Showing posts with label DNA. Show all posts
Showing posts with label DNA. Show all posts

22 April 2019

DNA Testing for Crimes by Twins


by Mary Fernando

Science is on the verge of distinguishing between identical twins. Consider cases of crimes where DNA material leads not to one person, but two: identical twins. Until now, no one could say with certainty which twin might be guilty. Here's why.

Each twin comes from the same egg, split into two, creating two eggs with identical DNA. Old DNA testing was unable to distinguish between identical twins, but there are two fascinating options on the horizon that might just help.

The first difference between identical twins begins immediately. Although each is endowed with the same DNA - “When a fertilized egg starts dividing, there’s a small chance each new cell will gain a new mutation. When the cells separate into twin embryos, one gets some of the mutant cells and the other gets the rest. Unique mutations will end up in cells throughout each twin’s body.”

“Such a test would be difficult, then — but it would also be definitive. Just a single mutation, confirmed by multiple analyses, would be enough to implicate one twin and exonerate the other.”

“It’s not something that’s going to happen every day in every laboratory,” said Dr. Krawczak (a geneticist who now teaches at Kiel University in Germany). “But once people become aware of this, there may be a lot of cold cases that come back to life.”

However, this testing is in its infancy and is both expensive and time consuming.

The next set of DNA changes are called epigenetic changes and happen during embryonic development and continues for the rest of our lives.

Dia Rahman, a PhD student in Public Health at University of Waterloo has a special interest in social impacts on health and, therefore, is fascinated with epigenetics. “We are born with our DNA but what is impacted by the environment is the dance between active and inactive genes,” Dia says. “That is what is impacted by our upbringing and experiences. That is epigenetics.”

“A common analogy used to describe the epigenome is to consider genes as instruments in the “symphony” of life. But they don’t play themselves. They need musicians. Epigenetics would be the musicians that help express (or silence) the performance of our genes. Exercise, sleep, trauma, aging, stress, disease, and diet have all shown significant effects on the epigenome.”

Detecting epigenetic changes is faster and cheaper than looking for mutations. Graham Williams at the University of Huddersfield, UK, has found that epigenetic changes alter the melting point of DNA. “When the team heated up the twins’ DNA samples, they found the melting points were different – allowing them to tell the twins apart genetically. The test was also much quicker than whole genome sequencing, says Williams. “It can be done in just a few hours.”

So, essentially, we are born with our DNA - an entwined gift from our mother and father. This is not immutable. Some of our DNA can be altered by mutations. Parts of our DNA is also turned off and on by how our life impacts us. As our DNA testing improves, we can distinguish between identical twins.

Perhaps the most important part of all this has nothing to do with crime. It show that our DNA we once thought never changed is actually impacted by the life we live. And that is fascinating.

20 July 2014

Impossible Things Before Breakfast, 3


by Leigh Lundin

Okay, you get drunk. It happens. So drunk, you pass out. That can happen, too. When you wake up, you have no memory of the previous night, not even of a rough crowd and prostitutes… That might happen too. And you’re charged with homicide.

Wh-h-at?

Yup, murder of a wealthy and important man, killed during a home invasion and robbery. It can happen, especially in 1930s and 40s detective noir novels, but not so much these days, right?

Recap

In our first installment, the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass claims, “Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” We described a seemingly impossible case where a supposed murderess was killed weeks before she was believed to have killed another woman.

In our second article, we visited the case of a female serial killer who appeared to outwit police. She wasn’t what she seemed.

Today, again thanks to a reader, we look at a current case, that of a drunk who passed out only to awake to accusations he’d murdered a man.

The Scene

15km south of San Jose in the heart of Silicon Valley and adjacent to Los Gatos, California, lies the wealthy bedroom community of Monte Sereno. There Raveesh ‘Ravi’ Kumra, entrepreneur and one-time-winery owner lived and died.

Police arrested a number of suspects including a couple of prostitutes and a businessman named Lukis Anderson. Mr. Anderson had no memory of murdering anyone, let alone a man he didn’t know in Monte Sereno. That was unsurprising: Anderson’s blood alcohol exceeded five times the legal limit. But he had a good alibi: At the estimated time of the murder, Anderson was comatose, insensibly blacked out in a hospital.

DNA
State of the State

But criminalist Tahnee Mehmet Nelson felt certain Anderson had committed the murder and she found DNA on the victim's body to prove it. And prosecutor Kevin Smith believed her.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Nelson has baggage of her own– she’d been at the center of bungled DNA testing and a subsequent cover-up. And Santa Clara County also bears a tarnished reputation that resulted in an earlier wrongful prosecution. Far from being an independent department, the crime lab is run by and beholden to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office.

The Unsinkable Molly O'Neal


But Public Defender Molly O'Neal dug into the case and proved to her own satisfaction that Anderson couldn’t have been in two places at once– unconscious in a hospital and miles away elsewhere murdering a man he’d never met.

Prosecutors don’t like to give up. District Attorney Kevin Smith kept Anderson in jail four months, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Finally, he and ADA Scott Tsui dropped charges against Anderson, although their office continues investigating.

So what happened? Molly O'Neal believes the fault might not lie with the lab, despite their recalcitrance, but with the paramedics. She suggests the same paramedics who brought in Lukis Anderson might also have handled the murder victim after failing to properly clean up, thereby contaminating the crime scene.

So…

If only DNA evidence was considered, it would have convincingly put Mr. Anderson in the dock and likely in prison. But thanks to a dedicated public defender,  Molly O'Neal brought justice to the court system, proving her client innocent.

13 July 2014

Impossible Things Before Breakfast, 2


by Leigh Lundin

Last week, I wrote about a 1997 case of where a victim appeared to have committed a murder after she was killed. Impossible, it seemed, and so it was.

This week, we move to a crime wave that plagued parts of western Europe for a decade and a half. In 2009, authorities offered an reward of €300 000 ($415 000) to bring the perpetrator– a woman– to justice.

German police, and later French and Austrian investigators, captured the DNA of a woman with few clues to her identity other than she came from a Slavic bloodline. Female serial killers are not yet as common as male killers, but this one was criminally prolific, engaging in burglary, robbery, car theft, home invasion, drug dealing, and murder– including the slaying of a police woman, which ramped up the manhunt, or woman-hunt, if you will. European news media began to call her the Heilbronner Phantom– the Woman Without a Face.

Silver Blaze

Profilers from across Europe were asked to imagine the suspect. Heilbronn police estimate 16 000 hours of overtime went into tracking the elusive woman. Concern heightened again when German investigators found the same DNA in a car used to transport three corpses, followed by the execution of a policewoman, Michèle Kiesewetter, and the nearly fatal attack upon her partner.

One clue was like the Sherlock Holmes’ dog in the night-time: Although DNA cropped up in crime scenes surrounding the German state of Bavaria, none was discovered in Bavaria itself, a sign of omission. Whether that raised eyebrows of detectives isn’t known, but two subsequent crimes cast doubt on the Phantom’s identity.

The first flag came from a fire when officers sampled a male corpse… and turned up female DNA, that of their long-running suspect. Eye-witnesses had occasionally reported seeing a man at crime scenes– not a woman– but eye-witnesses are notoriously prone to errors of identification. Investigators resampled the deceased using different cotton swabs and came up with a different result– no female DNA.

The final nail in the theory followed a shootout with a neo-Nazi terror cadre that killed two men. At the death scene, detectives found police handcuffs belonging to Michèle Kiesewetter. The Phantom DNA did not match the only woman in the terrorist cell, Beate Zschäpe, which raised doubts that the attack on police woman and her partner was committed by the Phantom of Heilbronn.

DNA
System Reset

While German tabloids like Bild ridiculed police by asking if their heads were stuffed with cotton wool, investigators quietly reexamined their methodology and the source of their instruments and test materials. They identified the real culprit– the departments’ miserly buyer of cotton swabs.

As Dr Mike Silverman discovered in last week's article, sterile doesn’t mean DNA-free. Sterilization might kill viruses and bacteria, but it doesn’t necessarily eradicate DNA strands. Police departments throughout Germany– except Bavaria– were buying inexpensive cotton buds from an Austrian company, Greiner. The company certified their Bio-One swabs sterile but not suitable for human DNA collection.

The mysterious ‘Phantom’ was none other than one of Greiner's assembly line employees. She'd accidentally contaminated countless cotton buds with her own DNA.

Credit Due

Several readers and SleuthSayers suggested further reading. Thanks to C.J. Dowse, Peter DiChellis, Fran, Eve, and Dixon.

Further reading:

06 July 2014

Impossible Things Before Breakfast, 1


by Leigh Lundin

Before writing mysteries, I paid no attention to true crime. I thought it tabloid-lurid, the stuff of National Enquirer and its sisters. The only killer I could name was Richard Speck whose name figured prominently in Simon & Garfunkel’s chilling 7 O'Clock News / Silent Night.

Verisimilitude… When writing mysteries, I feel a responsibility to get details right– biology, criminology, psychology, and technology. Don’t believe this is as onerous as it sounds– I enjoy research and my peripatetic wanderings take many detours.

Go Ask Alice

“Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” said the White Queen.

I’ll ask you to believe only one today, maybe another next week and perhaps another later. First, try to imagine the curve of technology in the thousands of years of human history. My grandmothers and perhaps yours went from driving a horse and buggy to seeing spaceships land on the moon. I feel awed by the jaw-dropping upward progression of technical development that bridges these events.

DNA
In the world of crime, technology continues apace. Bad guys figure out ingenious ways of committing crimes and the good guys figure out new ways of solving them. It’s become part of our news and now part of our entertainment. People have come to except high-tech solutions. Not long ago, a lawyer told me that jurors are now conditioned to expect DNA and advanced technologies in the simplest of court cases.

Now that the human genome has been decoded, research presses forward unlocking the chromosomal language that create individual characteristics. We don’t yet know how genes do this, but we’ve come to know what they are. In the world of crime, that means a lot.

Criminalists once needed relatively sizable amounts of source material and once it was used up, that was it. Now microscopic specks can be replicated, 'photocopied' if you will, and tested to a far greater degree of accuracy. Some dream– or justifiably fear– testing for criminal chromosomes might become a dystopian reality. Indeed, states are moving forward in attempts to collect DNA from anyone who crosses paths with the law.

The Impossibility

Now for believing one impossible thing. Wrap your mind around this:
  • Victim A is violently killed.
  • Victim J is killed 3 weeks later.
  • DNA evidence suggests A killed J.
Wh-h-at?

This was the conundrum that confronted British forensic scientist Dr Mike Silverman in a 1997 case: Imagine a woman found murdered; let’s call her June. The lab found DNA under her fingernails, a nearly certain sign she scratched her killer. In fact, authorities identified the murderer as ‘April’ and they had her in custody…

On ice, in the morgue.

April, the believed killer, had been murdered a few weeks before June, her supposed victim.

Excitement at identifying the DNA became consternation. How was it possible June had fresh DNA under her nails from a woman who died nearly a month earlier?

After investigations by separate investigators, police came to believe the two women not only had never met, they had nothing in common except for the London forensic laboratory and the mortuary.

Written in Blood
System Reset

Those with training in the sciences can experience a special kind of disbelief, a crashing back to earth and sensing one’s own fallibility. A rule in science and engineering says when something goes wrong, look first to human error. Thus Dr Mike Silverman turned detective.

Could the nail samples have been mislabeled or mixed up in the lab? Dr Silverman examined the clippings with their distinctive nail varnish. They matched June’s fingernails exactly. Records showed the samples had never been checked out at the same times or by the same people. No mix up. Dr Silverman also ruled out contamination by autopsy instruments.

But wait. What about the morgue?

It turned out April’s body had been kept in the freezer during the investigation. A pathologist had taken samples of April’s nails the day before June arrived. The scissors were then routinely cleaned.

But Dr Silverman discovered the same scissors had been used to clip June’s nails. Intrigued, he wondered if cells from April had survived the cleaning and contaminated June’s samples. He tested the scissors and found DNA from three separate sources– material from three different people on supposedly clean scissors.

For the first time, researchers began to understand how powerful and sensitive DNA analysis could be. Refined DNA techniques could potentially detect the faintest touch that might leave body oils or skin cells. Criminalistics would never again be the same.

DNA

19 January 2014

Fertility Fraud


by Leigh Lundin

The Switch, Part I

Manser+Sehr
Bill Manser and Elizabeth Sehr © MGM

Today’s article was suggested by a friend and neighbor. (Thanks, B!) The story involves Florida (where else!), DNA, and a man who spent half a decade in prison. And it’s about hubris.

In 1995, DNA lab worker Elizabeth Sehr submitted evidence for a paternity test involving William Manser. According to The Libertarian Republic and The Orlando Sentinel, Manser missed a court date and, when he failed to pay court-ordered child support for young Dylan Sehr, was sentenced to prison and served five years.

Bill Manser did not recall taking a DNA test and he expressed doubt the child was his. After prison, he built a relationship with Dylan and had at least one son with someone else. Then, two decades after Dylan’s birth, along comes a television program that combines those two favorites of daytime television, courtroom drama and paternity testing. (And people wonder why I don’t own a television.)

The program is called Paternity Court. It’s presided over by entertainer, lawyer, and dazzling drama queen Lauren Lake. I’ll be the first to admit it feels tawdry, even unseemly, but the show solved a riddle no one else seemed interested in resolving.
  • The result was that Bill Manser was sent to prison on a lie. He was not the father.
  • The broader implication is that lab technician Elizabeth Sehr either substituted the real father’s DNA or faked the test paperwork.
Less than a minute after the revelation, Lake asked Elizabeth if she knew who the real father was and Sehr readily admitted she remains in touch with him– then twenty seconds later complained Manser had called her a liar. In the build-up, the viewer experienced a sound dose of Sehr stridently insisting Manser’s the liar, that he’s a father avoiding responsibility. And we can’t forget she complained he wasn’t there for her son in his young years… completely overlooking she’d sent him to prison.

The mother blames LabCorp for ‘a mix-up’ and her son has said LabCorp should be held responsible. You don’t need a background in science to see what’s wrong with this rationale. If a lab failed to match, that might (or not) be considered a mix-up. But since the lab was able to identify the father’s DNA (if not his actual name), we know the real father’s DNA was in that lab, and there’s only one way it could have been placed there. Either that, or she faked the entire test.

What a plot for a murder mystery. But in case you think DNA might hold no more surprise, read on.

The Switch, Part II

Tom Lippert
Tom Lippert © KUTV 2014

Following a DNA test, the Branum family was surprised to learn Mr. Branum was not the father of daughter Annie. Before jumping to conclusions about Mrs. Branum, know that Annie was conceived in a fertility clinic. She was an in vitro test tube baby where a clinic affiliated with the University of Utah collected spermatozoa and eggs from Mr. and Mrs. Branum.

So the mother, Pam Branum, started detective work with the help of genetic genealogist, CeCe Moore, who tells the tale in her blog (with altered names). The story centers around Tom Lippert, a brilliant but troubled student who decades earlier had kidnapped and electroshocked a girl in the hope she might fall in love with him. After a term in prison, he returned to school and worked for nine years at the lab associated with the University of Utah.
  • UU has proved less than cooperative, but it appears Lippert substituted his semen sample for that belonging to Mr. John Branum. 
  • It’s suspected Lippert may have supplanted dozens or even hundreds of semen collections over the years at the university clinic.
Lippert is long dead, but his legacy lives on.

DNA can resolve many mysteries, but it’s also possible for DNA tests to uncover entirely new puzzles.

04 December 2013

Loose Genes


by Robert Lopresti

This is not going to be as cohesive as (I hope) most of my pieces here are, because I have three vaguely related things I want to talk about.  And they have only a slight connection to crime or mystery.  The fact that I'm fighting a cold doesn't help.

So if you prefer to skip this and go check your email you won't hurt my feelings. If you're still with me, here goes.

A relative recently told us she had her genome tested and invited us to do the same.  This feat, which would have been the wildest science fiction a few decades ago, now costs about a hundred bucks and takes a couple of weeks.  You spit in a test tube, and wait to get an email.  Not exactly Doctor Who, is it?

And the results, I have to say, are pretty cool.  My background, as far as I know, is one-half Italian, three-eighth English, and one-eighth Irish.  The computers spotted 10% Italian, 3% British/Irish, 2% French/German, and the rest is mostly vaguely European.  There is a tantalizing 0.2% Sub-Saharan African, which I assume comes from my Italian ancestors.  (To paraphrase Pete Seeger, where do you think those Roman emperors got their curly hair?)  Oh, and I am 2.8% Neanderthal.

But more interesting, the same service tells you if you have inherited health risks that are greater or lower than average.  And that is why the Food and Drug Administration just sent them an order to cease their business.  Because, says the FDA, they were giving out medical advice, which is illegal.  I look forward to seeing how it turns out in court, but I will say this: I have a higher-than-average level of one chemical and my doctor has been trying for years to figure out why.  The computer gurus (knowing nothing about my medical test results) were able to tell me that that higher level runs in my genome.

If you want to know more about the controversy, read this and this.

Now, on to the second topic.  I am reading a fascinating and infuriating non-fiction book by Rebecca Skloot entitled THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS.     Ms.  Lacks suffered from bad luck nine ways from Sunday.  She was an African-American woman born in poverty in the rural south in the early-twentieth century.  (I am not saying it is bad luck to be born African-American.  But there have been better times and places for it.)  She died of cervical cancer in 1951 at age 31.

But before she died scientists took samples of her tumor, possibly with her permission (the phrase "informed consent" hadn't even entered the medical vocabulary by that point).  Scientists had been trying for years to grow cells in test tubes, but the cells always died after a few generations.  Not so the HeLa cells (named for their original source).  They were "immortal," and could be cultured, multiplied, sent through the mail, experimented on, etc.

And so cells that began in this poor, hard-luck woman, were used to develop polio vaccines, were sent into space, and became essential parts of thousands of other studies.  (The name of that genome company I was talking about is 23andme, which refers to the 23 chromosomes in the human genome. Guess whose cells were used in figuring out that number?)  Ms. Lacks' cells were so potent that years later many other colonies of cells that were growing around the world were discovered to be contaminated with HeLa cells - even though none had been used in that laboratory. They could sneak in on a dirty test tube, or a scientist's coat.

The book, which I highly recommend, also discusses the baffled horror of Ms. Lacks' family as they discovered, decades after the fact, what had been done to parts of her body without their knowledge or permission. The conflict between the scientists and the family takes on the inevitability of Greek tragedy: there was simply no common ground for communication.  You find yourself expecting the next unintentional outrage.  When it becomes necessary to explain the concept of "genetic markers" to Ms. Lacks's widower, a man with four years of schooling, of course the scientists had it done over the phone by a researcher with a thick Chinese accent and imperfect English.  How could it have been otherwise?

Reasonable people can disagree about whether persons whose cells are used in research deserve any control or compensation. (There are more than 17,000 patents based on HeLa cells.)  But it boggles the mind that  some scientists in the early fifties thought it acceptable to secretly inject HeLa cells (highly  active cancer cells, remember) into surgery patients just to see what would happen. This went on until some physicians refused to participate, pointing out that eight doctors were hanged at Nuremberg for that sort of research.

And on that cheerful note, let's move on to my third topic.  I just finished reading NECESSARY
LIES, the most recent novel by my sister, Diane Chamberlain.  You can certainly accuse me of nepotism for bringing it up here, but I think you will see the connection.  Diane's excellent book is fiction, of course, but it is firmly rooted in the Eugenics Sterilization Program, under which North Carolina sterilized 7,000 people between 1929 and 1975.  They focused on "mentally defective" epilectics, and people on welfare.  Most states with such programs gave them up after World War II (the shadow of Nuremberg, again), but the Tarheel State actually boosted theirs.

Diane's novel is set in 1960 when a brand-new social worker (after three whole days of training!) is given the job of preparing the sterilization request for a pregnant fifteen-year-old.  The idea is that the girl will wake up after giving birth with an "appendectomy scar" and never be told  she has been sterilized.

The book is not a mystery.  It is not a melodrama either: there are no cackling villains.  Everyone thinks they are doing the right thing (just like the scientists who used the HeLa cells).  And Diane is careful to include one woman who is thrilled to get the operation, since birth control was not easily available.

There are crimes and punishments in the book, but whether the crimes are what gets punished is open to interpretation.

Well, I'm going back to my sickbed.  I hope I gave you a few things to think about, anyway.

24 July 2012

Forty Whacks


by David Dean

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Just about everyone is familiar with that iconic verse, even if they are not familiar with the infamous case from which it springs.  The average person is usually surprised to learn that the axe-wielding Lizzie was found not guilty of the murders of her father and step-mother.  Why then, those same people might ask, does that danged poem hang on so?  Good question, which unlike the case itself, has a fairly easy and clear answer--everybody thought she was guilty.  Well, maybe not everybody, but just about.  She did have her defenders during her trial, and she has a vast horde of them today.  There are many websites and books dedicated to clearing her name, just as the jury cleared her of any wrong-doing.

There are parallel cases even today: The O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony murder cases spring to mind.  Not guilty?  Most folks don't think so and never will.  People in Lizzie's time felt the same about her.  When you know the facts of her case it is difficult to rule her out...but not impossible, hence the verdict.  Here are the facts in brief: On August 4, 1892, Andrew Borden of Fall River, Massachusetts, father of Lizzie, 32, and Emma, 41, (spinsters according to the times) arrived home from his business rounds sometime close to 10:45am to take a rest.  The weather was brutally hot and it would appear that he lay down on a settee in the living room to nap.  He would not be getting up.  The maid (Irish, of course), Bridget Sullivan, was also lying down in her room upstairs when she heard Lizzie calling her to say that her father had been killed.  She stated that this was around 11:00am. 

Andrew Borden's Death Scene
 It is worth noting, that the entire household had been down with food poisoning the previous day, which may explain the need for rest in the Borden home.  Strangely, the fear of being poisoned had arisen in the days before the murders and created such paranoia that the Bordens had had some of their food tested.  The results were negative.  Other than the fact that Andrew was not the most popular figure in town, it is not clear why or how the Borden clan arrived at their suspicions.

In any event, Andrew was indeed murdered.  The number of whacks he had received fell well short of the infamous forty-one, but were more than sufficient at ten, or eleven, having been applied to the head.  The wounds appeared to have been made with an axe.  The police were summoned.  After their arrival, darlin' Bridget went in search of her mistress, Abby Borden, whom no one else seems to have missed up to this point...and found her in the upstairs guest room.  She was in a kneeling position between the bed and the wall, her face to the floor, her skull caved in.  It was estimated that she had received nineteen blows to the back of her head by an instrument similar to, or identical with, the one used on her husband.  A search ensued for evidence.

Abby Borden's Death Scene

All that was found of consequence was a hatchet with a broken handle.  This was in the basement.  There would later be conflicting testimony on whether the remainder of the handle was, or was not, discovered.  There were no blood stains evident on it.  Strangely, the police made a conscious decision not to dust the hatchet for fingerprints.  Forensics were just beginning to be used by police in the 1890's and trust in these new methods was not necessarily widespread.  Unfortunately in this case, this potentially valuable piece of evidence was left unprocessed.

On the day of the double murders, the only persons at home in the Borden household were the victims, Lizzie, and Bridget.  Emma was off visiting some friends in the country.  Lizzie would later testify that she had been out in the barn just prior to coming in and discovering her father's much-abused corpse.  According to her, there were some lead fishing sinkers stored in the loft that she wished to locate--this is Lizzie's testimony.  Bridget was supposed to be cleaning windows on that hot day, but had lain down to rest as previously mentioned.  There were no blood stains on the clothing of either woman.  Coincidentally, a few days later, Lizzie would be seen burning a relatively new blue dress in the kitchen stove.  She testified that the dress had got paint on it from some newly-painted baseboards and was ruined.  This was not the dress she had been wearing upon the arrival of the police.

That is the bare-bones of the crime scene. I'm not going to dwell on all the potentially relevant details as most are a matter of interpretation and debate, and there are a number of well-researched books on the subject available.  Instead, I will turn to a brief description of the dynamics underpinning the Borden household in the days prior to the murders: In a nutshell, no one was happy.  Abby, who was Lizzie and Emma's stepmother, was not popular with the girls, especially Lizzie.  In fact, about six years prior to the fateful day, Lizzie had quit calling her mother (she had been the mother figure in her life since the age of three) and began to refer to her as Mrs. Borden.  It is not recorded why.  Their father, Andrew, was a notorious skinflint who spent as little as possible on the home they all lived in.  In spite of the fact that they were quite well off, they had no electricity or indoor plumbing, having to dump their 'night soil' in the back yard each day.  A running dispute had arisen in recent times over the distribution of property and monies, both sisters demanding what they felt was their due.  Also, an illegitimate son of Andrew's had attempted a shake-down of the old man just days out from the tragedy.  He was not successful.  Did I mention that no one was happy?  On top of all this was the family's shared concern over poisoning.  Could it get any worse?  Yes.  According to Liz, her father beheaded all her pet pigeons that she kept in the barn.  He was concerned, it seems, that they were attracting curious neighborhood children who might cause damage or be hurt in the disused building.  Right...Murder, anyone?

So what's the upshot of all this?  Not guilty.  Lizzie was acquitted less than a year later, June 20, 1893 to be exact, after only one and half hours of deliberation.  In modern terms it's not too hard to understand why--there was virtually no physical evidence.  Circumstantial evidence is another thing altogether.  There was some of that, but the jury chose to give it scant weight.  I think she would have been given the same result if it were tried today.  Recent verdicts would seem to indicate that juries don't want the moral burden inherent in circumstantial cases.  It was also difficult for the all-male jurors of the Victorian era to envision young ladies of the proper class committing heinous crimes.  It just wasn't done.  Unthinkable.

I'm thinking it's thinkable.  How about you?  With a verdict of not guilty, the slayings remain officially unsolved, as are the Simpson and Casey murders.  That does not mean that we don't form our own opinions, whether rightly or wrongly we may never know.  It's an interesting, if ultimately futile, exercise to think of what modern investigative techniques might have been able to do with the Borden crime scene.  There has been much speculation over the years as to what really did happen August 4th, 1892, including the tantalizing theory that Lizzie committed the murders in the buff.  The picture my mind conjures of the rather formidable Lizzie (see photo) creepy-crawling through that dark, narrow-roomed, stuffy Victorian home in her birthday suit is mind-jarringly terrifying.  Can you imagine the horror of the last thing you see in this world being your naked, adult child swinging a hatchet down onto your head?

The debate over the Borden case goes on, and probably will for some time to come.  It is possible that it may yet be solved.  Patricia Cornwell, famous writer of mystery novels, as well as a forensic pathologist, claims to have solved the Ripper murders of London.  She makes this claim in her book, "Portrait Of A Killer--Jack The Ripper Case Closed," setting forth a very intelligent investigation into the available evidence and arriving at a very convincing conclusion with the use of DNA.  Certainly a surprising one for me.  Though the case she puts forth can only be tested so far, it is the most compelling one I've read.  It's well worth a look if you're interested.  Perhaps she'll move on to the Borden case.  Maybe Lizzie really is innocent, or at least, not guilty.  Who knows?  Stranger things have happened--the actress, Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched), who played Lizzie in a made-for-TV-film, turned out to be actually related to her.  She did not know this at the time of the filming, and it was only discovered after her death by someone doing genetic research on Lizzie.  The doctor who did the autopsies on Andrew and Abby had to be sued to return their heads.  This was only accomplished after their funerals; the heads being buried atop the caskets in separate boxes later.  I did say stranger, didn't I?

Well, what say you?  Lizzie, or nay?  It could have been the illegitimate son, though he was never considered a serious suspect at the time.  He certainly had both a beef (his unacknowledged status) and a motive (money). What about dear Bridget?  She was supposed to be washing windows, not laying about in her room.  She wasn't too happy about that assignment.  Maybe she was very unhappy about it.  The Bordens couldn't have been easy to work for, I'm thinking.  Who's to say Emma couldn't have ridden in from her friend's home and committed the murders and returned the way she came.  Especially if she was in cahoots with Lizzie, the look-out, in the barn. Was the only thing that saved Bridget the fact that she didn't rise to investigate any strange sounds in the house?  Was she asleep?  She doesn't say so.  Was she an accomplice?  It would have been instructive, perhaps, for someone to have looked into her finances after the murders.

It was a long time ago...but it could have been yesterday--we see similar crimes far too often.  What do you think?  Did Lizzie give those infamous whacks?

06 March 2012

Family Plot


By David Dean

THE PATH PAVED WITH...

Perhaps as a result of the aging process, or as a vain attempt at better understanding myself and my family, I began to do an ancestry search some years ago.  It progressed slowly as we were a humble family seldom noted in history.  Additionally, we were poor, and until my own generation (myself excluded) not generally educated beyond high school...if that.  In other words, we didn't write down much stuff other than grocery lists.  That's not to say we couldn't be interesting, as in the case of Jimmy Don of whom I wrote of a short while ago, but by and large we were not a well documented tribe.  I set out to change this, and therein lies the tale--a tale of stunning twists and turns and crackerjack sleuthing by yours truly.  No crime was committed in the writing of this blog, but you may find it instructive if you ever want to tackle the writing of a mystery tale that hinges on DNA and family history.

Enlisting the aid of my favorite cousin who represented the 'Bama branch of the family, we began to hunt down what clues and tidbits that we could.  Fortuitously, she also discovered a great aunt who had kept a fairly detailed family history since she was young and this turned out to be quite a treasure trove of information; much of which could be borne out through various county records.  Voila!  Just like that, we had ourselves some good ol' family history going back to 'round 1780!  Booyah!  Naturally, having had a little bite of the forbidden apple, I decided I'd take another nibble or two.  And since we couldn't seem to get any further back I hit upon another avenue of exploration---DNA! 

We had already started to use DNA technology within my police department at that point, so it just made sense to me to examine its other uses.  So, through the wonders of the Internet (copyright Al Gore) I made contact with a reputable firm in Texas who specialized in this sort of thing; paid my money; provided saliva samples, and sat down to wait.  It didn't take long.

PUZZLING RESULTS

The results showed that my DNA didn't match any other person by the name of Dean who had submitted their own DNA results.  There were a lot of Deans scattered across a lot of places; many of whom discovered connections to one another through common, and sometime distant-in-time ancestors...but, not me...not even close.  Additionally, my Haplogroup (J2...more on this later) was unique to the entire army of people bearing the same name as myself!  What ho?  I liked the idea of being special, but this was making me uncomfortable.  What could it all mean?

There's a lot to learn about DNA as it applies to family research, and I'm probably not the guy to be teaching it, but for the sake of this blog I'm gonna try.  Firstly, you already know that every individual carries his own unique strands of DNA molecules that make him or her...well, him or her.  DNA science has become exacting to the nth degree, which is great for forensics.  That part is easy--you're you and no one else.  The tougher question, at least in my case, is from whom do you descend?

In the short term the answer is usually easy; especially if you know your parents, grandparents, etc...you will share not only physically observable traits, but also repeating strands of DNA that can only have been inherited through the male line.  This is Y-DNA.  Things get a little more difficult the further back you go, because it is unlikely Great-Grandpa Absalom left behind any usable DNA samples and you have to take it on faith that he was who you thought he was.  Sometimes there can be surprises.

There is also a little thing called Haplogroups that I mentioned earlier.  Haplogroups are genetic divisions within the greater family of man that help to determine the geographic origins and time lines of their bearers.  They result from genetic mutations that occur naturally over time within a male line and result in a different group, or sub-clade as they are called, being created.  For instance, my Haplogroup, J2, derived from the broader J group, and is believed to have originated along the Fertile Crescent that lies between the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates rivers.  You read that right.  I don't look much like someone from that region, but it's been awhile...25,000 years, or so.  You change.

Almost all of the Deans that had registered our surname bore Haplogroups more commonly associated with European ethnic groups.  Mine, clearly, did not.  Yet, our family history, such as it was, indicated pretty strongly that we had arrived in North America during the 1700's from somewhere in Britain.  After I got up off the floor, I resumed searching.

WAIT...I MAY BE RELATED TO WHO?

Going back to the site provided by my DNA research lab, I looked for Y-DNA matches under any name.  Surprise!  Surprise!  There was one match and several close matches.  The name Forrester of South Carolina was the exact match--a name with which I was unacquainted.  Yet, our family history had us coming to Georgia shortly before the Civil War from...South Carolina.  Me and this fellow, whose first name I will refrain from revealing for privacy reasons, shared a common male ancestor within, at least, twenty generations, possibly much less.  So how'd we get different names?  And why?

I can leave to your imagination one possibility...but there are others.  Firstly, surnames didn't come into common usage until the 1200's and when they did, the same family, for many reasons, might choose different surnames.  For, instance, many Scots changed their names when their clan, or sept, became outlawed by the crown.  Two brothers living on opposite sides of the mountain might choose different surnames just because they weren't on speaking terms...so forth and so on.  As it turned out, a search of surnames through various sites revealed that a plurality of Deans, and Forresters, lived along the English/Scottish border at least as far back as the 1600's; the Dean name being concentrated in Lancashire and York counties in England and Larnarkshire county in Scotland--an overall and contiguous area less the size of New Jersey.

Yes, this panned out with our family history alright, but I had no way of proving we were in any way related to the Deans, or Forresters, of that region.  Besides...we were J2's, remember...the Fertile Crescent?  More research needed.

FROM WHERE...?

As I mentioned earlier, Haplogroups continue to subdivide down through the ages into various subclades.  Hence, my sample was further tested for more specificity revealing that I was a J2a4b.  How's that help, you may ask?  Well, it brings my timeline up a few years to about 2,000 years ago, give or take, a thousand, and pinpoints the geographic origin just a little better.  It appears that the mutating progenitor in this case lived in, or around, the Caucasus region comprising Georgia (the country), southern Russia, Azerbaijan, and northern Turkey.  That cleared everything right up.


Firstly, I thought it was kind of amusing that my people might have come from Georgia to Georgia.  Secondly, I thought, how in the hell did we get from Central Asia to North America?  And if the family history is true, why did we stop off in Britain  for a few hundred years...or did we?

The sad truth is that I will probably never know.  There is almost no way to ascertain the facts that would be needed to retrace that ancient migration.  But, there is history from which plausible theories can be postulated. 

As most of you probably already know, the Caucasus served as a gateway for mass migrations of peoples from Central Asia into Europe, and these were being recorded by historians hundreds of years BCE.  One of these vast tribes, the Sarmatians, inhabited the Pontic-Caspian Steppe (which extends into the Caucasus region) for a few hundred years prior to pushing westward into Eastern Europe.  It appears this move was not popular with the Romans who forthwith set out to prevent them from crossing that great barrier against the barbarians called the Danube, and after a number of wars, the Romans, under Emperor Marcus Aurelius (of 'Gladiator' fame), inflicted a final and devastating defeat on the Sarmatians in 174 AD.  Under the terms  of surrender he demanded the submission of 8,000 cavalrymen to act as auxiliary troops to his legions already manning Hadrian's Wall in Northern Britain.  Not surprisingly, the Sarmatians agreed.  The ruins of the fort to which they were assigned still exist today in Ribchester, Lancashire County, England--smack dab in Dean/Forrester territory.  Are the Deans descended from one of these horsemen?...God only knows.  I do know that I've never gotten on very well with horses.

Sarmatians as depicted on Trajan's column
CASE OPEN PENDING FURTHER INFORMATION

So, as you can see, my investigation into my family history created more questions than answers.  The Hadrian theory is only one of many possibilities--a Sarmatian tribe known as the Alans also made their way into Central and Western Europe during the course of the early dark ages and settled in France.  Some of their descendants even made their way to England with William the Conqueror; so that's another.  I'm sure there are many, many other possible explanations.  Hell, I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the Dean/Forrester relationship.  It could be as simple as some wandering J2a4b caught a boat to South Carolina and took the name Dean after arrival.  Like I said...who the hell knows? 

So I may have exaggerated when I remarked on my crackerjack sleuthing, as I didn't exactly crack the case of the Dean mystery, but I did stumble upon a yet greater Mystery; hinting at a greater truth--I went from being sure of my place in the world as one certain thing, to arrive at a wholly different understanding of my humanity.  Though DNA demonstrates rather conclusively how wonderfully unique each individual is; it also serves to remind us of our commonality, our shared journey.  Just think how astounding each of our stories are, stretching back into the mists of time, an unbroken string of ancestors leading back to the genetic Adam and Eve from which we all descend--a million unwritten stories.