,” he said. But the state’s opposition to Pistorius’ bail meant that the defence bore the onus of persuading Magistrate Desmond Nair of why Pistorius should be released, and in the course of this it was necessary for Roux’s team to reveal a fair amount of their hand as to what their trial defence would constitute.

Another canny move on behalf of Gerrie Nel’s prosecution was to charge Pistorius with the three minor offences he faces: two counts of discharging a firearm in public, and one count of illegal possession of ammunition.

If Steenkamp had not been killed, it would have been highly unlikely for Pistorius ever to face these charges in a court, Booth said. But introducing these charges permitted Nel’s team to introduce evidence and witness testimony as to Pistorius’ possibly aggressive and negligent character which would otherwise have been inadmissible.

The lawyer expressed mixed feelings about the effects of having televised Pistorius’ trial. On the one hand, he said, the media scrum around the case led to a situation where “you lose track of what this is about: Someone has been killed, tragically. Someone is on trial for his life.” On the other, Booth said that he hoped opening up courtrooms to this kind of scrutiny would help hold the lower courts, in particular, to account. The workings of South Africa’s magistrate’s courts are often particularly opaque.

He also voiced concern about the impact of the televised trial on witness testimony in the Pistorius case. “Traditionally witnesses shouldn’t talk to each other,” he said. “What happened here is that every witness who was about to testify knew what the previous witness had said. If they hadn’t seen it on TV channels, they would have picked it up on social media.”

This is not the only worry that has been aired recently about the effects of media attention on the Pistorius witnesses. The Times reported two weeks ago that research undertaken by Karen Tewson, head of court preparation at the National Prosecuting Authority, suggested that at least one Pistorius witness was downright traumatised by her participation in the trial.

The newspaper quoted Annette Stipp – one of the neighbours on Pistorius’s estate who reported hearing screams and bangs – as telling the researcher that she and her husband felt “trampled by a bus” as a result of the experience, describing testifying as “emotional, daunting and exhausting”. Stipp added that having her testimony rubbished by Roux made her feel “attacked personally”.

But at this stage of proceedings, everyone’s attention is only really on one matter: what will Judge Masipa’s verdict be on Thursday? Speculation is virtually futile, but Booth gave it his best shot.

Addressing the question of whether Pistorius could be found guilty of premeditated murder, Booth said: “My personal feeling is that the state will struggle to convince the court of premeditation”.

Even if the court accepts Pistorius’ intruder version, however, Booth said he believed there was a “significant” chance that Pistorius “could be convicted of murdering the intruder”. He cast doubt on the idea that Judge Masipa would accept that a reasonable person in Pistorius’ position – even given the athlete’s disability and concomitant anxiety – would have fired four shots into the “minute” space of the toilet without a warning shot.

A member of the Press Club audience told Booth that if Pistorius were to appeal a conviction, he had been reliably informed that the grounds might include the claim that Pistorius was badgered by the state; and the notion that the defence did not call all the witnesses they might have wanted to because said witnesses were reluctant to testify on camera.

Booth did not express much optimism for an appeal on these grounds succeeding. “If your client is being badgered, you get up as a lawyer. You object,” Booth pointed out, saying that lawyers could not sit back while their clients were being badgered in the hope of using this in appeal. If an accused is being badgered, there is also an onus on the judge to intervene.

Booth also said that the issue of witnesses being reluctant to testify on camera was a weak one, as provision was made in Judge Dunston Mlambo’s ruling on media coverage that if a witness did not consent to recording or broadcasting, the judge could rule that “no such recording and broadcasting can take place”.

Something Booth didn’t mention, but which might also be relevant, is that one of the final conditions of Judge Mlambo’s ruling specifies:

the presiding judge shall retain a discretion to direct that, in the event that it becomes apparent that the presence of the cameras or the recording and/or transmitting and/or broadcasting is impeding a particular witness’s right to privacy, dignity and/or the accused’s right to a fair trial, [media houses] will be directed to cease recording and/or transmitting and/or broadcasting the testimony.

Given that Judge Masipa did not direct media houses to cease broadcasting at any stage, it’s reasonable to assume that she did not believe that Pistorius’ right to a fair trial was being impeded by the presence of cameras.

All this hypothesising about verdicts and potential appeals is, of course, pie in the sky until Courtroom GD of the North Gauteng High Court is called to order on Thursday.

“By now, Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa will have made up her mind,” the UK Independent wrote last weekend. “Many a legal expert in South Africa and around the world still doesn’t know which way she will turn, which is just another reason why everyone is still so transfixed, both by the trial and by her.” DM

#WomenInHealth: an interview with Senior Forensic Pathologist, Dr Linda Liebenberg

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Lodox interviews forensic pathologist Dr Linda Liebenberg as part of their #WomenInHealth series commemorating the work of South African female health-care professionals, with the aim of inspiring more young women to join the sciences and health-care professions, and was first published online by Stef Steiner on 1 September 2014.

Dr Linda Liebenberg - “This is not a day job, it’s a profession. There is always more to be done.”

Dr Liebenberg aptly describes her typical day-at-the-office as both “mad and deadly”.

Qualified with an MBChB degree in Forensic Medicine and a masters degree in Forensic Pathology, Linda has spent 14 years studying to reach her current joint appointment as Senior Forensic Pathologist at the Western Cape Department of Health and as an academic lecturer at the University of Cape Town. Dr Liebenberg gained her qualifications from the schools of Medicine at the University of Stellenbosch and the University of Cape Town.

What does a typical day look like for you? What do you do in your work hours?

My work at the Department of Health is spread over service delivery: completing forensic autopsies; compiling reports for court; testifying in court; police consultation and visiting crime sites.  I teach both under-graduate and post-graduate students at the University of Cape Town, and conduct ongoing research.

What attracted you to the work you do? Why did you enter this field?

My first attraction was to Anatomical Pathology and when I stumbled into Forensic Pathology, I was hooked. Apart from medicine, it combines a large number of disciplines, as well as practical application. Through forensic pathology I have and can gain knowledge of a human before they are born, and long after their death.

Who inspires you? Who is your hero?

I am inspired by the rare case that actually works out, and being able to give a family clarity on how a family member died.

My hero is any police officer who does their job despite the challenges and who is still dedicated to their jobs 100%. Committed police work inspires me.

What was your biggest challenge to getting to where you are today in your career?

My biggest challenge was realizing the number of hours, years and the amount of money I have had to put into training. This continues to be a challenge to me as a professional.

What do you think is the biggest health challenge in Africa?

Drugs, alcohol, malnutrition, as well as a lack of both facilities and health-care professionals. Our systems cannot accommodate the current need. There is an imbalance between supply and demand. We have a reckless society characterized by road accidents and domestic violence, which takes up billions [of rands] of government money which could be used to help prevent disease and find cures.

What motivates you and keeps you going/striving for more?

I am faced with something interesting, daily, I’m never bored. I strive for getting the answers right.

Do you have any advice for young women entering a career in medicine?

You can do it!

When I started medicine, in my first year, a lot of people kept asking me what I will do in my second year.  I proved to them that I am capable!

Also, it’s important to remember that medicine is not the glamour that you see on television.

What do you do for fun or to de-stress?

I garden, read a lot and watch forensic television series like ‘Body of Proof’.

Read up more on the work of Dr Liebenberg and her colleagues at the Salt River Morgue:

Forensic Meteorologists Solve Crimes You’ve Never Thought About

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

The fascinating world of forensic science has a wide array of disciplines which are often called upon to help solve a crime. One such discipline you may not have thought existed is that of Forensic Meteorology.

The following is an interesting article published by Mika McKinnon on (12 August 2014) which takes a close look at how meteorology can be utilised in an investigation.

Forensic meteorology is the science of using historic weather records, atmospheric data, eyewitness accounts, and reenactment simulations to determine the weather conditions at a specific time and location.

A forensic meteorologists’s analysis might be to corroborate or invalidate an alibi, provide context for an accident, or even to determine if the conditions could have been reasonably anticipated or were a freak chance event.

A storm washed this car off the road and down the mountains in San Bernadino. Who is responsible: the storm, the road, the tires, or the driver? Image credit: AP/Nick Ut

It’s very BBC Sherlock to contemplate using the weather to solve crimes. In the opening case of the first episode, Sherlock pairs observations of asymmetrical mud splatter and a lack of umbrella with local weather reports to deduce a victim’s probable activities before the murder. While real-life forensic meteorology lacks the thrilling pacing and distinctive visual style of Sherlock, it is a real field of science used for everything from murder trials to insurance claims.

Forensic meteorology has been used in all sorts of circumstances. While writing for Physics Today, Elizabeth Austin and Peter Hildebrand tracked down a slew of court cases where a meteorologist was employed as an expert witness, including: murders, suicides, bombings, vehicle accidents, traffic accidents, skiing accidents, bad aircraft landings, kitesurfing accidents, agricultural disputes, property insurance disputes, building collapses, people slipping and falling, fires, and as a defence for stealing, looting, or trespassing. The range of weather involved in this cases can be equally as diverse — rain, snow, ice, tornadoes, hurricanes, air pollution, drought, floods, microbursts and epic storms can all lead to situations where a meteorologist takes the stand to carefully explain what the weather conditions were and how it impacted the environment.

One of the first instances of involving weather in the process of law was in the late 1800s, after a minister organized a community prayer for rain during a severe drought. Within the hour, a storm rolled in, dumping just under 2 inches of rain, washing out a bridge, and burning down a barn with a lightning strike. The barn’s owner had been the only objector to the prayer, having declared that humans had no place to meddle in the affairs of nature. Seeing the loss of his barn as vindication for his belief, he sued the minister to replace his barn. The minister fought back, his counsel arguing that while they’d asked for rain, the lightning was a “a gratuitous gift of God.” The court agreed, dismissing the claim.

The relative frequency of particular weather events is a common theme in civil cases. Did a city adequately anticipate normal severe rainfall when designing their sewer system and were overwhelmed by an unpredictable freak event, or did they underestimate the predictable pattern of storms and fail to build an adequate system? When a roof collapses under the weight of piled snow, was it a failure of engineering to build for the expected environment, or was the roof adequate and the snowfall far above any reasonable expectation? A forensic meteorologist’s analysis of the relative rarity of specific high-impact events can be pivotal testimony in determining fault during the subsequent insurance and building disputes.

Not every expert’s testimony influences the case’s outcome. A driver was hit by a piece of falling ice while crossing a bridge, with the fragment breaking his windshield and hitting him in the eye. He claimed the ice was part of an icicle breaking free of the bridge, while the local transportation authority claimed the ice must have been flung off a passing truck. The forensic meteorologist testified that ice from a truck while be opaque, while an icicle growing on the bridge would be clear. An eyewitness said the ice was clear, leading the meteorologist to support the driver’s accusation. Despite this, the jury found in favour of the bridge, concluding that a truck was responsible for flinging ice.

Like any other expert witness, a forensic meteorologist in the United States is bound by the Federal Rules of Evidence, specifically by Rule 702:

A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if:

(a) the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;

(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;

(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and

(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.

The first requirement is that a meteorologist is actually a meteorologist. While technically this is an unlicensed profession so anyone can work as a meteorologist, most who get called to the stand have voluntarily submitted to certification from their professional organization.

From there, the rule requires that meteorology is relevant to the case, that the analysis is based on reality, that their analysis uses logical processes, and that the expert is sufficiently objective to let their analysis determine their conclusions irrelevant of the human context. That last bit can be difficult: a forensic meteorologist’s interpretations and professional opinions must be guided by facts, not by their personal opinions or sympathies.

A perfect example of this is an ongoing legal dispute stemming from a mess of a storm in 2011. On April 27th, cold, dry air coming south from Canada smashed into warm, moist air surging north from the Gulf of Mexico. A jet stream flowing north-east made the whole situation worse, swirling colliding air masses into into supercells. The first wave hit in the morning, thunderstorms and tornadoes crossing the southeastern United States; the second wave hit hours later. Seven states were impacted, with Alabama baring the brunt of the damage. After the storms died off, the insurance companies and property owners were left trying to determine which damage was caused by the straight-on winds of thunderstorms, and which was caused by the rotating winds of a tornado.

Over three years later, it’s still To Be Determined, with forensic meteorologists using digital weather radar, surface weather observations, and reports to determine the timing, extent, duration, and strength of events, and, from that, the nature of the damaging winds. As insurance policies can easily cover one type of damage but not the other, the outcome of the meteorologists’ analysis will have a massive economic impact on the storms’ survivors. For their sake, I dearly hope the meteorologists involved in these cases have no idea which insurance policies cover what damage for which homeowners, leaving them free to do their jobs without feeling guilty over the consequences.

In one of the more intimately bloody cases of weather in the law, an accused murderer claimed he sustained a scratch on his hand while snowboarding with his son and not during the attack. The forensic meteorologist on the case testified that it was raining at the time of the alleged snowboarding. Not only would that be a memorable detail neglected by the suspect, the rain should have melted the meagre snowpack, leaving the slopes impossibly bare for snowboarding. This testimony was enough to discredit the suspect’s claim, a small piece of evidence adding to the collected whole that eventually saw the murder convicted.

No dew-soaked footprints, no intruder. Image credit: AP/Al Behrman

In a different murder trial, a husband was accused of murdering his wife. He claimed an intruder did it. The forensic meteorologists were able to determine that the neighbourhood, particularly the grass around the house, would have been soaked with dew at the time of the murder. Any intruder would have left soggy footprints, something clearly lacking at the crime scene. This was enough to once again disprove the proposed intruder, helping narrow down theoretical suspects in the murder.

The examples keep on coming. Every major natural catastrophe will bring out forensic meteorologists to determine what exactly happened. Inclement weather will elicit attempts to blame any accidents on the weather, leading meteorologists to decide where weather fits along with human judgement, company policies, and equipment limitations. As we expect to keep getting more intense and more frequent extreme weather events as climate changes, forensic meteorology is just going to keep getting more important in sorting out what happened and how predictable it was.

While for now it’s a somewhat obscure, forensic meteorology is slowly gaining credibility as yet another way of bringing science and fact-based testimony into the courtroom. Even better, the amount of data available to pull into these cases is extensive, with detailed radar archives, rainfall gauges, volunteer observer reports, wind maps, and more to help meteorologists with their analysis. But the real question is: how will forensic meteorology be glamorized when it makes its inevitable break into the television with its own crime-solving hero?

3 Puzzling Cold Cases Solved With Forensic Science

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

Using forensic science to solve cases (especially cold cases) is nothing new. We’ve all heard about investigators gathering DNA samples at crime scenes or dusting for fingerprints on suspected weapons. But what happens when something unusual happens in a case? Here are three of our favorite cases that baffled even the forensic science experts. We hope that reading them will help you learn from their mistakes and help solve the next big mysterious cold case!

The Murder of Leanne Tiernan

In August 2001, a man walking his dog in Lindley Woods in West Yorkshire, found the body of 16-year old Leanne Tiernan, buried in a shallow grave. Her head was wrapped in a black plastic bag, held in place with a scarf and a zip tie around her neck; zip ties were also holding her wrists together. Her body was wrapped in green plastic trash can liners and tied with twine. She was found about ten miles from her home in Leeds. She had been walking home from a Christmas shopping trip with her best friend in November 2000 when she disappeared. However, pathologists said her body had not been there since November. She had been strangled and her body stored at low temperatures in the intervening time.

Police were able to track down the suppliers of the dog collar and found a man who had bought several dog collars similar to the one found around Leanne’s neck. This man was John Taylor, a poacher who often hunted in the same woods where Leanne’s body had been found. The twine she was wrapped in was an unusual kind, used for rabbit netting, and was tracked down to a supplier in Devon, which had only produced one batch. It matched twine found in John Taylor’s home. Some of the cable ties used on Leanne Tiernan were of a type used almost exclusively by the patent company of John Taylor’s employer, Parcel Force. When the police searched John Taylor’s house they found more of the cable ties and one of the dog collars.

When the forensic team examined Leanne’s body further, they also found several strands of dog hair. The hair was sent to scientists in Texas who produced a partial dog DNA profile. However, it turned out the dog he’d owned when Leanne disappeared had already died. Even though it never led to a conviction, this was the first time that dog DNA was used as forensic evidence in a British criminal case.

The Murder of Marianne Vaatstra

Because we live in a horrible world, things like rape, murder, and rape-murder can sometimes go unpunished. So the only thing that really makes us feel better is when the perpetrator is caught and prosecuted.

Marianne Vaatsra was found murdered in 1999. Police arrested many people and even held a large scale DNA search, but the perpetrator was never found. After 13 years of unsuccessfully being able to identify the killer, the police had no other option than to quit investigating and move on to more pressing issues. However, someone came up with a great plan. Why don’t police just ask every male citizen living within a 5-mile radius of the crime scene to submit a DNA sample?

On November 19, 2012, police announced it had found a match. Arrested was Jasper S., a 45-year-old man who lived only a few miles from the crime scene. Jasper S. apparently voluntarily gave a DNA sample for testing. In a second study of the sample, it was confirmed that his DNA profile matched the DNA traces found on Marianne’s body.

The Mysterious Floating Feet

The year is 2007 in British Columbia. A young girl who is walking along the beach and stumbles upon a man’s sneaker. Curiosity strikes and she ends up looking inside. To her horror she finds the remains of a human foot.

Less than a week later and nearly 30 miles away, a couple discovers another foot. But this pair does not match. They are both the right feet. This happens again five months later on a nearby island. It’s also a right foot. Nine months total have passed and yet another right shoe has been found. Inside it, a woman’s decomposing foot.

Over the course of five years, a total of 11 shoes washed up on the shore, most with feet in them. In February of 2012, the case was finally cracked. The solution to this conundrum does not involve any huge accident, nor any Tsunami dragging feet along for millions of miles away, and thankfully it doesn’t involve an electric saw psychopath either.

The simple answer is that the feet belong to people that committed suicide jumping into the waters nearby the area. Those that could be identified were linked to depressed individuals who had been reported as missing. There was no sign whatsoever that the limbs had been separated with the use of any tool. On the contrary, those extremities detached as part of the natural body decay process and the most recent foot found was still connected to the leg bones.

But why were all of them wearing sneakers? It cannot be just by accident, and indeed it wasn’t. The truth is, sneakers are designed to be light, and so they usually float in water. The suicide victims who wear heavier shoes end up having their feet sunk to the bottom of the waters, despite being separated from the rest of the body. On the other hand, the ones who were wearing sneakers had their feet floating for a while until some of them reached the coast. The one to blame for picking the feet in sneakers is not a psychopath; it is the natural water buoyancy.

British Columbia could finally rest easy knowing that the only serial killer on the loose was Mother Nature. As to why the shoes were the only things that made it back to shore? Well, that’s still a mystery. Either way, it is the strangest forensics case the area has ever seen.

What makes this phenomenon even more interesting? Feet have been showing up all over the world — Spain, California, the U.K. and New Zealand. The term has since been given the name “The Nike Phenomenon.”

This article was first published online by on 12 August 2014.

SA forensics: A bloody mess?

Friday, August 15th, 2014

The following article by Rebecca Davis was first published by the Daily Maverick on 14 August 2014.

Forensic expert Dr David Klatzow has been one of the most vocal and consistent critics of South African police handling of crime scenes and evidence. Speaking on Wednesday about his new book, ‘Justice Denied’, Klatzow wasn’t mincing his words about the quality of local forensic investigations.

One of the DNA Project's "Don't disturb a crime scene" social media messages launched during the Oscar Pistorius Trial

David Klatzow has a simple message for anyone accused of a crime in South Africa: don’t expect to get a fair ride.

“I’ve written a book about this because it seems to me that we have a problem in this country,” Klatzow told an audience at the Cape Town Press Club on Wednesday. He said that there is a justifiable expectation that the state, with its powerful resources, should be able to handle the processing and interpretation of forensic evidence correctly: “One would expect the state to get it right.”

But the reality, Klatzow says, is often depressingly different. He cited the example of Fred van der Vyfer, charged with the murder of his girlfriend Inge Lotz in 2005. Van der Vyfer was ultimately acquitted with the aid of Klatzow, who was hired by the accused’s family to look into the forensic evidence which the state claimed fingered van der Vyfer.

Though questions continue to swirl around who killed Lotz, if not Van der Vyfer, Klatzow remains adamant that “there is not a shred of evidence that proved he did it”. But he says it is frightening to consider what could have happened if van der Vyfer had not been from a wealthy family.

“Fred, had he not had the resources to throw R9 million at the case, would be sitting in Pollsmoor Prison,” Klatzow says, despite the fact that the state’s case against him was “nothing but smoke and mirrors”.

Van der Vyfer’s case is one of a number that Klatzow cites to support his assertion that “dishonesty and incompetence” characterise many police investigations in this country. But the silver lining – if you can call it that – is that this is not a South Africa-specific problem. Klatzow says that in the course of researching his new book, Justice Denied, one thing became apparent: “We are not alone in this deplorable situation”.

Convictions of innocent people based on inaccurate or fraudulent evidence given by police forensic experts has a long history internationally. One example Klatzow gives is that of Dr Hawley Crippen, who was hanged for the murder of his wife in 1910: one of Edwardian London’s most sensational cases.

After the disappearance of Crippen’s wife Cora, Dr Crippen claimed she had returned to America. But there were a number of things that didn’t look good for Crippen. For one, he ran off with his attractive young secretary. For another, when police searched his house for the fourth time, they found human remains buried under the brick floor of his basement. The pathologist used by the prosecution, Dr Bernard Spilsbury, testified that a piece of skin revealed an abdominal scar which was consistent with Cora’s medical history. Crippen was duly found guilty of the murder of his wife and hanged.

In 2007, however, the tissue slides used by Spilsbury were re-examined and DNA extracted from them. These tests reportedly established that the body parts were those of a man.

“On the say-so of a dogmatic pathologist, Crippen went to the gallows for a murder he did not commit,” Klatzow says. “I kick off the book with that because nothing’s changed.” (It should be noted that the idea that Crippen was innocent remains controversial.)

During Apartheid, Klatzow says, police would often produce versions of events after police shootings which were clearly incompatible with the evidence. He recalled the case of the Gugulethu Seven, a group of Umkhonto weSizwe members killed by police in 1986. Klatzow’s investigation showed that contrary to police evidence, the men had been shot at close range. One policeman claimed he had shot one man while the man was “running forwards, right to left”.

“Then why are all the bullet holes in his right hand side?” Klatzow asked.

Apartheid may be over, but Klatzow says that police incompetence and wilful deception in crime scene investigations endure. He calls the aftermath of the killing of mining magnate Brett Kebble “the worst-handled crime scene” he has encountered, saying police wanted to valet Kebble’s car before evidence had been extracted from it.

Klatzow has harsh words, too, for the handling of the Oscar Pistorius crime scene. First policeman Hilton Botha was allowed to walk all over it, he says. Then a policeman handled the gun without gloves – and when alerted to this, wiped it clean and puts it down again. A bullet fragment in the toilet bowl was missed. And to top it all off, Pistorius’ watches were stolen.

“This is handed out as the best our police can do,” Klatzow said. He added that if Pistorius were to be convicted, it would be in spite of the police work on the case, not because of it.

Klatzow also hit out at the state’s forensic laboratories, saying it could still take two years to get a blood sample back, and up to eight years for toxicology results.

“If you have a spouse to knock off, now’s the time to do it,” he said. “And do it with poison.”

But not everyone agrees that the picture is as negative as Klatzow makes out.

“I reckon that there are issues, but I like to be constructive,” Vanessa Lynch, the founder of South Africa’s DNA Project, told the Daily Maverick on Wednesday. She points out that when it comes to old cases, police could only rely on the forensic evidence available at the time.

“In the past, hair shaft analysis was considered to be cutting edge,” Lynch says. “It’s subsequently been recognised that it’s an inexact science. As we’re exposed to more and more forensic processes, we are able to get closer to the truth.”

Lynch acknowledged that substantial challenges remain, but she maintains that forensic evidence – and particularly DNA – is one of the firmest forms of criminal evidence in existence (as opposed to, say, eye-witness testimony). While the Pistorius case was dominating headlines, the DNA Project attempted to use it as a way of educating the public about the need to keep crime scenes undisturbed. “When you don’t disturb a crime scene, forensic evidence has the power to determine exactly what happened,” the DNA Project’s website instructed.

One of the DNA Project’s major initiatives over the past years has been to campaign for the establishment of a database of DNA to be used by police in the investigation of crimes. They succeeded: in January this year the DNA Act was passed. When fully implemented, it will require police to take DNA samples from criminal suspects arrested for serious offences, as well as parolees and convicted offenders. These will be entered into a database and DNA collected from crime scenes will then be compared.

When the act was promulgated, skepticism was expressed as to whether it will ever be effectively implemented – including from Klatzow. Lynch says there have been delays, but “things are moving in the right direction”.

Police still need to be trained to take DNA swabs, and the members of the National Forensics Oversight and Ethics Board appointed. This latter step is crucial, she says, because its members will be ensuring that the act is not a “paper tiger”. But applications for board membership closed in March, and its members have still not been announced.

“Despite that, there’s still movement,” Lynch says. She says the Cape Town forensics lab has set up the necessary systems already to be able to process DNA samples when they start arriving. “The back-end stuff is happening.”

Lynch has a parting shot for critics of South Africa’s forensic work. “At least we have a forensic infrastructure,” she says. “It may require tweaking, but that’s a helluva lot more than some places.” DM

How SAPS forensic teams examine a crime scene

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

Evidence collected and analysed at the scene of a crime can make or break a case.

To help understand the important roles of the various SAPS personnel, the following adaptation of an article first published online on the 12th March 2014, by Petro-Anne Vlok & Christiaan Boonzaier, looks at how the forensic teams go about their work when processing a crime scene.

SAPS officer taping off a crime scene.

1. First member

  • When called out to a possible murder, the first police officer on the scene, called the first member, assesses if the victim is still alive. If so, the chief priority is to preserve life.
  • If the victim is dead, the officer secures the crime scene using SAPS-identifying tape. Officers are stationed to prevent unauthorised access.

Crime Scene Manager - This person is in charge of the crime scene.

2. Crime scene manager

  • The forensic department’s crime scene manager (CSM) relieves the first member. The CSM takes control of and responsibility for the scene and assigns crime scene technicians and an investigating officer (IO).
  • Next is the planning phase. The CSM, crime scene technicians and IO take a “first walk” through the crime scene, noting possible routes used by the victim or perpetrator as well as spotting what can be collected as evidence. They must take care not to disturb any evidence.
  • The CSM decides which experts and forensic resources are needed and the order in which the scene should be investigated.

3. Photographer

  • Before anyone may touch anything a photographer has to document the scene. Sometimes video documentation is also used or crime scene technicians make sketches.
  • 3D total station scanners are relatively new and effective documenting tools which take 3D images of the scene.

Crime Scene Expert - This person works inside the crime scene collecting evidence.

4. Crime scene technicians

  • They go through the scene with a fine-tooth comb. Because of the high crime rate in SA, crime scene technicians are often unavailable, in which case the IO collects evidence.
  • Technicians often use fluorescent light when searching for DNA samples. Blood, urine, semen and vomit show up in a bluish colour, even if the perpetrator tried to wash it off. UV light can help technicians see evidence hidden from the naked eye such as fingerprints, fibres and bruises on bodies.
  • Technicians are expected to keep meticulous records and note the date, time and place where evidence was collected.  Memory is fallible and wouldn’t hold up under cross-examination in court. Technicians have to label evidence as soon as they bag it.
  • After evidence has been collected on and around the victim, the body is taken to the morgue for further investigation by a forensic pathologist. Bags are placed over the hands and feet to preserve potential DNA evidence under the nails.
  • All collected evidence is preserved in evidence collection kits and sent to the forensic science laboratory for analysis.

Marking the scene

Coloured cones are placed throughout the crime scene to mark where evidence was collected. Each crime scene is different but technicians can, for example, place yellow cones next to blood evidence. The cones are also used to map the crime scene.

What is collected as evidence?

  • Trace evidence: gunshot residue, paint residue, broken glass, unknown chemicals
  • Bodily fluids: blood, semen, saliva, vomit
  • Impressions: fingerprints, footprints, tool marks
  • Weapons and firearms: knives, guns, bullet holes, cartridge casings
  • Documents and devices: diaries, suicide notes, computers, cellphones, memory sticks
  • Hair and fibres

Diagram depicting where various items of evidence are sent for analysis.