Archive for the ‘Crime Scenes’ Category


Excavating a grave site: Anthropological or forensic crime scene?

Friday, April 24th, 2015

A skeleton appearing in a grave.

Following the recent discovery of mass graves on Glenroy farm in Dududu (KZN) some months ago, the question arose as to whether the scene should be handled as a forensic (crime scene) or anthropological/archaeological case.

While a commission of inquiry has been established, it is being treated as forensic case in the first instance until otherwise determined and as such currently falls under the jurisdiction of the SAPS forensics unit while they conduct their preliminary investigations.

But what exactly is the difference between a forensic and an anthropological/archaeological case when investigating human remains?

In a forensic case the responsibility for the investigation of deaths due to unnatural causes lies with the Forensic Pathology Service in the province where the incident occurred and under the Inquests Act (Act 58 of 1959), this Service makes provision for the rendering of medico-legal investigation of the cause of death and serves the judicial process.

Up until 2006 this function was performed by, and fell under, the SAPS. As stipulated by the National Health Act (Act 61 of 2003), the operational management of the medico-legal laboratory facilities was subsequently transferred to the different provincial Departments of Health.

In an anthropological case, jurisdiction over inadvertently discovered human remains is governed by the National Heritage Resources Act (Act 25 of 1999) which stipulates that all discoveries of human remains should be reported to the local SAPS and the relevant Heritage Resources Agency.

Human remains identified by the Act, or proclaimed by the minister of Arts and Culture, should be reported to the South African Heritage Resources Agency Burial Grounds and Graves Unit. Jurisdiction, that is, whether the remains are forensic in nature or of heritage value, and whether the cause of death was non-natural and judicially relevant, is then assigned after consultation between officials.

As a general rule, although specified exceptions to this are indicated in the National Heritage Resources Act, human remains older than 60 years are not forensic, and remains older than 100 years are considered to be archaeological.

The National Heritage Resources Act also identifies categories of human remains, such as Victims of Conflict (referring to victims of the pre-1994 political violence in South Africa), which are classified as human rights abuses and deserving of special investigation and commemoration.

What is forensic anthropology?

Forensic anthropology is a specialist field that deals with the evidence that can be collected from human remains – both hard tissue in the form of dry bones and soft tissue in the form of dried flesh from dried up or mummified bodies.

A forensic anthropologist has detailed knowledge of anatomy, particularly the anatomy of the human skeleton, since the bones are usually all that remains when a forensic anthropologist is called in to identify a body.

What is a forensic anthropologist able to discern in respect of discovered remains that will aid the investigation?

Forensic anthropologists are able to reconstruct information surrounding the events that lead to the preservation of the discovered remains and call this the study of ‘taphonomy’, which includes the evidence of death, and the accumulation and preservation of bones over time.

Forensic anthropologists speak of four taphonomic periods in relation to a dead individual:

  • the ante-mortem period, which covers the whole of the time before the death of the person
  • the peri-mortem period, which is around the time of death
  • the post-mortem period which includes the time between death and discovery
  • the post-recovery period which includes the process of recovery, analysis and storage of the bony evidence.

Each period provides different contexts for enquiry. During the ante-mortem period (before death), the skeleton is living and records its own details of growth and development.

These can be used to develop a biological profile of the individual and help in securing identification.

The peri-mortem period is obviously important because it includes the events around the death and the cause of death.

However, the post-mortem period is important as well because it gives the time context of the crime by revealing information about the post-mortem interval (PMI). Each and every event after the discovery needs to be recorded as part of the ‘chain of custody’ so that there are no questions about the data when the case is discussed in court.

How can forensic anthropologists estimate sex and age?

By examining the skeletal remains, an anthropologist can estimate whether they are from a male or female.

A skeleton’s overall size and sturdiness give some clues. Within the same population, males tend to have larger, more robust bones and joint surfaces, and more bone development at muscle attachment sites.

Pelvic differences between males and females.

However, the pelvis is the best sex-related skeletal indicator, because of distinct features adapted for childbearing.

The skull also has features that can indicate sex, though slightly less reliably.

Male skull

Female skull

Determining how old a person was when they died is much more difficult than estimating their sex. The estimation of age at death involves observing morphological changes (changes in structure) in the skeletal remains and comparing it to what is known about chronological changes (changes that happen as we get older) that occur in the skeleton.


Friedling, J. (2012). What the bones can tell us. QUEST, 8(2). Academy of Science for South Africa.

Groen,W.J.M.,  Márquez-Grant, N., Janaway, R. (2015). Forensic Archaeology: A Global Perspective. Wiley-Blackwell.

Morris, A. (2012). What is forensic anthropology? QUEST, 8(2). Academy of Science for South Africa.

DNA Test That Distinguishes Identical Twins May Be Used in Court for First Time

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

In 2004, two young women were abducted at gunpoint while walking home near Boston [United States] at night. The crimes happened eight days apart, but the pattern was the same: The women were shoved into a car by two men, pistol-whipped, driven to a different location, and raped. While collecting her clothes, the second victim managed to grab the condom one of the men had worn; she hid it in her pocket, and turned it in as evidence.

One of the two men involved pleaded guilty to the attacks in 2012. The other remained at large. Police had a suspect, but they couldn’t pin the crime on him due to a twist of genetic fate: He had an identical twin brother, and DNA from the condom matched both siblings. But now, a decade after the assaults, scientists have developed a genetic test that can distinguish between identical twins, and it may be used in court for the first time in this case.

The second suspect is 33-year-old Dwayne McNair. In September, McNair was arraigned on eight counts of aggravated rape and two counts of armed robbery, stemming from the two sexual assaults.

Traditional forensic methods can’t differentiate between DNA belonging to identical twins

He’s been a suspect in the crimes since 2007. According to court documents, a standard genetic test linked him to semen collected from the second attack back in 2008. That would ordinarily be enough to justify charges, but Dwayne wasn’t the only person whose DNA matched that semen. His twin, Dwight, was also a match. Traditional forensic methods can’t differentiate between DNA belonging to identical twins, and without a clear way to establish whether Dwayne or Dwight had left the semen at the scene, police had no probable cause to make an arrest in 2008.

But in 2012, the other man involved in the assaults told investigators that Dwayne had been his partner in the crimes. And earlier this year, prosecutors learned of a new forensic genetics test claiming to differentiate between biological samples belonging to identical twins. According to the Suffolk County District Attorney the test points to Dwayne, not Dwight, as the perpetrator of the 2004 assaults.

Normally, forensic tests work by extracting and amplifying regions of DNA collected from a crime scene. Then, investigators look for a match between the evidence and a suspect’s genetic sequence. Ordinarily, this kind of testing is sufficient: Most humans vary from one another enough for investigators to easily identify whether a suspect left blood, skin, hair, semen, or something else at a crime scene.

This is not true with identical twins. Grown from the same, single fertilized egg, monozygotic twins have nearly identical genomes. So, for decades, twins committing crimes had a relatively easy way to establish doubt—based on DNA evidence alone, their identical sibling would be equally as likely to have deposited whatever genetic material might have been left at a crime scene.

Maybe not anymore.

Using what’s known as ultra-deep, next-generation sequencing, a team in Germany has developed a test that claims to reliably identify which twin a biological sample belongs to. The test works by taking a close look at the genetic letters (called base pairs) comprising the 3 billion-base-pair human genome. Because mutations randomly occur during development, even genetically “identical” twins will vary at a handful of locations, says Burkhard Rolf, a forensic scientist at Eurofins Scientific, the company that developed the test.

The sequence mutations are random, so it’s incredibly unlikely they’d be the same in both twins—and it’s those discrepancies that can be used to pin a crime on a twin.

In a proof-of-principle study, Rolf and his colleagues analyzed sequences from a pair of twins and one of their kids. Scientists could positively identify which twin was the child’s father, based on five single base pair differences present in the father and son, but not in the uncle. They published the work earlier this year in Forensic Science International: Genetics; it’s this paper that caught the Suffolk District Attorney’s attention.

Results from Eurofins, showing one of the mutations

The office sent evidence to Eurofins for analysis. After the results came back, the McNair was indicted and arraigned for the crimes in September.

“At arraignment, the assigned prosecutor cited the Eurofins test results and said Dwayne McNair was ‘two billion times more likely’ than his twin to have been the source of the crime scene DNA,” says Suffolk DA spokesperson Jake Wark.

Now, the question is: Will the genetic test be admissible in court? It would be the first time it’s been used in the United States. A preliminary hearing has been scheduled for Jan. 12, 2015, after which a judge will decide whether evidence from the test is admissible.

Some experts seem to think it will hold up.

“It is scientifically sound and reliable, has a high probability of success, is based on standard, generally accepted forensic DNA sequencing technology, and has an infinitesimally low risk of error if proper laboratory practices are followed,” said Bruce Budowle, in an affidavit to the court. Budowle, who is now at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, once led the FBI’s DNA typing laboratory.

Yet some scientists are a bit wary. “I think it’s an interesting idea,” says computational biologist Yaniv Erlich of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The work published by the Eurofins team is accurate, he says, but is only based on one pair of twins. In an ideal world, Erlich would test the method using dozens of twin pairs, while simulating the small amounts of DNA that might be found at crime scenes.

He’s also concerned about the test’s applicability to different tissue types, and blood in particular (which is not an issue in the McNair case). In 2011, Erlich took a close look at the blood of identical twins who shared a placenta during development; early on, these twins are also sharing blood – even as adults, each twin has blood cells with DNA from the other twin.

“Think about one twin being Coca-Cola, the other twin is Sprite,” Erlich said. Their blood will be a mix of Coke and Sprite. “It’s not 50-50,” he said, “but it could be 20-80.”

In other words, while the Eurofins method might not work as well with blood samples left at crime scenes. But when it comes to saliva, skin, or semen, it could mean that identical twins are about to lose their genetic get-out-of-jail-free card.

SOURCE: This article was first published by Wired on 4 December 2014 and written by Nadia Drake –

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.