Welcome 2016!

Jan 10th, 2016

Greetings to all

As the New Year dawns, we hope 2016 is filled with the promises of a brighter tomorrow =)

Happy New Year!

#OscarPistorius’ murder conviction means his DNA will be placed on NFDD

Dec 4th, 2015

With the recent Supreme Court of Appeal’s recent ruling pronouncing ‪Oscar Pistorius‬ guilty of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in 2013 and the overturning of his previous culpable homicide conviction, it is important to note that Oscar’s DNA will now have to be taken and his DNA profile placed onto our National Forensic DNA Database (NFDD) as a convicted offender where it will be retained indefinitely.

His DNA may well have already been taken as a result of his earlier culpable homicide conviction, as both are listed as a Schedule 8 offence under the new DNA Act, but this conviction was given before the Act was made fully operational on the 31st of January 2015.

4 Critical CSI Techniques Used in Terror Investigations

Nov 18th, 2015

The evening of November 13, 2015, may have begun as unremarkably as any other. By the early hours of the morning, however, a night of revelry had turned into an unconscionable tragedy — and the catastrophic loss of 129 lives.

Whilst a terrorist attack is designed to provoke panic through calculated chaos, the events that unfolded were unfortunately an echo of those that have occurred prior (and simultaneously) — by a common, real enemy.

These events engender a full-scale, comprehensive criminal investigation — especially in the event that there are suspects still at large, or insiders with prior knowledge.

Here, we recount the techniques — proven critical to gathering intelligence in the Paris attacks (November 2015) — that are used in the course of processing these scenes.

1. Severed fingers: DNA technology.

Rather remarkably, a severed finger recovered at the site of the Bataclan theatre — the seat of violence in this particular incident — led French authorities to identify the first of seven terrorists involved in the attacks.

So how does the process of identifying an attack from a mutilated body part work? Unlike a trace of bodily fluid recovered from a cleaner scene, a whole severed finger provides a copious amount of deoxyribonucleic acid, or the human body’s “blueprint” molecule. This is highly variable among a group of unrelated individuals.

The assigned technician would not, however, sequence the entirety of the genome isolated from the finger. This would be expensive, and an altogether wasteful endeavour.

DNA contains repeated sequences, with regions containing short, repeating units or STRs. For a variety of reasons — including lower mutation rates and their considerably smaller size — these shorter sequences are used to genetically differentiate people.

2. The smoking gun: ballistics testing.

The terrorists were armed with high-powered automatic weapons, thought to be Kalashnikov assault rifles. Military-class firearms, like these rifles, are prohibited across most of Europe — which raises the question: where did these individuals purchase these weapons?

The obvious answer is the black market (purchase from an illegal weapons broker) or smuggling the rifles in from abroad. Various countries in Europe have different customs regulations, which may have made it difficult to curtail the import of these weapons.

To determine precisely what firearm was fired that evening (assuming they are all the same type) — and perhaps trace the origin of this weapons to aid the investigation — ballistics analysts must examine everything from the bullet trajectory to shell casings.

Surprisingly, each type of military bullet also has a separate wound profile. By looking closely at the injuries sustained by the victims, examiners may be able to develop a more complete picture of what weapon was used.

3. Very loud noises: explosives.

The detonation of explosives outside the 80,000 capacity Stade de France was perhaps the first sign of impending danger. At this point we know that these attacks were well-coordinated: all of the suicide bombers wore nearly identical explosive devices.

The waistcoats and belts used an explosive called TATP, and contained identical batteries and push-button detonators. Triacetate tiperoxide can be produced cheaply, and using certain household ingredients.

Most likely, it took a highly-specialised and trained group of fire and explosive analysts to examine the chemical traces, or explosive residue, left behind in the debris. Samples from the surrounding areas would be tested using a variety of methods to determine precisely what compounds were utilised in the attacks.

4. Cell chatter: cybersecurity.

Digital forensics and cybersecurity — both to prevent attacks like these, and to ensure that digital infrastructure is protected — have come to the fore.

To start, an intelligence “tip-off” in this realm often begins with detection of higher “chatter” or the sheer volume of intercepted communications. However, there is evidence that the NSA has created a supercomputer (alongside its listening posts) that goes several steps farther: it looks for patterns and reveals codes in this chatter to make better sense of it.

In this case, officials in the US and Europe did pick up chatter in September about these attacks.

SOURCE: This article was first published by Forensic Outreach

DNA by the numbers

Nov 5th, 2015

Nowadays increasing numbers of evidentiary traces are collected at crime scenes and submitted for DNA analysis at the forensic laboratories. However, almost 50% of the analyzed DNA samples do not result in valuable DNA typing information (1) and a few studies show that the possibility to actually obtain usable DNA profiles can depend on the trace type (2,3). Evaluating the DNA results obtained for various sampled traces can provide us information on which traces are most promising to select for DNA analysis. Such information can guide crime scene investigators in decision-making.

The study

Six European forensic laboratories1 from the EUROFRGEN network, gathered DNA yields from over 24,466 crime-related samples that were categorized based on biological source or sampled item.  The category ‘sample type’ includes various biological sources such as bodily fluids and tissues and the category ‘sampled item’ includes several items sampled for either saliva or contact traces.

DNA yield was used to predict the DNA profiling result.  Four categories were chosen based on in-house experience: 1) full profile, 2) usable partial or full profile, 3) partial profile possibly useful, and 4) no informative profile. Details on this categorization can be found in Table 1. These four categories inform us which are the most promising samples to select for DNA analysis.

Observations and conclusions

A total of 44 categories were made for the overall categories ‘sample type’ and ‘sampled item’. The number of samples in each category varies from 18 to 7104 and the results represent trends. In Figure 1 for each sample category, the percentages of samples with an expected type of profile are shown: dark and middle green bars indicate full and usable profiles; a light bar represents possibly useful profiles and a brown bar marks the category no profile. Within the overall categories, the sample categories are ranked from lowest to highest percentage no profile expected.

When comparing sample types, we see for instance that for blood samples in 93% of the cases a full profile and in 4% no profiles may be obtained. For feaces samples, on the other hand, the percentage no profile is much higher namely 24%. This variation is also observed when comparing various sampled items likely to carry saliva or contact traces: the percentage in the ‘no profile’ category is 2% for balaclavas and 29% for bottle lids and 0% for coat collars and 44% for plastic bags.

The proximity, intensity and duration of contact seem to contribute to profiling success as saliva items balaclava, cigarette end, chewing gum and toothbrush and contact items such as collars and headwear give high percentages of full profiles.

When regarding all categories, the five most promising samples to select are muscles, blood, coat collars, cigarette ends and balaclavas. On the other end of the spectrum, the five least promising samples are hairs, plastic bags, bullets, touch traces various and grip traces various. Importantly, for all categories full and usable profiles are obtained. For the sampled item bag plastic for instance 44% of the samples categorize into ‘no  profile’ while 43% may result in a full profile.

The category ‘partial profile possibly useful’ presents uncertainty as at least a partial profile is expected but it is difficult to predict whether DNA results will be usable for comparison studies. Aspects such as the number of contributors to a profile and mixture ratios will have a role here. Notwithstanding, this collaborative study gives insight in the DNA results of the several traces and may assist crime scene investigators in their decision-making in which many other aspects such as the context of an item in to crime are relevant too.

… To continue reading the full article by Anna A. Mapes, please click here.

SOURCE: This article was first published by Forensic Magazine on 20 October 2015.

What is a human chimera?

Oct 28th, 2015

Human chimera: What the rare condition is, and why there might be many more people with it than we realised.

This article was first published online by The Independent (UK) on 27 October 2015.

Doctors are finding more and more instances of human chimeras — a condition that might affect far more people than we realise.

Human chimerism hit the headlines this week after it was revealed that a man had failed a paternity test because he had the condition — which meant that the genetic father of his child was his unborn twin.

The condition occurs when one unborn child absorbs the cells of another miscarried sibling in the womb, leading to the surviving person taking some of the genes of their “ghost” twin. That can lead to strange results in the DNA of people that have the condition — but it can often go completely unnoticed.

The condition is relatively common in some animals — but it may happen more often than we realise in humans, and go unnoticed. And it may become yet more common, as more people use fertility treatments to conceive their children.

In previous cases, people have been found to have two different blood types, or to develop different sexual organs from those that would be associated with the rest of their body.

Another example involved Karen Keegan, a woman from Boston in the US who had a different set of genes in her blood cells and her ovaries. Her children were not genetically hers — and the real genetic mother was a twin sister that was never born.

In the case of the Washington man reported this week, different genes were found in his cheek — where the saliva in the test was taken from — and his sperm. That meant that he was excluded from a paternity test, but a DNA-based ancestry check showed that he was the child’s uncle.

But many people who have the condition will never take a paternity test for their children, or find out through other means. That is likely to mean that many people could have the condition, and never know.

Studies have suggested that the condition might be present in 21 per cent of triplets, and eight per cent of twins. But many of those people would never know — because testing is likely to show up the result, unless it is being searched for.

Chimerism might already be far more common than we realise, but it could become even more prevalent, Barry Starr, a geneticist at Stanford. Fertility treatments are much more likely to lead to multiple births, and so are in turn far more likely to produce more people with chimerism.

A version of the condition called “artificial chimerism” can also occur through transfused blood stem cells — though that is less common because transfused blood now tends to be hit with radiation to help the host absorb it — or through bone marrow transplantation.

DNA Designed for Human Rights

Oct 20th, 2015

In May, human traffickers prevented thousands of Bangladeshi and ethnic Rohingya migrants from entering Thailand and Malaysia, despite extreme abuses aboard the ships including sexual assault of children and homicide. In April, thousands of northern Africans fled Libya to cross the Mediterranean, resulting in thousands ending up at the bottom of the sea. Last summer, extreme gang violence forced a surge of Central American children to migrate unaccompanied through Mexico and into the U.S. And in April 2014, the world was shocked by the brutal kidnapping of hundreds of young Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram.

Exploitation of vulnerable people around the world is a continuing reality, and unlikely to be resolved with any single effort. But measures can be taken to provide resources and assistance to address these human rights abuses. In the world of forensic sciences, this can include identification of displaced or deceased persons, and the reunification of children with their biological relatives.

Mass disasters and terrorist attacks in the last decade or so have helped to refine genetic technologies and tools necessary for kinship analysis, especially in challenged samples, advancing human rights efforts in post-mortem identification and verification of biological relationships. Improved technologies have enabled, for example, post-conflict identification efforts of victims in mass graves following several wars over the last 70 years.

However, we see few examples of our grand genomic technologies being applied to living vulnerable persons at-risk or suffering from human rights abuses, like orphans displaced by Argentina’s Dirty War, for example. The abuses we have witnessed in the past 18 months—and more are expected to come—deserve the attention and application of our refined sciences, and a cohesive response from the forensic community, armed with technology to apply the appropriate tools given the context of the crisis and the specific vulnerabilities of the population.

Valiant efforts have already been made to pilot DNA applications to high-risk populations and human trafficking cases. Five years ago, Forensic Magazine highlighted DNA-PROKIDS, a collaboration between the University of Granada and the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification (UNTCHI), which has provided resources, database technology and training to multiple nations in need of kinship analysis for child trafficking cases. UNTCHI also has partnered with Dallas law enforcement agencies to collect DNA of at-risk sex workers as a pre-emptive, post-mortem identification program.

Project KARE has operated a similar program in Edmonton, Alberta since 2003, collecting thousands of samples from sex workers.7 Forensic Magazine also covered the pilot efforts that have been made to explore the technical feasibility of using DNA in high-risk populations and for identification of missing persons, mass disasters and deceased migrants.

Stemming from these efforts and others, several human identification databases now exist or are under development to enable post-mortem identification in high-risk populations—some that parallel, compliment or are entirely independent of CODIS. Database-sharing tools and strategies that respect jurisdictional boundaries, minimize privacy intrusions and maximize identification results must be developed and shared with the forensic community. It is imperative that efforts of stakeholders at all levels work together to have the greatest efficiency and effect…

… To read the full article by Sara Katsanis, please click here.

SOURCE: This article was first published by Forensic Magazine on 25 September 2015.

2015 International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI)

Oct 12th, 2015

In its 26th year, ISHI is the largest conference on forensic DNA analysis in the world and will take place from October 12 – October 15, in Grapevine, Texas (US).

Following her presentation at last year’s ISHI, Vanessa was invited to return this year and will be presenting a talk (Wednesday, October 14) entitled “Investigation of a Ruthless Rapist” – which will focus on the identification and conviction of Albert Morake, a ruthless South African serial rapist who committed 30 rapes between 2007 until his capture in 2012.

This year’s keynote speaker is Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person to be exonerated from death row through post-conviction DNA testing, and will open the symposium by sharing his story. Bloodsworth spent nine years in prison and more than two years on death row before DNA evidence identified the true perpetrator of the 1984 rape and murder for which he was imprisioned. Today, Bloodsworth is an advocate for the wrongfully convicted and speaks publicly to highlight the risk of wrongful convictions and dangers of the death penalty.

ISHI 26 includes presentations from leading professionals in the fields of forensic DNA analysis, genomics, forensic anthropology, medical molecular diagnostics, law enforcement and more.

Filmmaker Alexa Barrett and Sara Huston Katsanis, a Science & Society Initiative Instructor at Duke University, will be presenting The Living Disappeared, an exploration of how DNA is being used to prevent child trafficking. Their presentation will include a brief preview of Barrett’s film by the same name.

Phenotyping, which utilizes DNA evidence to help predict what a suspect might look like, will be explored from multiple angles. Ellen Greytak, Director of Bioinformatics at Parabon NanoLabs, will present DNA Phenotyping: Predicting Ancestry and Physical Appearance from Forensic DNA, and David Ballard, a research associate in forensic genetics and senior scientist at King’s College London, will present DNA Phenotyping: What Can and Should We Predict?

Other presenters include: Marie Allen (Uppsala University, Sweden), Bruce Budowle (Institute of Applied Genetics), Thomas Callaghan (Federal Bureau of Investigation), Douglas Hares (Federal Bureau of Investigation), Rock Harmon (retired, Alameda County District Attorney’s Office), George Herrin (Georgia Bureau of Investigation), CeCe Moore (Institute for Genetic Genealogy), Fredy Peccerelli (Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala) and Jim Thomson (LGC).

This year’s event also includes more than 140 scientific posters including a submission by Colleen Fitzpatrick, a forensic genealogist, who will share her work exposing false Holocaust accounts. Fitzpatrick is also collaborating on the recently re-opened “Somerton Man” case, which involves the exhumation of a 45-year-old John Doe who died under mysterious circumstances and washed up on a beach fully clothed in Adelaide, Australia, in 1948.

In addition to the 3-day series of general session presentations, optional small group workshops are available, including:

  • Analyzing and Utilizing Data from Next-Generation Sequencers in the Forensic Genomics Era
  • Forensic Mixtures: Assessment, Analysis and Technology: Current Methods, New Approaches and Disruptive Technologies
  • Advanced Methods for DNA Based Identification of Skeletal Remains Countdown to 2017: Internal Validation of the New CODIS Loci
  • DNA Identification Strategies for Skeletal Remains and Other Challenging Samples

A complete list of workshops, speaker biographies, the ISHI blog and ongoing program updates are available at the symposium website: www.ishinews.com.

This symposium for forensic experts and suppliers is offered through Promega Corporation, a leader in providing innovative solutions and technical support to the life sciences industry. Founded in 1978, the company is headquartered in Madison, WI, USA, with branches in 16 countries and over 50 global distributors. For more information about Promega, visit www.promega.com.

Can you determine race from a fingerprint?

Sep 30th, 2015

For years, forensic scientists have studied differences between latent fingerprints and have used this information to identify unique patterns. Now, a new study takes a closer look at the minutiae of fingerprints and has come to an astounding conclusion: latent prints can provide clues to a person’s race.

The study in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology takes a new anthropological angle on a key identification method which may hold promise for law enforcement – and which has already attracted attention from several agencies, according to the researchers from North Carolina State University.

“By studying variation between groups, such as sexes and ancestry groups, on the basis of minutiae, this study provides information that is useful to latent fingerprint examiners,” said Nichole Fournier, lead author of the study, in an email to Forensic Magazine. “The results show that minutiae can tell us the probable ancestry of a person who leaves behind a latent fingerprint.”

The right index fingers of 243 individuals – split equally by gender, and between African-American and European-American backgrounds – were analyzed in the study. Level 1 details are pattern types and ridge counts.

But researchers focused on the Level 2 differences, which include bifurcations, where the ridge splits. These more-detailed factors were cross-referenced against the group’s identities. Gender did not result in significant differences in the prints – but race did, the scientists found.

“This is the first study to look at this issue at this level of detail, and the findings are extremely promising,” said Ann Ross, a North Carolina State professor of anthropology and the senior author of the study.

“But more work needs to be done,” Ross added. “We need to look at a much-larger sample size and evaluate individuals from more diverse ancestral backgrounds.”

The work, in part, answers the call of a scathing 2009 National Academy of Sciences report which called for further scientific research into forensic evidence collection and analysis, Fournier said. Fingerprints were one of the disciplines which were singled out in that report.

“Our study was in response to that call to action,” said Fournier.

Previous work by anthropologists had not been relevant to forensics because pattern type is not a trait used in fingerprint comparisons to identify latent prints at crime scenes, she added.

But now a more-complete picture of fingerprints could be coming into focus, Fournier said.

“This information is valuable evidence to corroborate the conclusion of a match based on a point-by-point comparison by a latent fingerprint examiner,” she said.

Other recent fingerprint advances have used mass spectrometry to hone in on trace amounts of material on the fingerprint, including narcotics, or hormones which could indicate gender. But they have not focused on the print pattern itself.

SOURCE: This article was first published by Forensic Magazine on 29 September 2015

DNA Detective Prof Valerie Corfield explaining DNA technology

Sep 16th, 2015

Our very own and the original ‘DNA Detective’ Prof Valerie Corfield explains how applications of DNA technology are used to solve crimes in the following video created by the Public Understanding of Biotechnology (PUB) as part of a series on basic biotechnology.

South Africa’s first Women in Law and Leadership Summit

Aug 31st, 2015

UPDATED: Please note that the 2-day event has been finalised and changed to a 1-day programme and will now take place on Sept 18 only.

UCTLaw@Work in partnership with the Centre for Integrative Law will be presenting South Africa’s first Women in Law & Leadership Summit: Finding New Ways for Women to Lead in Law this September (18th).

Vanessa has been invited to speak at the event and will be joining fellow panelists Sally Hutton and Janet Taylor-Hall for ‘Barrier Breakers: Inspirational Stories of Women Who Broke New Ground‘.

The summit has been structured as a much needed space in which women lawyers can be inspired, uplifted, supported and challenged.  It convenes preeminent women in law including law firm partners and associates, in-house counsel, advocates, NPO lawyers and academics open to sharing their stories. It is not a series of talks on “how I made partner.” Instead, we’ll be asking speakers to go a little deeper. This 1 day event is structured into panels and facilitated group discussions which include sessions on:

  • Do women lead differently from men? If so, how does this play out in the legal profession?
  • To close the pay gap you need to know your worth
  • Women who have broken new ground
  • Do we overvalue competence and undervalue confidence?
  • Managing career transitions in law
  • Developing your skills as a rainmaker

Panellists include:

  • Vanessa Lynch, Director of the DNA Project
  • Sally Hutton, Managing Partner, Webber Wentzel
  • Vivienne Lawack, Dep Vice Chancellor, UWC
  • Terry Winstanley, Director, DLACDH
  • Beverley Clark, Director, Clark Attorneys
  • Shelley Mackay-Davidson, Partner at The Bannister Group
  • Melanie Holderness, Advocate at the Cape Bar
  • Lerato Molefe, Attorney & Director of Naaya Consulting
  • Janet Taylor-Hall, owner of Cognia Law
  • Angela Simpson, Partner, Head of Talent Management, Webber Wentzel
  • Wendy Applebaum, Philanthropist and businesswoman
  • Robyn Hey, Director, HWD Attorneys
  • Candice Pillay, Director, Hogan Lovells

Date: Friday 18 September 2015

Venue: the River Club, Observatory


Lawyers in private practice & In House Counsel: R1995

Public Service & NPO lawyers: R1595

Full Time Law Students: R500

Please enquire about group discounts

Email Enquiries: andrea.blaauw@uct.ac.za

To register through UCT’s Law@work Division: please click HERE


Email queries: andrea.blaauw@uct.ac.za

Website: www.integrativelaw.co.za