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William Schneck, a veteran forensic scientist at the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory and keynote speaker, addresses the audience at the 102nd annual conference of the International Association for Identification. (Photo Credit: David Jury)

The International Association for Identification came together at the beginning of last century, when manual fingerprint comparison was just beginning to become widespread practice.

Now, in the 21st century, the annual meeting of the IAI features the most advanced trace DNA analysis, drone mapping of crime scenes and the latest high-powered updates to the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or AFIS.

The tradition continues this week at the 102nd IAI conference at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, featuring workshops, talks, lectures, demonstrations and the latest crime-solving techniques and technologies.

“The IAI, when you get down to it, really represents the boots on the ground,” said Harold Ruslander, the current president of the organization. “The entrenched people doing the work, collecting the evidence so people in the lab can do their magic on the forensic science side of it.”

In its first day, the annual conference made headlines. Rod Rosenstein, the deputy U.S. attorney general, gave a speech to the some 1,200 people in attendance on Monday that the Department of Justice would continue reevaluating national forensics standards—but would have more emphasis on the judgment of experts, rather than the focus on statistics and probabilities of recent years.

Major forensic organizations quickly embraced the new announcement. Ruslander said the IAI may have been selected as the venue for the speech since the organization has regularly defended the expertise and experience of its members. The DOJ may have noted that stance, he said.

“We’re on their side—we’re not trying to fight anybody,” said Ruslander. “We’re trying to work together for the common goal of the people. I think they saw that.”

For the full week, the IAI conference schedule focuses on the current working of forensic science, from weapons at the crime scene, to courtroom testimony of analytical findings. For instance, a panel scheduled for this afternoon is entitled “Twice Bitten,” focusing on the path forward of the much-discussed President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (“PCAST”) report released last fall, which blasted some forensic disciplines. The practitioners are expected to talk about what it means to the investigators actually solving crimes.

But as in so much of forensic science, the details remain the focus of most of the events. The presentations include: vacuum metal deposition to develop latent fingerprints on spent shell casings; the court admissibility of footprint evidence; analysis of snow impressions covered by more snow; the perfect temperature and humidity for developing fingerprints through superglue fuming; several updates from Organization of Science Area Committees (OSAC) forensic groups; and a presentation of the palm print, hair and camera evidence that convicted Jodi Arias in the infamous 2008 murder of Travis Alexander in Arizona.

Two vehicles were even brought into the Georgia World Congress Center, to provide hands-on demonstrations of bullet trajectories and trace collection of evidence.

“We have over 200 presenters—it’s such a wealth of information across the board,” said Lesley Hammer, an Alaska-based forensic scientist and past IAI president.

The trace evidence collection from the vehicles will be the focus of a talk by Bill Schneck, a veteran forensic scientist at the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory.

Schneck is also giving the keynote speech today to the IAI conference. His forensic investigation of “the 9/11 Flag”—a symbolic item that was hoisted atop the World Trade Center rubble on Sept. 11, 2001, but which vanished later that day—is the subject of his talk.

Another flag was misidentified as the iconic Stars and Stripes. But shortly after a TV special profiled the mystery in 2014, a person came to the Everett (Washington) Fire Department and dropped off a flag.

Schneck, one of the veterans in forensic materials analysis in the Evergreen State, was put on the case. It was fortuitous, since he had extensive background in previous years reverse engineering asbestos materials and other major construction components—even in the New York City metro area.

When it came to the “fingerprint” of the dust particles on the flag, Schneck combed through thousands of minute inorganic traces—concrete, cement, filler ingredients, asbestos, fly ash, metal components and other compounds—and determined it was indeed from 9/11.

“It was a fingerprint, you could say, for the whole southern Manhattan area where the ash cloud existed for weeks and months,” Schneck said.

The other part of the forensic evidence was the flag’s appearance—whether the flag matched the photos taken in the rubble in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Schneck found that the black electrical tape and the unique patterns also matched the photographs, and could positively identify the flag as the vaunted emblem of one of the darkest days in American history.

“They all matched up,” said Schneck. “It made a strong conclusion.”

His finding was confirmed by a second outside opinion. And the flag is now on display at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

The IAI conference continues through the rest of the week. Ruslander, the outgoing president, said the IAI organization will continue.

“When you look at 102 years in existence, we offer something that affords stability and longevity,” said Ruslander. “People come to us to join because of what our history is—and what our future is.”

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