Crisis in Forensic Sciences, or Not?

Forensics is trusted by the authorities on convicting criminals for more than a century. Fingerprints, blood splatters, DNA, bit marks, shoe impressions, etc. are solid physical evidences that can associate a person with the crime, crime scene, or even put him on death row. Yet, forensic sciences are under strict scrutiny in the recent years. A lot of misjudgments are convicted because of wrong forensics.

The father back to the crime scene with Detective Stabler, the DA and the independent investigator/ professor for reenactment. (Source: Screen shot from Torch, Law & Order Season 11)

 If you are a crime drama fan like me, you may have watched every episode of Law & Order, CSI, or NCIS, to name a few. Yet, when talking about forensic scrutiny, Torch, an episode from Law & Order Season 11 particularly rings a bell.

 Let me walk you through the storyline:

The episode begins with an apartment caught a fire in the middle of the night, and two young girls died in a burning house. They were left in the house by their father, not because he did not try to save them. He did, yet the fire was too vigorous. He failed and burnt his hand. The (SENIOR, as he claimed himself) fire marshal concluded the fire was set by the father with incorrect assumptions he made. These assumptions were disarmed by an independent investigator/ professor, together with a real reenactment of the scenario—burning the DA’s house!

This episode alerts the public the danger of forensic sciences, or the danger of junk sciences. In fact, it does not only happen in drama but happens frequently in the reality.

In the documentary Forensics in Trial (watch here), it criticizes and investigates the uniqueness of fingerprints, the science-ness of bite marks. Jessica Gabel, a law scholar, commented that “forensic bit mark evidence is more art than science;” a lot of interpretation is needed indeed. In this case, should we still trust forensic sciences (are we, the forensics lovers living in our little fantasy)?

Both DNA and autopsy are hard sciences. The former is chemistry, and the latter is biology/ human anatomy. Are these two secure enough to convict crimes? Autopsy, for instance, may not be as accurate as it is. In the recent Michael Brown case, the autopsy is problematic. Shawn Parcells, the man that assisted in Michael Brown’s autopsy has his credentials questioned. He presented himself, according to Mail Online, as a pathologist even though he was not.

DNA, a well-known crime conviction technique, plays a critical role in cases such as the famous OJ Simpson case. Even the DNA evidence ties OJ Simpson to the crime scene, it took the jury only four hours to decide he is not guilty. Why? Because the plaintiff could not prove the evidences are beyond reasonable doubt in order to convict OJ Simpson. Part of the doubts is the legitimacy of evidence. The evidences had lost the chain of custody; police were accused for contaminating the crime scene, and plated evidence to frame Simpson. These all come together to show that even though the person was guilty, once the evidence did not speak the exact same story, no crime will be convicted.

By the same token, in 2012 a forensic chemist named Annie Dookhan had falsified thousands of drug tests. She had also mixed up evidence samples, fabricating results so as to be the most productive chemist in the lab, and lied about credentials.

All these examples just to illustrated one thing: it is not the science is false but the interpretation, and the person who interpreted the evidences are fractured. Quoting attorney McShane from Dookhan case, saying “a forensic scientist in a courtroom is that of a neutral scientists, not as part of the prosecution team…it’s the duty of a toxicologist to focus on the chemistry and the pharmacology not to concentrate on the conviction.”

Like any crime drama, people working in forensics and law enforcement do have a sense of justice, and what does it mean to each of them. One should not forget that being a good scientist, or even just law enforcement agent, professionalism and open-minded thinking are both critical.

The coolness of forensics is the accuracy of conviction. Mistaking one step would make killers walk free, while sending innocents to jails, even on death row.


The OJ Simpson Case

Spargo, Chris. 2014. “The mystery of Shawn Parcells: How forensics ‘expert’ without a medical degree assisted in Michael Brown’s autopsy amid claims he stole a body and lost a brain.” Mail Online.

Trager, Rebecca. 2014. “Hard Questions After Litany Of Forensic Failures At US Labs.” Chemistry World.

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.6: Forensic Concerns Behind the Bodies..

In this morning meeting, other than the five cases listed on the sheet, one extra case came in (if you do not understand what meeting or what is the sheet I am referring to, you may want to skim through this post first). It was a male that found in a canal.

According to the death/ medical investigator, he is a native American, and the family requested no autopsy due to their (religious) belief. The M.E. suggested doing an external autopsy and documentation of the body. This is the first time I encounter and realize pathologists’ hand could be tied not only because of family requests, but also jurisdiction.

According to American Indian Law, the Native Americans have their own police and they have jurisdiction on every member of the reservation, regardless they are indeed inside or out of the reservation.

While doing the external, the first thing the M.E. pointed out is the foam the coming out from the deceased mouth, which indeed is a mix of body fluids, and blood. This is always the sign of drowning as water has entered the thoracic cavity. Also the purplish color of the deceased face that stopped at his clavicles (the collar bones) is also a sign of drowning. Since the pathologist cannot open up the body, the M.E. only can examine him via external traumas. He suspects that is a blunt force trauma by touching the deceased’s head, as well as there are wounds on both interior parietal bones. A theory has it that he might be unconscious after his car hit on an object, and also because he was not wearing a seat belt, he was possibly then fell into a canal after that. That’s pretty much the info we could get from an external autopsy. The body was claimed by the Reservation jurisdiction later that afternoon.

On top of that, there was one decomposing body for autopsy today. According to the police, it is in its “advanced stage of decomposition”. According to forensic anthropologists, bodies that undergo advanced stage of decomposition should be “sagging of flesh; caving of abdominal cavity; loss of internal organs; extensive maggot activity; mummification of outer tissue; less than half of the skeleton exposed; adipocere may be present.” (Byers 100)  This stage suggests partial skeletonization and not much soft tissues on the remains. Yet, the body was in fact only in its primary decomposition stage OR just passed the primary decomposition stage and entering the advanced decomposition stage at most. (According to Byers (100), primary composition stage requires “some flesh relatively fresh; decoloration can vary from gray to green or brown to black; some skin slippage and hair loss; body bloated or deflated; skin may have leathery appearance.”) This is the first time for me to encounter the differences of classifications between the legal forces and pathologists/ anthropologists.

Though I remembered that my professor mentioned once in my forensic class, I never knew that there would be such a difference. This kind of makes you wonder what can be done to make the whole observation process or the examination process more in line with each law enforcement agents, in order to speed up the investigation.

Previous Episodes:

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series : Prelude

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.1: Getting to the Bones…

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.2: Two Lives in One Body…

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.3: Bone Donation

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.4: Two Cases (and bone overgrown on the skull)

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.5: Gunshot and Projectile Trauma


American Indian Law

Byers, Steven N.. (2011). Introduction to Forensic Anthropology. 4th edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, pp. 100.

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.4: Two Cases (and bone overgrown on the skull)

I really love walking into the morgue (I know it does not sound right), learning something new, and interacting with all these wonderful minds.

One of the autopsies I observed this time was about a woman found dead in her cabin on a cruise ship. She got her knee surgery before she boarded, and was prescribed antibiotics. When the Medical Examiner opened her up, she immediately found pulmonary fluid in her chest cavity (which could indicate infection). Later, she opened up her skull, and learned that her skull has a feature, Hyperostosis frontalis interna (HFI), which usually sees that on middle-aged women, sometimes men. The individuals with this feature are having a thicker frontal and occipital bone when compares with the parietal and temple bones. She also found a piece of little bone that is ossifying when she was removing her brain. Afterwards, she decided to dissect her knee too. When she opened the knee, it was totally infected. And the surgery apparently has removed her knee cap and replaced with an artificial one.

The bone from the surgery however never healed. Superficially, other than her surgical wound, she got few circular 3mm wide wounds (probably got from the infections).


More on Hyperostosis frontalis interna (HFI) (may choose to skip this and read on about the next case 🙂 )

Hyperostosis frontalis interna (HFI) (Source:

Hyperostosis frontalis interna (HFI) is an independent yet pathological condition with an unknown etiology thus far. It refers to the manifestation of accretion of bone on the inner table of the frontal bone. Yet, this phenomenon of bone thickening on endocranial surface usually not extending beyond the coronal suture (Ruhli and Henneberg 2001). HFI was first described by Morgagni in 1769 and even with the great jump in medicine and pathology in almost three centuries, the origin and the detailed etiology are still unknown. Yet, with all the studies have done, HFI is most likely presence in post-menopausal women, which may link its presence to the hormone level disturbance in human body (Hajdu et al. 2009; Hershkovitz et al. 1999; Ruhli and Henneberg, 2001, May et al. 2010).

The origin of HFI still remains as a mystery till today. Hajdu et al. (2009) suggested that HFI could possibly link with unknown genetic predisposition, environment, hormones allocation and metabolic diseases. Specifically, HFI is clinically associated with Morgagni’s syndrome, or MSM—Morgagni-Stewart-Morel syndrome, which is a hormonal disorder that demonstrates symptoms like obesity, hirsutism and metal retardation (Barber et al., 1997; May et al., 2010).

Hershkovitz et al. (1999), May et al. (2010), and Ruhli and Henneberg (2001) purport that hormonal influences are key to understand the etiology of this phenomenon, especially about the hormonal regulation in females. Hershkovitz et al. (1999) quoted Ritcher (1939) that HFI under his study will disappear after passing of the endocrine imbalance of menopause. Ruhli and Henneberg (2001) hypothesized that because of the decrease of selective pressure has increased the metabolic rate due to the higher level of leptin (a 167 amino acid peptide coded by ob gene), which in turns may cause an increase of localized bone overgrowth (Rhuli and Henneberg, 2001). Given that leptin is strongly correlated to body mass index. Obesity, according to Haffner and Bauer (1993), is widely recognized as a major effect on bone density. This study suggests that however the adjustment for glucose and insulin concentrations does not explain the exact association between bone density and obesity, rather the bone density increased may be due to stress on the skeleton early in life, which lead to increase of bone formation, or to increase estrogen or androgen concentrations (Haffner and Bauer, 1993). Ruhli et al. (2004) particularly quoted Rudali (1968) changes of metabolism of female hormones in fat cells could link up HFI and adiposity. Other than leptin, Ruhli et al. (2004) suggested a possible microevolution of human sex steroids as the etiology of HFI.

The overgrowth bony tissue of HFI grows specifically on the inner plate of the frontal bone of the skull. It usually comes in the form of bilateral nodular, and only restricted to the area between the superior sagittal sinus medially and middle meningeal artery posteriorly (May et al., 2010). Yet, it is still unknown for frontal bone as the spot for this hormone target. Hershkovitz et al. (1999) suggested that one of clues might be the fact that HFI process “almost always begins in the middle one third of the frontal squama,” given that Morel (1930) considered that spot would be the original centers of ossification of the bone. Hormones such as estrogen may have trigger the primary center of ossification of the frontal bone to grow extra bones (Hershkovitz et al., 1999). HFI can be traced via dried skulls with naked eye inspection, radiographic studies and computerized tomography (CT) scan images. Yet, plain radiographies could be ineffective for detecting the early stages of HFI as opposed to naked eyes inspection as lesions in gauge can be distinguished) (Hajdu et al., 2010).

Various neurophysiologic, metabolic, radiologic studies performed and failed to suggest a direct linkage between HFI and behavioral disorders, rather suggesting the bone nodular lesions shown on x-ray are coincidence (Smith and Hemphill, 1956) Most of the cases of HFI are asymptomatic.

HFI are ethnicity-related and chronologically affected. Scholars like Hajdu and many others agreed that it seems that it is impossible to compare different populations and different centuries in order to get a general possible trend for now. Also, Raikos et al. (2011) pointed out that it is a rare case to find female with HFI in antiquity but males. Ruhli et al. (2004) compared the data collected before industrial revolution and those after and found resemble results as Raikos et al. (2011) but a big change for the data after industrial revolution. Ruhli et al. (2004) suggested the change of female life cycle through social developments and the longevity of modern population initiate the change. It is important to remember however, lower life span in historical times do not mean a lower prevalence of HFI (Ruhli and Henneberg, 2001).


Back to the case…

The other male deceased was a 45-year man that survived from a four car accident April after he had a head surgery. The surgery, according to the Medical Examiner has taken out almost his right hemisphere of the skull to release pressure (which is called Trephination). He suspected that the accident caused a lot of internal bleeding, and the blood rushed all into the skull. The blood not only had increased the pressure inside the skull but also changed the shape of the brain—it presses the brain towards the left hemisphere of the brain.

The deceased has been in coma since, and stayed in the hospital. The coma did age him pretty fast (he looked like an old man by the time he was on the autopsy table) and took away lots of his nutrients.

Hajdu, T., Fóthi, E., Bernert, Z., Molnár, E., Lovász, G., Ko˝vári, I., Köhler, K., & Marcsik, A. (2009). Appearance of hyperostosis frontalis interna in some osteoarcheological series from Hungary HOMO – Journal of Comparative Human Biology, 60 (3), 185-205 DOI: 10.1016/j.jchb.2008.07.004

Hershkovitz I, Greenwald C, Rothschild BM, Latimer B, Dutour O, Jellema LM, & Wish-Baratz S (1999). Hyperostosis frontalis interna: an anthropological perspective. American journal of physical anthropology, 109 (3), 303-25 PMID: 10407462

Raikos, A., Paraskevas, G., Yusuf, F., Kordali, P., Meditskou, S., Al-Haj, A., & Brand-Saberi, B. (2011). Etiopathogenesis of hyperostosis frontalis interna: A mystery still Annals of Anatomy – Anatomischer Anzeiger, 193 (5), 453-458 DOI: 10.1016/j.aanat.2011.05.004

Rühli, F., & Henneberg, M. (2002). Are hyperostosis frontalis interna and leptin linked? A hypothetical approach about hormonal influence on human microevolution Medical Hypotheses, 58 (5), 378-381 DOI: 10.1054/mehy.2001.1481

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.2: Two Lives in One Body…

The medical examiner office begins a normal day with a morning case meeting. The meeting will basically “talk” (you will know why it is quoted later) about the cases they received since yesterday afternoon to that morning.

We went to the morning case meeting every day. Honestly, I was expecting a more structured meeting instead of a casual one like this. Morning case meeting begins with a summary of number of cases, and certain basic profile of the cases. For example, name of the deceased, ancestry, age, where was the last where-about. If the deceased was from a crime scene, the M.E. at the scene and the death investigator are also listed on the sheet. Of course, each case summary comes with a summary of the preliminary conditions of the expired body.

The M.E. will pick the cases they are going to work on later that morning for autopsies. The death investigator, who chaired the meeting (literally everyday) had already prepared all the related case files on the conference table. Once the doctor has picked the case(s), they will start referring to the pathological histories in order to get hold of the details of deceased’s life. And the meeting ends when all the cases are claimed. Doctors will leave when they want to. It’s quite different from what we encounter on TV, at least in my interned facility.

Autopsy usually begins 30 mins to an hour (depends on if the body is ready or arrived) after the meeting. And this particular day I am talking below was very busy as they have 8 cases came in and to take care of.

Out of the eight, we observed the one with a pregnant woman and an unborn child.

First thing they did in the autopsy was to confirm if the lady was really pregnant, as “she was obese and pregnant” was stated in the description in the case. They first tried to locate her uterus, examined the conditions of it, and confirmed she was pregnant.

The autopsy was normal in terms the conditions of organs, and the conditions of the unborn child. The M.E. claims that the more normal the deceased body is, the higher the chance will be getting a positive toxic screening. That is to say, it is more likely to be a homicide, or sometimes suicide.

The autopsy of the unborn child strikes me. When the doctor just opened up the lady’s uterus, and brought out the placenta, together with the “water”, it hits me. The baby looked so matured—you can see her features on both faces and limbs are all developed. I know to be an expert that works with death a lot would definitely come across this kind of tragic event, and definitely have to learn to deal with it. It does not mean that I cannot handle it, but I did question myself continuously who would do that to a mother-to- be and an innocent baby. This simple question explains the need of forensic specialists around the globe, as they can help provide closure to families. Of course, it would not be possible to provide closures for every family like justice is always restored in TV criminal dramas but definitely try to do so for as many families as they can.

After finished with the mother’s autopsy, we were discussing should we do the autopsy to the baby as well. The responsible M.E. said usually they do not if there is no signs showing the baby may be got harmed. But later, they decided to go with a green light.

Opening up a developing fetus was not easy! The whole body is still pretty soft and fragile. The body development of a fetus is fascinating. Seeing all the organs develop and grow from such a small size to a fully developed size amuses me. The most amusing part is the softness of the brain of the fetus. It is super soft to an extent that is nearly liquefied when they cut the brain open. The fully developed adult brain does not solidify much. It is still soft but at least it held its shape.

Previous Episodes:


Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.1: Getting to the Bones…