President’s Message—May 2018

Source: Susan M. Ballou, MS, 2018-19 President

In 1992, a 23-year-old woman disappeared from her home. A recent graduate of Harvard University who aspired to working in the corporate world, she inexplicably failed to show up at work one day. While her family members tried to find her, police searched the area around her home with a rescue dog. In the woods about a quarter of a mile away, the dog alerted to a bloody pillow at the base of a tree. That pillow and many items from the woman’s bedroom, house, and yard were submitted to the crime laboratory for analysis.

The forensic analyst assigned to the case assessed the array of potential evidence and determined that she would start by examining the pillow and its pillowcase. The blood on the pillowcase matched the missing woman’s ABO blood type, and the pattern on the lace edge of the pillowcase was the same as that on another pillowcase from the woman’s bedroom. Although the chain-of-custody form simply asked for examination of found blood, the analyst, suspecting the pillowcase might have been handled by a possible perpetrator, examined it with great care. She used various lighting techniques, including ones that removed interference from the fabric’s weave pattern. She saw that one area of the pillowcase contained what appeared under magnification to be a pattern of curved ridges. She then applied a specific developer, which revealed a fingerprint. That fingerprint led to the identification of a person that had previous access to the woman’s home.

Did this result solve the case and end the need for further examinations? No. The attorney representing the newly charged defendant stated that his client frequently walked through the woods and, being homeless, picked up items that might be useful. In this case, his client picked up the pillow and, feeling that it was moist with blood, dropped it, transferring his fingerprint in the process.

Over the next seven months, scores of other potential evidentiary items were examined. Just weeks before trial, the analyst made a breakthrough. As she was examining hundreds of hairs, some recovered from the woman’s hair brush, she found a synthetic fiber. The fiber had the same composition as fibers from a synthetic wig that had been recovered from a storage facility rented by the person of interest. When that person was presented with this additional information, he confessed. The defendant stated that he had killed the woman while she slept and carried her through the woods with some bed linens, including a pillow that had dropped along the way. The next morning, he returned to the victim’s house, dressed up like her and donned a wig, then exited the home so that her neighbors would believe that they saw her leaving for work. While inside the home, he used the victim’s hairbrush on his wig, inadvertently transferring a fiber. The print, the fiber, and other circumstantial evidence built a case that exemplifies this year’s theme: Diligence, Dedication, and Devotion.

When submitting presentations, special sessions, or workshops for the 2019 AAFS Annual Scientific Meeting (the submission due date is August 1), I hope you will consider topics that represent this theme. For instance, you might discuss unusual items of evidence, the effort required for success, tips for handling an immense case load, or new applications for existing technologies. Because we deal with issues like these every day, we can easily overlook their importance. “Just another day on the job,” we tell ourselves. But what seems routine to you might prove a motivational spark for one of your colleagues. Please consider sharing your stories of diligence, dedication, and devotion at the 2019 meeting in Baltimore, MD.