Florida International University and the National Forensic Science Training Center attended the 70th Annual American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in Seattle this week. They celebrated at a banquet, and presented multiple pieces of research over the course of the week. (Credit: NFSTC)

Editor's Note: An official from the National Institute of Standards and Technology contends that a representative answered a question from the public during a Thursday session at the AAFS conference. NIST says a 2013 DNA study will be part of a forthcoming scientific foundation review. Several other members of the audience told Forensic Magazine they, like the reporter, never heard any response to the question.

SEATLLE — The preliminaries, banquets and business meetings in the books, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences held a whirlwind of scientific sessions on Thursday.

From the tiniest breaks of bone, to the computational analysis of DNA, and the ethics of skipping an autopsy for a United States Supreme Court justice, scientists from the widest array of disciplines presented and learned from one another.

Among the highlights attended by Forensic Magazine:

-        The failure to perform an autopsy was the subject of a presentation by Pennsylvania judge Stephanie Domitrovich. The case study at hand was the high-profile death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, found dead in bed with a pillow covering his head at a Texas ranch in February 2016. The “murky rushed death certification” was a collaboration between a responding law enforcement officer and a justice of the peace—who made the determination by phone, without even seeing the body. Conspiracy theories and distrust of the death investigators resulted. “He should have (had) an autopsy,” said Domitrovich. Investigators in the audience agreed, and one from a large city also in Texas assured her peers that a full autopsy would have been performed in her jurisdiction.

-        A retrospective of 20 years of dismemberments in New York City determined that perhaps the Big Apple is too crowded for killers to just dump intact bodies. Bradley J. Adams, the presenting author, showed data from 1996 to 2016 showing that most dismemberments were made at the neck and the limbs—and was likely more common in the city due to easier disposal and dispersal in the population-dense region. One outlier case showed a person who had killed their roommate and then engaged in “extreme dismemberment”—a completely disarticulated skeleton, most of which was jammed into bottles of bleach which had been emptied in a futile attempt to dissolve the body in their shared bathtub.

-        An accounting of skeletal breaks and their correlation to different manners of violent death were subject of a presentation by Cortney Hulse, a candidate for one of the AAFS conference’s “emerging forensic scientist” distinctions. The 177 deaths in Washoe County, Nevada showed accidents, homicides and suicides. The heat map Hulse generated showed motor vehicle and pedestrian accident deaths mostly resulted in injuries sustained in the ribs. Most suicides (80 percent) showed skull trauma, and 71 percent of homicides showed blunt force trauma to the ribs.

-        The ethics of anthropologists’ taking a sometimes-prying look into the living and the dead was the subject of two talks. Marin Pilloud, of the University of Nevada at Reno, talked about the history of how living individuals came to be protected under the Human Rights Declaration and resulting U.S. law like the National Research Act of 1974 and the resulting Belmont Report four years later. A current controversy is how to present research, whether to avoiding posting pictures of bones on social media, or otherwise honor the “right to sepulcher” for next of kin. David Errickson of Teesside University in the United Kingdom spoke about whether the dead can be respected in the era of selfies and instant electronic transmissions. “Do we need to post a picture of someone’s skeleton on social media?” he asked at one point.

-        The “psychological autopsy” of an equivocal death was presented by Cinzia Gemelli, an Italian forensic psychologist. She presented a victimology case study of an art critic who was found hanging by a belt from a wooden beam in his home in November 2015. Although he had been injured seriously in a car accident three months before, he had been recovering and was under no apparent psychological pressures which would indicate a desire to die. He was strong-willed, driven, and had no behavioral problems, she added. Further forensic analysis showed that the wooden beam to which he was tied had not sustained damage from the supposed plummet of the body—and his lawyer had reportedly falsified the deceased’s will shortly before the death. The case is still pending in court.

-        John Butler, of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, presented the agency’s plan for conducting what they envision to be discipline-changing scientific foundation reviews. Butler cited his five published books and training of judges as part of his ongoing push to educate others. NIST is beginning its review with DNA mixtures, through a review of the scientific literature and also through internal validation studies of various tools used to pick through complex genetic combinations of multiple people. Only 74 of the 294 papers the agency has on its bibliography concerned the mixtures, Butler said. Greg Hampikian, of Boise State University and the Idaho Innocent Project, stood and asked Butler when NIST would release the results of a major multi-laboratory study of DNA mixtures—an undertaking that began five years ago. “Doesn’t NIST have a responsibility to tell the truth?” Hampikian asked, to some applause. NIST later said that Butler indicated the DNA mixtures study would be part of the scientific foundation review - although those in the audience, including Forensic Magazine, did not hear the response.

-        The PCAST report, the 2016 document by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, was not in itself scientific, according to Kenneth Melson, a law professor at the George Washington University. The PCAST report did not involve enough forensic scientists, was not peer reviewed, and mischaracterized scientific papers that were not considered “black box studies,” Melson said. “PCAST also used and abused statistics,” the lawyer said, adding that the report itself had not had much effect in American courtrooms to date.