FTCoE Success Stories Promote New Products and Developments

Question: What do a new way to determine the time of a person’s death, detection canines and a new database that could make it easier to identify missing persons have in common?

Answer: All three have been profiled in the Forensic Technology Center of Excellence (FTCoE) Success Story series during 2018.

Success Stories use a simple, two-page format to highlight National Institute of Justice-funded research that has impacted the forensics and law enforcement community, framing the problem the research addressed, key findings, impact and future directions. Spanning topics as varied as the three listed above and more, the Success Stories page on the FTCoE website represents a good starting point if you’re looking for information on almost any type of recent forensic development.

Dog sniffing suitcase

“NIJ funds research and development grants across a wide variety of disciplines, with a goal of supporting development of technologies that improve forensic capabilities,” says the FTCoE’s Rebecca Shute. “Success Stories highlight technology that isn’t just a concept or a prototype, but rather has been implemented or provided impact to stakeholders such as law enforcement or forensic labs. This could include a technology or technique used in actual casework, or dissemination of tools or information such as open-source software.”

The publications serve the dual purposes of allowing NIJ to communicate the success of its research and development program and helping the grantees obtain visibility for their results. In addition to their availability on the FTCoE website, new success stories are pushed out to the nearly 30,000 subscribers on the Center’s listserv, giving law enforcement agencies and forensic service providers two ways to learn about new products and developments.

The FTCoE uses an ongoing process to identify grants with tangible, real-world impact, then works with the principal investigator of the project to develop the publication: “Choosing these success stories is just one step in our disciplined portfolio management process, which captures all of the R&D grants and supports grantees throughout the stages of their work. While the FTCoE writes these pieces, we work closely with the PIs to help them tell their story,” Shute says.

As of June 2018, the FTCoE website includes 17 success stories, with more on the way. Here’s a closer look at the three mentioned above:

  • NIJ and Multi-Institute Academic Team: Establishing a “Microbial Clock” to Improve Time of Death Prediction.
    Determining the postmortem interval (PMI), or the time elapsed since a person’s death, may help investigators recreate a timeline and the victim’s movements, support or disprove a suspect’s alibi or corroborate evidence collected from autopsies. There are several well-known ways to do this immediately following a death, but accurately determining PMI when an individual died days or weeks previously can be challenging. The technology described in this publication uses microbial communities to accurately determine PMI up to 48 days since death, with an average error of about three days. It relates “universal” microbial markers for determining PMI, despite the environment; identifies environmental conditions, such as temperature, location and season that can affect microbial communities’ composition; and demonstrates the potential for microbial signatures to identify clandestine gravesites.
  • NIJ and the American Registry of Pathology: Maximizing the Use of Mitochondrial DNA in Identifying Remains and Aiding Missing Persons Casework.
    Mitochondrial DNA is valuable in situations where scientists cannot use traditional nuclear DNA testing, such as when testing aged bones, fingernails or hair when nuclear DNA has become degraded. This makes it a valuable tool in missing persons casework. Research outlined in this success story focused on how complete sequencing of the mitochondrial genome provides for a more effective way of using mitochondrial DNA. The team developed a robust no-cost reference population database that improved the understanding of genetic mtDNA rarity between individuals, enabled continuous improvement of the data and ensured incorporation of high-quality population data through quality control of submitted data.
  • NIJ and Florida International University: NIST’s Dogs and Sensor Subcommittee Builds on Achievements by SWGDOG.
    Dog “detector teams” support law enforcement and first responders in a variety of applications ranging from drug and contraband interdiction to locating human remains. A lack of peer-reviewed research combined with recent media coverage of dog detection failures raised concerns about the effectiveness of dog-based detection and its admissibility in court. Also, the widespread application of dog detector teams makes the standardization of protocols difficult; many national canine organizations have developed standards but only for their respective programs. The Scientific Working Group for Dog and Orthogonal Detector Guidelines (SWGDOG), a group of 55 experts from academia, law enforcement, military and canine organizations, developed 39 consensus-based best practice guidelines for dog detector teams. SWGDOG served as the foundation for the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Dogs and Sensor Subcommittee, which is currently developing SWGDOG’s best practices into scientifically validated standards.

“The FTCoE really sees the value in communicating success stories like these and the others on the website to the forensic community, and writing more of them will remain a priority,” Shute says.

For more information on the programs of the FTCoE, contact Dr. John Morgan, Director, at jmorgan@rti.org. For more information on forensics programs of the National Institute of Justice, contact Gerald LaPorte, Director, Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences, at Gerald.LaPorte@usdoj.gov.

Article photo: Monika Wisniewska/Shutterstock.com