Texas vulture study updates forensics

For more than five weeks, a woman’s body lay undisturbed in a secluded Texas field. Then a frenzied flock of vultures descended on the corpse and reduced it to a skeleton within hours. But this was not a crime scene lost to nature. It was an important scientific experiment into the way human bodies decompose, and the findings are upending assumptions about decay that have been the basis of homicide cases for decades.

Experienced investigators would normally have interpreted the absence of flesh and the condition of the bones as evidence that the woman had been dead for six months, possibly even a year or more. Now a study of vultures at Texas State University is calling into question many of the benchmarks detectives have long relied on…

The vulture study, conducted on 26 acres near the south-central Texas campus, stemmed from previous studies that used dead pigs, which decompose much like humans. Scientists set up a motion-sensing camera that captured the vultures jumping up and down on the woman’s body, breaking some of her ribs, which investigators could also misinterpret as trauma suffered during a beating…

The forensic center opened in 2008, as did a similar facility at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, making Texas home to two of the nation’s five “body farms.”

At the farms, forensic pathologists observe the decomposition process in natural surroundings to see how corpses react to sun and shade, whether they decay differently on the surface or below ground and what sort of creatures — from large to microscopic — are involved.

Only in recent years has academic literature tried to establish formulas for death time based on stages of decomposition and environmental factors such as temperature conditions where the body was found.

The vulture research has drawn interest from homicide investigators, including Pam McInnis, president of the Southwestern Association of Forensic Scientists and director of the Pasadena Police Crime Lab in suburban Houston. She said the ability to account for vultures would “significantly” help investigators who already use insects and their life cycles to estimate time of death…

Sgt. Jim Huggins, a recently retired Texas Department of Public Safety criminal investigator who now teaches forensic science at Baylor University, said vultures were always something of a mystery for investigators…

Previous research on scavenged remains focused on carnivores such as coyotes or rodents.

“This is, as far as I’m concerned, it’s cutting edge,” he said. “No one has ever sat down and put a pencil down and attempted this before. … This is going to, I think, change some minds about scavengers.”

RTFA for more detail abut folks who donated their bodies for these studies, details about what’s being learned, the thoughtfulness of folks who wanted to contribute just a bit more to society.

Vultures are the best sign of spring in our little community along the Santa Fe River bosque.

Politician may sue over bin Laden photo using him as a double

A Spanish politician said on Saturday that he was “stupefied” by the FBI’s decision to use his photograph to compose its latest image of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and is considering taking legal action. “Firstly I will ask the FBI for an explanation, which they haven’t given me yet, and then I will reserve the right to take legal action,” Gaspar Llamazares told CNN+.

“In the last few days I have seen the security services involved in some very strange things, some major failures, but I would never have believed they could have affected me so directly,” he said.

LLamazares is a former leader of Spain’s communist party Izquierda Unida and is currently its parliamentary spokesman.

An FBI agent said the organization was aware of similarities between the image — an “age-progressed photograph” intended to give an updated idea of bin Laden’s appearance — and that of “an existing photograph of a Spanish public official.”

Special agent Jason Pack said a forensic artist had been unable to find suitable features from the FBI’s database of photographs and used a picture from the Internet instead

“I am stupefied the FBI has used my photo — but it could have been anyone’s — to compose a picture of a terrorist. It affects my honor, my own image and also the security of all us,” LLamazares said.

BTW – I hope you really don’t think they searched through the Web for the photo they used. Since he’s a Lefty, they probably got Llamazares’ image from one of their own databases.

Ernest Sonnier freed in Houston after half his life in prison

Daylife/AP Photo used by permission

It was a scene replayed with alarming frequency in Texas: a 46-year-old man walked out of prison here Friday afternoon after spending 23 years behind bars for a sex crime that the evidence suggests he did not commit.

The man, Ernest Sonnier, was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison largely on the strength of the victim’s testimony, even though the forensic evidence gathered from her body and clothes showed that someone with a blood type different from the defendant’s had raped her, lawyers from the Innocence Project in New York said.

“It’s just sloppy science, at best,” said Alba Morales, who represents Mr. Sonnier.

Well, “best” has little or nothing to do with justice in Texas. Especially if you’re Black.

Over the last 18 months, genetic testing of evidence found on the victim’s clothing and at the scene of the attack had yielded no trace of Mr. Sonnier, the Harris County district attorney’s office said. Instead, it has implicated two other men. Both are felons and known associates. One is awaiting trial for a different rape.

In light of the new evidence, Judge Michael McSpadden of Harris County District Court on Friday ordered Mr. Sonnier to be released pending further investigation, a first step toward exoneration, which under Texas law can be granted only by the state’s highest criminal court.

Donna Hawkins, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, said the state was not ready to concede Mr. Sonnier’s innocence, though prosecutors acknowledge that the new DNA tests cast strong doubt on the conviction. “There is a lot more legwork that needs to be done before we draw any conclusions,” Ms. Hawkins said.

Donna Hawkins is another predictable legal hack – guaranteed to reject science and justice equally. The perfect political prosecutor for Texas jurisprudence.

As he stood with his mother and extended family in the scorching sun outside the Harris County Jail, Mr. Sonnier said the justice system had broken down. He had lost two decades of life.

The evidence was on the table that I wasn’t the guy, and they failed to do justice,” he said. “It’s lost. It’s lost. There is no way to make it up.”

Texas leads the nation in cases in which convicted men have been exonerated through DNA tests. Thirty-eight of the nation’s 241 people cleared since 1989 were convicted here, according to the Innocence Project, a charity dedicated to such cases.

There are Texans who stand up for justice. Who reject the racism that still defines much of law and justice in one of the least repentant of the Confederate States. They are not the majority of the electorate.

Fragmented forensic science system needs to be reconstituted

A congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council finds serious deficiencies in the nation’s forensic science system and calls for major reforms and new research. Rigorous and mandatory certification programs for forensic scientists are currently lacking, the report says, as are strong standards and protocols for analyzing and reporting on evidence. And there is a dearth of peer-reviewed, published studies establishing the scientific bases and reliability of many forensic methods. Moreover, many forensic science labs are underfunded, understaffed, and have no effective oversight.

Forensic evidence is often offered in criminal prosecutions and civil litigation to support conclusions about individualization — in other words, to “match” a piece of evidence to a particular person, weapon, or other source. But with the exception of nuclear DNA analysis, the report says, no forensic method has been rigorously shown able to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source. Non-DNA forensic disciplines have important roles, but many need substantial research to validate basic premises and techniques, assess limitations, and discern the sources and magnitude of error, said the committee that wrote the report. Even methods that are too imprecise to identify a specific individual can provide valuable information and help narrow the range of possible suspects or sources…

The committee carefully considered whether such a governing body could be established within an existing agency, and determined that it could not. There is little doubt that some existing federal entities are too wedded to the current forensic science community, which is deficient in too many respects. And existing agencies have failed to pursue a strong research agenda to confirm the evidentiary reliability of methodologies used in a number of forensic science disciplines.

I guess you could call this some kind of indictment. Accepting it as correct, then, many cases decided at trial on forensics really are a crap shoot between the prosecutors and the defense.

Just one more area of society where we need a bit more science and a reduction in politics.

Over a third of shootings involving police are ‘Suicide By Cop’

“Suicide by Cop” (SBC) is a suicide method in which a person engages in actual or apparent danger to others in an attempt to get oneself killed or injured by law enforcement. A new study in the Journal of Forensic Sciences examined the prevalence of this phenomenon among a large sample of officer-involved shootings.

Results show that SBC occurs at extremely high rates, with 36 percent of all shootings being categorized as SBC. The findings confirm the growing incidence of this method of suicide, with SBC cases more likely to result in the death or injury of the subjects 50 percent of the time.

The study was led by noted police and forensic psychologist Kris Mohandie, Ph.D.. Using the largest empirical sample of police shootings to examine the issue of SBC, they examined 707 cases of North American officer-involved shootings from 1998 to 2006. Materials reviewed included police reports, witness statements, criminal histories on subjects, photographs, videotapes, and external review reports.

SBC was found to occur at a momentous rate among officer-involved shooting cases. The fact that 36 percent of all shootings in the sample could be categorized as SBC underscores the significance of suicidal impulses among those who become involved in shootings and other uses of force with police officers.

The study also verifies that suicidal individuals can in fact threaten, injure, and kill others in their quest to commit suicide. These individuals are quite lethal to themselves, with a 97 percent likelihood of being injured or killed. There was a one in three chance of others being harmed during the incident.

Wow! I’ve always felt numbers were this high – and the European experience lends credence to this study. Scandanavian studies would add to the mix a number of single-car road accident deaths as being similar. Just adds to the perceived list of dangers faced by peace officers.

Murder ruled out at child care home – $6.2 million later

Victorian-era piece of coconut from forensic dig
Daylife/AP Photo

Jersey’s most senior police officer has been suspended as detectives concluded that no children had been murdered in the former care home at the centre of a $6.2 million investigation into child abuse.

Graham Power, Jersey’s chief of police, oversaw the historic abuse inquiry into the Haut de la Garenne children’s home. In February police announced that they had found the “potential remains of a child” buried under the Victorian building and about $2.5 million was spent on excavations.

But yesterday the new officer directly in charge of the case said there had never been compelling evidence to justify the excavation, and much of what was found there did not suggest murder, contrary to initial police reports…

Of the 170 bone fragments found at the site, scientific analysis has proved that only three could be human; two of those might date back as far as 1470, and the other to between 1650 and 1950, said Gradwell…

“There are no credible allegations of murder, there are no suspects for murder and no specific time period for murder,” said Gradwell, who took over the case in September after the retirement of Lenny Harper, the first investigating officer and Power’s deputy.

There is a report coming which is reputed to document cases of abuse. No murders.

Oh yeah, there was a “skull fragment” which turned out to be a piece of coconut.

To my knowledge, British forensics is on a par with most industrial nations. So, how did an essentially political flap overrule scientific enquiry?