Master Category Biology & DNA
This report was published in Forensic Science International: Synergy, a journal of peer-reviewed, open-access research on a broad range of forensic science disciplines. Since the start of the journal in 2019, the FSI: Synergy’s aim is to advance and support forensic science while exceeding its expectations for excellence.
Forensic Science International: Synergy, Volume 2, 2020, Pages 310-316
Vicarious trauma (VT) has been studied in mental health experts for over 30 years due to their engagement with victims of trauma and exposure to details of events, crimes, and tragedies experienced by their patients. Recently, VT studies have been extended to first responders as they also engage with victims on a level which may affect their own wellbeing. First responders involved in the criminal justice system, such as law enforcement personnel, have benefited from these studies as the results have helped drive organizational change. However, other professionals throughout the criminal justice system, such as forensic scientists, have had far fewer studies published, and the awareness of VT they may be experiencing has only recently come to light. While this review is not exhaustive of all literature on VT, it showcases key studies and research gaps that could benefit the forensic science community and associated criminal justice system professionals.
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The Forensic Technology Center of Excellence (FTCoE) is leading an effort to organize and transfer knowledge and best practices of sexual assault response to the criminal justice community. Whether through webinars, podcast episodes, reports, or conferences, the FTCoE is working to address the systemic challenges that impede the investigation of criminal sexual assaults in the United States.
The organization of education materials for those responding to and investigating criminal sexual assault is a major component of our efforts toward sexual assault response reform. In that respect, the Fact Sheets below were designed to feature webinars and additional resources related to specific topics within the sexual assault response reform movement. Click on the icons to open, download, print, and share these fact sheets with SANEs/SARTs, investigators, first responders, and anyone else who could benefit from having access to this information.
Published September 2020
DNA samples recovered from crime scenes often contain at least two contributors. Complex forensic DNA mixture interpretation can be challenging and requires computational advancements that support its use. Using forensic probabilistic tools to identify a DNA sample’s number of contributors (NOC) is crucial to accurately computing the weight of evidence for a person of interest. Drs. Catherine Grgicak and Desmond Lun at Rutgers University developed and validated a probabilistic system, “NOCIt”, that determines a probability distribution on the NOC given an STR electropherogram. NOCIt incorporates models of peak height (including degradation and differential degradation), forward and reverse stutter, and noise and allelic drop-out—in addition to accounting for the number of alleles, and thus is considered a fully continuous system. Dr. Grgicak and colleagues determined that NOCIt calculates accurate, repeatable, and reliable inferences about the NOC—significantly outperforming manual methods that rely on filtering the signal.
“One could argue that a better approach than opting for the minimum number of contributors to a mixture might be to determine the number of contributors best supported by the data.”
—Jaheida Perez, et al. Croat Med J. 2011; 52: 314–26
The New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME)
This report was published in RTI Press, a global publisher of peer-reviewed, open-access publications on a broad range of topics. The areas of focus reflect RTI’s multidisciplinary research, our expertise in social and laboratory sciences, and our extensive international activities. Since 2008, the RTI Press has produced more than 100 publications.
The 2019 National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Forensic Science Research and Development (R&D) Symposium is intended to promote collaboration and enhance knowledge transfer of NIJ-funded research. The NIJ Forensic Science R&D Program funds both basic or applied R&D projects that will (1) increase the body of knowledge to guide and inform forensic science policy and practice or (2) result in the production of useful materials, devices, systems, or methods that have the potential for forensic application. The intent of this program is to direct the findings of basic scientific research; research and development in broader scientific fields applicable to forensic science; and ongoing forensic science research toward the development of highly discriminating, accurate, reliable, cost-effective, and rapid methods for the identification, analysis, and interpretation of physical evidence for criminal justice purposes.
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NIJ’s FTCoE, Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Department, and Boca Raton Police Services Department
Implementing DNA technology in crime laboratories has led to the intensification of backlogged cases and a concomitant pressure to implement backlog reduction strategies. This report distills the challenges and long-term results of a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office (PBSO) 2009 National Institute of Justice grant-funded DNA
backlog strategy to construct a centralized biological processing laboratory (BPL) at the Boca Raton Police Services Department (BRPSD) and is still used today with some enhancements. The BPL strategy had three goals:
1) Provide expedient serological screening results to the three largest, southern-most Palm Beach County law enforcement agencies (LEAs), including the Boynton Beach Police Department (BBPD), Delray Beach Police Department (DBPD), and BRPSD.
2) Prioritize prescreened crime scene evidence for DNA analysis by providing the evidence to the PBSO Forensic Biology Unit (FBU).
3) Demonstrate a sustainable approach to reduce DNA backlogs by creating a model for other jurisdictions.
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NIJ’s FTCoE and Forensic Laboratory Needs Technology Working Group
Recognizing the many challenges associated with adopting new technologies and other innovations in forensic science organizations, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) formed the Forensic Laboratory Needs Technology Working Group (FLN-TWG) in 2018. FLN-TWG provides a forum for which forensic practitioners and researchers can develop coordinated approaches to addressing technology implementation challenges for the forensic science community.
Housed at NIJ and supported by the Forensic Technology Center of Excellence (FTCoE), FLN-TWG membership is comprised of crime laboratory directors or managers and academic researchers who meet regularly to share ideas, assess the impact of new technologies on the criminal justice system, and identify paths forward for implementation. The group’s mandate encompasses the full range of needs facing federal, state, local, and tribal jurisdictions; FLN-TWG is designed to clear roadblocks that have prevented broad, successful adoption of promising technologies.
This in-brief provides a summary of FLN-TWG’s goals and outputs of the first meeting and provides a list of programs and resources that can promote technology adoption by crime laboratories.
“I’m very pleased to welcome the newly created working group members and grateful for their willingness to take part in this important endeavor. I look forward to hearing their valuable input and working together toward strengthening the relationship between the Justice Department and forensic science practitioners.”
—David Muhlhausen, NIJ Director
Click here to read the full In-Brief
|ARTICLE: NIJ Supporting Crime Lab Directors and the Formation of the Forensic
Laboratory Needs Technology Working Group, May 29, 2018
|ARTICLE: NIJ Forensic Laboratory Needs Technology Working Group
— Opening a New Channel to Improve Forensics, August 27, 2018
|Department of Justice Priorities, Forensic Science Policies, and Grant Programs|
NIJ and Florida International University
“I’m impressed with the potential for replacement wet color tests. The multiplexing capabilities have potential to address the challenges field forensics investigators encounter with non-pure, intermixed drugs as well as unknown powders.” —Dr. Michael Buerger, PhD, Professor of Criminal Justice, Bowling Green State University, and former New Hampshire police officer
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NIJ and Syracuse University
“This is something that every DNA crime lab worldwide should investigate. We now have a tool that with the press of one button does the entire suite of services and provides you with the end result. Having the simple decisions made for you enables focus on addressing the issues of most importance.” —Vic Meles, Marketing & Business Director, NicheVision
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Report Series Date
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is committed in their efforts to support scientific advancement, evidence-based practices, and community awareness of our Nation’s sexual assault response. As NIJ’s Director, Dr. David B. Muhlhausen, indicated, “our nation’s forensic laboratories have the ability to find and test smaller and smaller amounts of crucial evidence and get quality results for cases that years ago would have been unattainable” . NIJ’s numerous sexual assault response resources, including the National Best Practices for Sexual Assault Kits: A Multidisciplinary Approach, are summarized in this NIJ Director’s Message [1, 2].
Sexual assault remains prevalent in the United States, with an average of 300,000 cases reported to law enforcement each year . However, another 600,000 go unreported . The circumstances of and trauma resulting from a sexual assault can pose a challenge to investigators. For example, witnesses are not always present; the impact of trauma or incapacitating substances, such as alcohol, may affect the victim’s ability to recount details of the incident; and frequently, corroborating evidence is limited.
DNA evidence, while valuable, is not always probative or present in every case: many DNA samples do not meet the quality standards required to be uploaded into CODIS (38% of profiles were found to be ineligible as noted from recent NIJ-supported research ). Even in cases where a DNA profile is present and is CODIS-eligible, a CODIS hit occurs only about half of the time . Additionally, a DNA profile may provide limited probative value in situations where sexual contact is not disputed. Thus, many types of additional physical evidence play a critical role in the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases.
Physical evidence collection, submission, and analysis can be an effective and necessary means of reconstructing at least some of the events that occurred during a sexual assault. Physical evidence provides value to investigations even if a DNA profile is developed and probative, as it can be used to corroborate and supplement a greater understanding of the circumstance and make a stronger case. This three-part Beyond DNA In-Brief series highlights types of physical evidence that can provide crucial information about a sexual assault, so that key stakeholders in the criminal justice community ultimately obtain just resolutions for these crimes.
Click here to read Beyond DNA: The Role of Physical Evidence in Sexual Assault Investigations
“Based on our findings, jurors were more likely to find a defendant guilty than not guilty even without scientific evidence if the victim or other witnesses testified, except in the case of rape.” —Honorable Donald E. Shelton,The ‘CSI Effect’: Does It Really Exist?, National Institute of Justice (NIJ)
Click here to read Beyond DNA: The Role of Biological Evidence in Sexual Assault Investigations
“Sexual assault evidence should be evaluated holistically. The identification of the type of biological fluid may further substantiate and clarify how events took place.” -Dr. Patricia Melton, RTI International
Click here to read Beyond DNA: The Impact of Toxicological Evidence in Sexual Assault Investigations
“Because of the effects that CNS depressants can have on memory and the subsequent reporting of suspected DFSA by potential victims, the true prevalence of this crime may never be fully realized.” – Marc LeBeau, FBI Laboratory
The NIJ and the FTCoE provide resources for sexual assault response, including:
• The National Institute of Justice’s National Best Practices for Sexual Assault Practices: A Multidisciplinary Approach provides 35 recommendations to improve evidence collection and tracking procedures, investigative considerations, communication strategies, and more.
• The Forensic Technology Center of Excellence (FTCoE) published a comprehensive report on current knowledge and best practices for sexual assault response teams, including considerations for evidence collection.
• The Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) provides resources on these issues, including insight for cold cases where DNA may not be dispositive.
• The NIJ introduces the value of physical evidence in Sexual Assault Cases: Exploring the Importance of Non-DNA Forensic Evidence. The NIJ has also published a variety of resources around sexual assault response
• The FTCoE has collaborated with the Center for Nursing Excellence (CFNEI) to develop an online sexual violence glossary to standardize language amongst medical, law enforcement, and legal professionals.
1. Muhlhausen D.B. (2018, April). Director’s Corner: Responding to Sexual Assaults. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice. Retrieved from
2. National Institute of Justice. (2017, August 8, 2017). National Best Practices for Sexual Assault Kits: A Multidisciplinary Approach. NCJ 250384. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice. Retrieved from: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/250384.pdf .
3. Morgan, R. E., & Kena, G. (2017, December). Criminal victimization, 2016. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cv16.pdf
4. Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. (2018). The criminal justice system: Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.rainn.org/statistics/criminal-justice-system
5. Waltke, H., LaPorte, G., Weiss, D., Schwarting, D., Nguyen, M., & Scott, F. (2017). Sexual Assault Cases: Exploring the Importance of Non-DNA Forensic Evidence. National Institute of Justice Journal, 279.
Technical Note Date
A 2009 National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Forensic DNA Unit Efficiency Improvement (EIP) Program solicitation provided crime laboratories’ DNA testing services with a funding opportunity to meet the increasingly numerous requests from the criminal justice community. The purpose of the 2009 EIP was to encourage crime laboratories to implement novel ideas and processes that would provide a measurable, significant, and sustainable way to meet the needs of national DNA programs. This article focuses on the final outcomes of an award received by the Palm Beach County Sherriff’s Office (PBSO). The NIJ support of an approved and implemented plan involving interagency cooperation between three jurisdictional law enforcement agencies (LEAs) within Palm Beach County has resulted in the successful and efficient establishment of a centralized biological pre-screening laboratory (BPL) for DNA evidence prior to submission to the county’s forensic laboratory for DNA testing.