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

11 February 2024

Why Y: Connecting chromosomes and surnames

There have been many articles discussing the difference between men and women but this one is all about differences in chromosomes - men have XY chromosomes and women are XX people. This Y chromosome has become increasingly used in innovative ways to catch criminals, even in cold cases decades old.

Many of us inherit our father’s surname and men, specifically, also inherit their father’s Y chromosome and their father, in turn, usually gets both from their father who in turn - you get the point - Y and surnames generally go together. As I wrote about previously, we now have a massive data base of DNA from various ancestry sites, voluntarily submitted by millions, and this can be used to connect surnames and DNA.

Does this all fall apart if the murderer is a woman? It does and it doesn’t. Although women do not have a Y chromosome, women transfer mitochondrial DNA from mother to offspring. The male mitochondrial DNA is, except in very rare cases, eliminated, providing a clear way to trace maternal inheritance. This maternal inheritance allows ancestry sites to trace our maternal ancestors. However, women historically have taken their husband’s name and this makes it difficult to use surnames with the same confidence as we do with males.

Recently, a cold case was solved by using Y chromosomes and surnames, finally giving the family closure after almost fifty years. 

In 1975, a sixteen-year-old Montreal teenager, Sharron Prior, went to meet friends at a Pizzeria. On the way she was abducted by Franklin Romine, who brutally beat, raped and then killed Sharron. Despite having DNA from Romaine’s shirt at the murder scene, for almost fifty years law enforcement was unable to identify the murderer. 

In 1974, a man named Franklin Romine had broken into a house and raped a woman in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Two months later, he was released on a $2,500 bond, fled to Canada, brutally murdered Sharron Prior and, a few months later was captured by Canadian border officials, extradited back to West Virginia and was sentenced to five to ten years in prison for sexual assault in the Parkersburg case. He returned to Canada where he died in 1982 and his body was buried in West Virginia. 

In 2023, this difficult murder was solved using Romine’s Y chromosome’s connection with his last name. In this case, the Y chromosome found at the murder site was connected with the surname ‘Romine’ found on ancestry sites of voluntarily submitted DNA and, it was ascertained that Franklin Romine lived in Montreal at the time of the murder. Although he was dead by this time, he still had two living brothers and both provided a DNA sample that showed a strong match. On the basis of this evidence, the body of Franklin Romine was exhumed and his DNA proved to be an exact match for the DNA found at the crime scene. 

Although the cold case is solved, no charges will be laid because Franklin Romine is dead. For the family of Sharron Prior, this matters: “You may never have come back to our house or Congregation Street that weekend but you have never left our hearts and you never will," Sharron's sister Moreen said."We love you Sharron, now may you truly rest in peace.”

03 August 2023

CSI Auckland

I’ve never written a story that involved forensics. Sure, I’ve mentioned fingerprints, crime scenes, and DNA, but only in simple, blink-and-you'd-miss them sentences. I've never dug down into the nitty gritty of how a fingerprint is lifted or DNA is swabbed. I've never hung a plot on forensic science.

My avoidance of this realm of crime fiction writing has been plain and simple: I have had no idea. Also, only a handful of my stories have featured a police detective in the protagonist seat. I've never yet written a police procedural.

I could have YouTubed these CSI things, I guess. I'm no stranger to the Tube and have spent quite some considerable time learning how to pack a pipe, hot-wire a car, become an RA (Royal Academician), and so on. Honestly, if you can think it, there's probably a YouTube video for it (and for many things you probably don't want to think of).

Write what you know—

… the mantra and T-shirt slogan of all writers. And if you don't know, then stay away from it. Which is a double-edged sword for us crime writers--we write about people murdering people. I, for one, can report I have no practical experience in that sort of thing. Which reminds me of an excellent New Zealand novel that explores the premise. Paul Cleave's psychological thriller, Trust No One (2016 Niago Marsh Award winner for Best Crime Novel).

Anyway, I've finally gotten some hands-on experience in crime scene investigating. Really, really good experience.

I went on a training course in forensic science here in Auckland with a handful of work colleagues (software). Team building, CSI edition. A four-hour, immersive masterclass in crime scenes: fingerprints, shoe prints, blood splatter, trace evidence, and DNA. Our teacher was the real deal--

an actual CSI professional, fully qualified, with 32 years' experience (Scotland Yard and New Zealand Police). 

We examined a simulated crime scene (a life-size mannequin/dummy for a dead body), replete with murder weapon, shattered skull, blood splatter, and a roomful of clues. We budding Poirots and Marples were kitted out in proper crime scene PPE: scene suit, gloves, and blue booties that slipped on over our shoes. Working in teams of two, each team was provided with a hefty carry case full of field equipment needed for gathering evidence: fingerprint powder & brushes, lift tape & cards, tweezers, UV light, evidence pouches, scissors, swab sticks, distilled water, and so on.

We lifted and documented fingerprints from tins, cups, and a windowsill. We swabbed beer bottles for DNA and collected up fibres and a shoe print left by the murderer. We even determined the murderer was left-handed, based upon fingerprints left on the weapon and from the tell-tale flicks of blood on the wall. At the end, we ran the fingerprints we had collected through a computer database to look for a match. And we got one. All our teams of two correctly identified the killer from a pool of about thirty suspects.

Needless-to-say, the afternoon was not for the faint of heart.   

In addition to the hands-on experience, we also learned a lot about the history of forensics. Forensic, from the Latin forēnsis, meaning "of or before the forum." Back in ancient Rome, criminal cases would be decided based upon the evidence presented by the accused and the accuser. Whoever of the two presented the best argument and delivery would win.

We learned about Edmond Locard, the father of modern forensic science and criminology. He set up the first crime scene investigation laboratory in 1910 and pioneered many of the CSI methods still in use today. He also coined Locard's Exchange Theory, which is: Every contact leaves a trace. That's a handy piece of theory to remember. Writer Trivia: Georges Simenon is known to have attended some of Locard's lectures, circa, 1919. 

I'm not, nor will ever be, a hardcore forensics writer, but having a better understanding of the processes will certainly lead to its inclusion (in more depth) in my future stories. 

Tell me if you have something similar in your town up there in North America. Do the FBI or RCMP run courses like these?

Where we went:

Forensic Insight Ltd.

Something I prepared earlier. An article I wrote back in 2014 about fingerprints and an infamous Auckland robbery/murder.

11 December 2022

Justice delayed but not denied:
Investigative genetic genealogy

It’s that time of year when people think about interesting presents to give and you might have hit on a unique idea: DNA testing. Perhaps you want family and friends to find out about health risks. Perhaps you saw an advertisement and thought this saves you from going into crowded malls or because someone you know is a history buff and this is what they want. Whatever the reason, by getting DNA tests on yourself or others, you’ve joined millions of people around the world who send off a swab of their cheek or a saliva sample and get information using their DNA.

With your DNA test you’ve done something that you probably never thought you’d do: help catch criminals by solving cold cases. 

In December 1983, Sean McCowan and his brother stayed overnight at the apartment of his sister, 22-year-old Erin Gilmour, "She … would do that frequently, we would sort of go over there and spend the night and just hang out with her and then we'd all climb into bed together and watch movies and eat popcorn," said Sean McCowan, who was 13 years old when his sister was killed. "It was five days before Christmas, and so … we all woke up the next morning. Erin drove my brother Kaelin back … to my mom's house. And I ... went out actually to do some Christmas shopping. And we said our goodbyes and that was the last time I saw her.” 

That evening, Erin was brutally raped and murdered in the same apartment where she and her brothers watched movies and ate popcorn the night before.

Four months earlier, in August of 1983, Susan Tice, 45, was also brutally raped and murdered in her Toronto home.

”My mom was supposed to have dinner with my aunt and uncle and when she didn't show up, he went to the house to find out where she was," said her daughter, Christian Tice, who was 16 at the time. "We had like the best family… we were very, very close… we did everything together. We were one of those houses where everybody else's friends were always over… And everyone called my mom Mrs. T or Ma.” 

In 2000, DNA technology showed that one person was responsible for both crimes but police were still unable to identify the man.

In November 2022, almost four decades later, Joseph George Sutherland was arrested and charged with these two brutal crimes. 

How were they able to identify and arrest Sutherland? 

“In 2019, police began using a technique called "investigative genetic genealogy” to identify the suspect's family group. The process involves cross-referencing DNA found at crime scenes with DNA samples voluntarily submitted to services like 23andMe or and then uploaded to open-source databases.”

Essentially, this arrest was made possible by the millions of people who got DNA tests for many reasons but none of them to finally jail a brutal rapist and murderer.

So, when you buy a DNA test for yourself or someone you care about, you’re not only finding out interesting things about health and family history. You are helping find criminals who would otherwise have walked free. 

Det.-Sgt. Steve Smith, lead investigator on the cold case, “called the investigation the "most complex" case he's worked in his 25 years on the force and credited the recent development to genetic genealogy. He said that Sutherland had never previously been a person of interest in the killings. "If we hadn't utilized this technology, we never would have came to his name.”

There have been many valid privacy concerns about the DNA databases of companies that provide these tests. However, the use of these data bases to catch criminals, in my opinion, is not merely fair but also just. Sutherland has walked freely among us for over four decades while those who loved his two victims have had justice denied to them. Using databases to finally arrest and try Sutherland is fair and just to his victims and their families.

The most powerful argument to support using these databases in this way, are the pictures of Sutherland’s victims. These photos are over 40 years old. Both Erin Gilmour and  Susan Tice should have had many more photos taken of them since 1983, when they became frozen in time because they were brutally murdered.

10 September 2020

The Self-Destruct Button

If Beale Street Could Talk film.png

I was talking to someone who shall be nameless about "certain people" who harp on how the Central Park Five should still be in jail.  Now the Central Park Five were falsely accused, and convicted, based on coerced confessions and a lot of cover-up of things like the fact that none of their DNA matched the DNA in the case.  But to "certain people" they should be still in jail because (1) if they were innocent, why did they confess in the first place? and (2) "These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels."

My response to #2 is, "Who does?" and give them a steady stare.*

My response to #1 is, there's a long list of reasons.  The obvious reasons that they were juveniles (four were 15, one was 16), interrogated for hours, without counsel, without food (Dylan Roof was given Burger King takeout), and violence.  (One of the defendants said, "I would hear them beating up Korey Wise in the next room", and "they would come and look at me and say: 'You realize you're next.' The fear made me feel really like I was not going to be able to make it out."  Wikipedia)

And there's also the reason that (in my experience) young adolescents have a self-destruct button built into them which is inexplicable, unpredictable, and always hits at the wrong damn time in the wrong damn way.  Adolescent males are of most notorious for a tendency to direct their violence outwardly, as in every freaking school shooter we've ever seen.  But the self-destruct button hits both sexes in self-harm (cutting etc.), running away, running off with the absolute wrong/worst person possible, and/or suicide attempts, all of which are different ways of giving up on life.  Because they don't see any way out and / or they no longer give a damn.  Confessing to a crime you didn't commit is another way of doing it.

One example of this was done by Agatha Christie in Towards Zero, in which two characters - Sergeant Battle's daughter (a minor character) gives up and confesses to a crime she didn't commit, which stumps Battle.  Why would she do that?  Why?  He cannot understand - but because of his daughter, he can see and believe someone else…

And of course, in James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk, Fonny is falsely accused of raping a woman, and arrested and jailed before trial.  It's a slam-dunk case for the prosecutor, because a cop places him at the scene of the crime, Fonny has priors, as does his primary witness to his innocence, and he is black. The result?  He ends up accepting a plea deal and serves time - years of time - for a crime he didn't do.

Sometimes the law works against you.  Sometimes life works against you.  Drugs, hard knocks, poverty, and other disasters - "If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all" - can easily lead to a hopelessness that can be summed up in "What the hell."  Whether it's confessing, killing, suicide, or cutting yourself to the bone.

Or running away:  99% of runaways leave home because home is a lousy place to be.  Most of them leave broke, with the clothes on their backs, and all the self-worth of a sandflea.  It makes them very vulnerable, easy targets for drug dealers, pimps, cons, gangs, cults, and anyone who shows them a hint of attention.  "What the hell.  It just doesn't matter."  To anything anyone does to them or with them.
And it's not just inmates and runaways.  I've seen a few college students hit a crisis and literally sandbag their entire lives.  One I knew was making straight A's, and then something happened (I never did find out what), and he literally quit coming to class the last 2 weeks.  I chased him down and told him if he'd come take the final, he could probably pull out a "D" (as in "D" for "done") or maybe even a "C".  And he said, sure, he would - but he didn't.  And so he flunked.  My class, every class, and dropped out of school.  No idea what happened after that.

I think the self-destruct button is far more common than any of us like to think.

Isn't that what most mid-life crises are?  Figuring, "What the hell", and going out and doing some incredibly stupid crap - from drugs to crime to skeevy relationships - that you may well be too old to survive?

And then there's long-lasting trauma.  I can't tell you how many people I'm talking to who are worn out, exhausted, and struggling with depression and even despair because of 2020 - I mean pandemic, politics, wildfires, hurricanes, and the economy all wrap up to make it hard to stay always cheerful and bright.  Not to mention the constant gaslighting.  Check out this wonderful article by DS Leiter: 

Not to mention some of our politicians.  Our own Governor, Kristi Noem, said last week at a Rotary event (after we passed the 14,000 case mark), that "I won't be changing my recommendations that I can see in the near future. I think this is where we expected we would be. None of this is a surprise. Originally, based on modeling, (our) peak day in June, we would have up to 10,000 people in the hospital in South Dakota that had COVID-19."  (Argus Leader)  In other words, until we have 10,000 people in the hospital in South Dakota, life will continue to go on as normal.  Of course, with only 880,000 people in the entire state, 10,000 hospitalized would mean the whole state has it, but what the hey.

Meanwhile, our Governor is having a great time.  Here she is at September 4th's South Dakota State Fair Bull Bash (Huron Plainsman)  Photo from Twitter:


Anyway, I'm certain that a lot of people are hearing [one of] the voices in their head** saying, "What the hell.  Maybe we should just go ahead and catch the damn virus and get it over with."  Except that the prognosis for 100% recovery from COVID-19 is decreasing rapidly with every new batch of information we get.  Or "What the hell.  Maybe we just won't vote - it won't do any good anyway."  Well, you can figure out your own reasons why that's bull.

All I can say is that this year, this pandemic, and life under almost any circumstances is a marathon, not a sprint.  Don't let the voices in your head get to you, and don't hit the self-destruct button.

“Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum”***

* If you have lived an angelic past, God bless you and keep you, but we're going to run out of things to talk about.  And I probably won't believe you.

** Someday I should write a blog post about the voices, but don't expect it to be coherent.  As I tell my fellow Al-Anons, that I don't call mine "the committee" because committees are organized.

*** Yes, I know that isn't proper Latin.  😎 I like it anyway.  

22 April 2019

DNA Testing for Crimes by Twins

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.


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?


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.

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.


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

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.

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.

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.

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.


19 January 2014

Fertility Fraud

by Leigh Lundin

The Switch, Part I

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

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.

06 March 2012

Family Plot


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.


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, 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.


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 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.


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

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.