Members of the Forensic Biology Laboratory are active in forensic casework, including human identifications, cases involving domestic animals and wildlife, and cases of wide current and historical interest. A few examples are shown below.
Crippen Case, England 1910
A recent historical investigation that has been revisited involves the conviction of Dr. Hawley Crippen for the murder of his wife, Cora. In early 1910, Cora Crippen went missing, and despite Dr. Crippen's statements that she had died while visiting friends in the United States, suspicions were aroused. Several months later, parts of a dismembered body were found on the bottom floor of Dr. Crippen's residence. A highly publicized trial followed, after which Dr. Crippen was sentenced to death and subsequently hanged. Since then, questions have been raised about the possibility of his innocence. In an effort to address these questions, preserved tissue samples from the dismembered body and buccal swabs of Cora Crippen's nearest relatives were analyzed using mitochondrial DNA sequencing. The tests confirmed that the samples did not match. Additionally, a novel sexing technique was developed and after numerous, confirming tests, indicated that the body was actually male, not female. Hence, the body found in Dr. Crippen's home could not have been Cora Crippen’s. This topic was the subject of the television series Secrets of the Dead on PBS and can be viewed here.
Improvised Explosive Devices
In collaboration with the Michigan State Police Bomb Squad and Forensic Science Division, research is being conducted to create efficient methods of extracting DNA from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) after they have been deflagrated. One of the most common forms of IEDs is the pipe bomb, on which the researched is based. An example of the research can be found in the January 2009 issue of the Journal of Forensic Sciences under the title: The Recover and Analysis of Mitochondrial DNA rom Exploded Pipe Bombs. Footage of some of the blasts can been seen here in a video on Discovery Channel's website entitled Discovery Tech: DNA Survives Bomb Blast.
Boston Strangler, 1960s
In the early 1960s, a serial rapist and murderer roaming Boston, MA killed thirteen women. The signature mark of the killer was rape and strangulation; thus, the media dubbed the killer as the Boston Strangler. Albert DeSalvo confessed to being the Boston Strangler, but was killed in prison before he could go on trial. The last victim, Mary Sullivan, was murdered in 1964 and subsequently became the subject of this study due to her family’s suspicions that her killer was not DeSalvo, and has not been brought to justice. Upon examination of Sullivan’s exhumed body, fluorescent areas in her underwear, head hair, and pubic hair were analyzed for the presence of DNA. DNA was recovered from her underwear and pubic hair. Human DNA was not recovered from her head hair. After analysis of the DNA, it was found that DeSalvo was not the source of DNA. More information can be found in a Medicine, Science and the Law article entitled In search of the Boston Strangler: genetic evidence from the exhumation of Mary Sullivan. Also, both the New York Times and Washington Post published stories on this evidence. Additionally, Sullivan’s fingernails were used to help develop a method of isolating foreign genetic material from fingernails. More information can be found in Cline et. al.’s Journal of Forensic Sciences article entitled The Fingernails of Mary Sullivan: developing reliable methods for selectively isolation endogenous and exogenous DNA from evidence.
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