Friday, October 25, 2013

The Alcohol Arms Race

Those in the forensic alcohol field have noticed for quite some time the escalation in alcohol concentration of beer and wine but this, children, is what we call a terrible idea.

MORAY brewery Brewmeister have set the record for the world’s strongest beer for a second time, with their 67.5% brew called ‘Snake Venom’.

The brewery, run by Lewis Shand and John Mackenzie, used smoked peat malt and two varieties of yeast to brew their super-strength beer. The new beer is 2.5% stronger than their previous world record holder, ‘Armageddon’, and over ten-times stronger than a standard supermarket lager such as Budweiser or Stella Artois.

According to the tasting notes on the brewery website, Snake Venom is “hoppy, malty and very pleasant”. Each bottle of Snake Venom comes with a warning label, stating that a maximum of one full bottle should be consumed per sitting.

The title of the world’s strongest beer has been fiercely contested in recent years, as advances in brewing technology allow for stronger brews to be created. Fellow Scots Brewdog held the record when they released the 41% ‘Sink the Bismarck’ in 2010.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Ethics and Fraud in Forensic Laboratories

It's been a long time since I've written a post here. Having an incredibly cute baby will do that to you, but now that the incredibly cute baby is an incredibly cute toddler, (and the older two are back in school) I'm hoping to get posting back here more regularly.

Laboratory Fraud

Anyone who has talked to me about science for any length of time knows I'm pretty passionate about ethics. Part of this is just growing up with a strong sense of justice, but the other part comes from my first full-time laboratory job out of college. Not because the ethics training was amazing (it was pretty standard), and not even because the quality control section was ruthless (sometimes it was).

No, what made the biggest impact was that the laboratory had just been re-organized after being purchased by a new company. This in itself is not too surprising, but the reason for it was fairly uncommon. You see, the previous company had been found guilty of fraud and people were facing federal charges, not at the laboratory where I worked but one of the sister labs in the corporation. This makes an impact. When you know that in deliberately not meeting ethic standards that not only can you be reprimanded or fired, but that you can go to jail, that is a nice little wake-up call.

Over the years allegations of wrong-doings have been made in laboratories performing forensic work, I've made them myself. Sometimes an individual is reprimanded or fired, sometimes the laboratory is shut down and cases are reviewed. In the most recent case currently in the news the drug lab at the William Hinton State Laboratory was closed, individuals fired and now a chemist at the center of the controversy, Annie Dookhan, faces charges.

What happened?

While we don't know exactly what happened at the state lab in Massachusetts, there are many allegations in this case ranging from not calibrating instruments to actively manipulating samples. We do know that over 60,000 samples are involved affecting approximately 34,000 cases. Does that mean that all of these results are all inaccurate? No, it doesn't, we just know that the results are in doubt, and if the results are in doubt they should not be used.

The focus seems to be on one chemist though certainly the higher ups have since been removed and rightfully the focus should fall on them too. There were certainly signs that something was going on, complaints over the years of lack of staff, lack of space and a lack of interest to correct problems. “It is very discouraging,” the note concludes from an employee to the director of the program, “to watch the situation get worse month by month and hear of no plans to improve things.”

To me one of the biggest red flags comes from this: In 2004, for example, Dookhan processed 9,239 samples while her peers tested an average of only 2,938 samples.

How does that get ignored by higher ups? Did they think she was a super star? Did they think her peers were lazy? Now, there may have been other reason why that would be acceptable. Perhaps her peers worked in other labs and only worked in the drug lab part time, but I doubt it.

Extractions take x amount of time. An instrument takes x amount of time to run. Is it possible that this kind of discrepancy in work performed can exist in individuals following procedures? This should have warranted closer review.

And speaking of review. Who was doing the review? Unfortunately under economic constraints laboratories will often cut their quality control department if they have one to begin with. These labs can often still meet accreditation standards by having a quality control director who may have little understand of the methods being performed and spend most of their time making preparation for audits or approving Standard Operating Procedures. Review often falls on other analysts who may or may not have ever performed the method themselves. While this isn't always bad, a reviewer who has never performed a method they're reviewing can easily be convinced that something is "ok."

On top of these constraints and seemingly a lack of desire to fix the problems, there were the ever present pleas of prosecutors to work faster. So is this a case of an overworked employee taking the blame for a faulty system? Perhaps. The trend in the workforce is to get the most out of each employee, placing the priority on quantity over quality, and the forensic lab is no exception, especially with the current trend of vilifying any public employee and reducing funds. Even still, Ms. Dookhan did not have to commit fraud even if she felt she was being pressured to. She should not have done it and should have pushed back upon receiving pressure to get through more samples.

So how do we prevent this?

I think the matter of public or private labs in itself does not affect the situation. A public lab will be pressured to get through more samples with the least amount of money spent. A private lab will be pressured to get through more samples with the most amount of profit gained.

What we need is a greater focus on ethics and quality control in the education of our chemists/biologists/toxicologists. Not just on-the-job training and not just one class in their undergraduate or graduate programs. Ethics needs to be part of every class. There needs to be focused training on not just the obvious fraudulent behavior but focusing entire courses on scientific method. These "values" have to be instilled before they get into the workforce.

In the case of my first lab's predecessor, lower level chemists were not prosecuted because they were unknowingly committing fraud. They were performing the method as they were trained and the higher-ups were telling them what was ok. Did Ms. Dookhan know she was committing fraud or had she been trained to? I would suspect that she knew, though there had to be others complicit since her data was reviewed and released.

It takes a strong person to not yield to pressure when you consider that most of your waking life, sad though it is, is spent at your job. But, if we instill this before scientists enter the workforce, eventually we will have labs where all individuals have this mindset, including the higher ups. It's much easier to do what's right when you have support.

Additionally, laboratories need to have quality control departments who act as quality control, and not just fill the need of accreditation requirements. Reviewers, experienced in the methods, whose only jobs are to review testing data. Yes, this is more money, but it's money that needs to be spent.

Ultimately the culture has to change where shortcuts are not accepted. The culture has to change so that quality is what matters and investments made to ensure this is done are valued. Unfortunately that has to be communicated and the scientific community needs to make their voices heard.

Prosecutors need to understand that pressure on a chemist to get a case done faster is a pressure to violate procedure. Should long wait times be acceptable? No, but those problems require systemic changes in the addition of more staffing and better resources, not phone calls to busy analysts.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Law Requires Alcohol Testers in Every Car

It's an interesting thought and will hopefully raise awareness and keep drivers focused on what they are drinking and what impact that has. However, since this is not an interlock requirement there will be nothing stopping a person from driving if they are above the legal limit. It will be interesting to see whether self regulation will be of any help.

Drinking And Driving, Mon Dieu! New French Law Requires Breathalyzers In All Cars

Caren Osten Gerszberg

I've spent many an afternoon driving through the countryside of France -- my mother's homeland -- in a small Peugeot rental car. Together, my mom and I have pulled over alongside a field of sunflowers or a stretch of sandy beach to lay out a picnic where we'd eat and sip the locally made wine. On my next trip, however, I'll not only think twice about taking the wheel after a picnic, but I'll also be blowing into a Breathalyzer to be certain my blood alcohol level is within the legal limit.

Beginning July 1, a new law in France will require all motor vehicles (except mopeds) to have a breathalyzer on hand. The new rule can be found in French at Legifrance. It seems unexpected that a country like France, known for its love of le vin, would spearhead this campaign against drinking and driving, but perhaps not surprisingly, nearly 30 percent of all road fatalities in France are alcohol-related -- a higher rate than in Germany and the UK. In fact, alcohol has been the leading cause of road deaths in France since 2007.

To bring these numbers down and save lives (and there is an election coming), French President Sarkozy has chosen to target drunk driving. According to numerous reports, French authorities will accept a one-time disposable type that costs less than two dollars. They are recommending, however, that motorists buy them in pairs so there's an additional one in case a fellow-imbibing passenger is in need.

The French police will begin strictly enforcing the new law as of November 1, with many spot checks on roads. The idea is that every time a driver (native or tourist) gets into their car after having a drink, they will have a device with which to test if there blood alcohol content (BAC) is over the mandated blood alcohol limit for drinking in France, .05 BAC. That is a much stricter limit than the U.S. limits of .08 in 17 states and 0.10 in 33 states, according to a US government survey.

Because the drunk driving penalty in France is much higher than the "no breathalyzer" fine, the hope is that drivers will eventually begin to self-test before driving. They may risk not having the breathalyzer on hand if they are stopped, but at least they'll know if they are under the legal limit and the fine will be less.

It's possible that this new law may pose some linguistic challenges for non French-speaking tourists who wish to cruise around the countryside. A piece in Budget Travel magazine reports that Hertz rental cars will provide the breathalyzers for free; Avis and Budget had no comment yet on the situation.

France is the first country to enact a breathalyzer on-hand legislation, and I imagine the rest of the world will be watching to see how it affects the road toll. If the new legislation saves lives, the law might be something to consider on this side of the Atlantic. Vive la France ...?

Nature Intrudes on What We "Know"

A perfect example why a scientist should always qualify their statements. We can predict and estimate, sometimes extremely, well based on the research but we can never say something is 100% fact. This is also a good reminder of staying current with research being performed. This has a huge impact on time of death estimates for this region.

Texas Vulture Study Upends Forensics

SAN MARCOS, Texas (AP) — For more than five weeks, a woman's body lay undisturbed in a secluded Texas field. Then a frenzied flock of vultures descended on the corpse and reduced it to a skeleton within hours.

But this was not a crime scene lost to nature. It was an important scientific experiment into the way human bodies decompose, and the findings are upending assumptions about decay that have been the basis of homicide cases for decades.

Experienced investigators would normally have interpreted the absence of flesh and the condition of the bones as evidence that the woman had been dead for six months, possibly even a year or more. Now a study of vultures at Texas State University is calling into question many of the benchmarks detectives have long relied on.

The time of death is critical in any murder case. It's a key piece of evidence that influences the entire investigation, often shaping who becomes a suspect and ultimately who is convicted or exonerated.

"If you say someone did it and you say it was at least a year, could it have been two weeks instead?" said Michelle Hamilton, an assistant professor at the school's forensic anthropology research facility. "It has larger implications than what we thought initially."

The vulture study, conducted on 26 acres near the south-central Texas campus, stemmed from previous studies that used dead pigs, which decompose much like humans. Scientists set up a motion-sensing camera that captured the vultures jumping up and down on the woman's body, breaking some of her ribs, which investigators could also misinterpret as trauma suffered during a beating.

Researchers are monitoring a half-dozen other corpses in various stages of decomposition, and they have a list of about 100 people prepared to donate their bodies to the project, which the school says is the first of its kind to study vultures.

"Now that we have this facility and a group of people willing to donate themselves to science like this, we can actually kind of do what needs to be done, because pigs and humans aren't equal," Hamilton said.
The forensic center opened in 2008, as did a similar facility at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, making Texas home to two of the nation's five "body farms."

At the farms, forensic pathologists observe the decomposition process in natural surroundings to see how corpses react to sun and shade, whether they decay differently on the surface or below ground and what sort of creatures — from large to microscopic — are involved.

Only in recent years has academic literature tried to establish formulas for death time based on stages of decomposition and environmental factors such as temperature conditions where the body was found.
The vulture research has drawn interest from homicide investigators, including Pam McInnis, president of the Southwestern Association of Forensic Scientists and director of the Pasadena Police Crime Lab in suburban Houston. She said the ability to account for vultures would "significantly" help investigators who already use insects and their life cycles to estimate time of death.

The body in the vulture study was that of Patty Robinson, an Austin woman who died of breast cancer in 2009 at age 72. She donated her remains to research, and they were placed in a five-acre fenced area.
Her son, James, said the Texas State research seemed like a worthy project.

She'd be delighted "if she could come back and see what she's been doing," he said. "All of us are pretty passionate about knowing the truth."

As for the vulture research, "we're not a particularly squeamish lot," he added.

The project began after scientists noticed scavenger damage on other bodies, an anomaly that puzzled them because the site several miles north of campus is secured against animal intruders.

"It didn't fit the model of scavengers that we had seen before and what people had written about," said Kate Spradley, an assistant professor at Texas State who also works on the project. "We realized we didn't account for something and it was vultures."

Vultures fly over much of the United States and are particularly abundant in the Southwest. Two of the most common species are turkey vultures and the more aggressive black vultures, which can exceed 2 feet in length, weigh 5 to 6 pounds and have wingspans of 5 feet.

The initial surprise was that it took vultures 37 days to find the body. Researchers visited the site daily and checked the camera for any activity.

"Nothing, not even a rat," Hamilton said.

Then on the day after Christmas 2009, a graduate student working on another project at the site alerted them to the vultures' swift work on the corpse.

"I was wondering if it ever was going to happen," Spradley said. "We downloaded the photos, and it was stunning."

She and Hamilton are working with Texas State geographer Alberto Giordano to map the area where birds dragged bones. They hope to make a predictive model for law enforcement officers that will help determine time of death.

Sgt. Jim Huggins, a recently retired Texas Department of Public Safety criminal investigator who now teaches forensic science at Baylor University, said vultures were always something of a mystery for investigators.
Previous research on scavenged remains focused on carnivores such as coyotes or rodents.

"This is, as far as I'm concerned, it's cutting edge," he said. "No one has ever sat down and put a pencil down and attempted this before. ... This is going to, I think, change some minds about scavengers."

When unidentified remains turn up, the vulture research can also be used to help include or exclude people who have been reported missing, Spradley said.

Hamilton said he used to hate vultures. "But now I kind of appreciate what they do, how they dispose of decomposing animals on landscape," he said. "They perform a really serious function."

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Holidays to all!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Forensics of Horror Part 1: Ted Bundy

It's October again, the leaves are falling, the pumpkins are out, and so are the Christmas Halloween decorations. Which means it's time to focus on the Forensics of Horror again. Last year I focused on the supernatural boogie men, but this year I'm going to focus on the human monsters, which in my opinion, are infinitely more scary.

This week: Ted Bundy

 I had quite the surprise researching Mr. Bundy, nee Theodore Cowell, to find that he had his very own tie to my home state of Vermont. He was born in 1946 at the Elizabeth Lund Home for Unwed Mothers right in Burlington. The Lund Family Center still exists helping pregnant young Vermont women though the name has changed. He was only in Vermont for a couple of months before moving to Philadelphia where he was raised under the impression that his grandparents were his parents. In 1951 he moved with his real mother where she married  Johnnie Bundy, a military cook.

His profile seems to be that of every successful serial killer. Well behaved, charismatic, quiet... He met his first love in 1968. When she left, deciding he was not husband material, he was devastated and became withdrawn and depressed. He learned his mother was not his sister as he had believed for so long. Eventually he started another relationship and though "Elizabeth" thought he was unfaithful she stayed utterly devoted.

In 1974 women began disappearing from the local college campus...

In 1975 he was stopped by police for a moving violation. In the vehicle, police found pantyhose, handcuffs, an ice pick and a crow bar. The front seat was missing. Police suspected him of burglary. Now at this time there was a woman who claimed to be attacked, the items she described were the same as those found in Bundy's car. The police made the connection and he was charged with attempted kidnapping. He was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Police were also trying to tie him to a known murder and eventually felt they had the evidence to move forward. According to credit card statements he had been in the area at the time of the murder.

In the murder trial Ted Bundy decided to represent himself. This allowed him to be in the court room without leg irons and move with complete independence in the court room, and more importantly, freely between the courtroom and the court library. In June of 1977, he escaped, leaping from a window in the library. A week later he was captured.

One would think this would make the guards more cautious but on December 30th, he escaped from prison and moved to Tallahassee Florida, next to Florida State University. He lived under the name Chris Hagan and would occasionally attend lecture. 

On Saturday, January 14, he broke into Florida State University's Chi Omega sorority house and bludgeoned and strangled to death two women, raping one of them and brutally biting her on her buttocks and one nipple. He beat two others over the head with a log. They survived thanks to the arrival of their fellow roommate Nita Neary, who came home and interrupted Bundy before he was able to kill the other two girls.

On February 9th, 1978 he killed again, this time a 12 year old girl who he mutilated. Investigators were able to match bite marks on the victims to Bundy. Remember at this time, DNA evidence was not used but we do have an example of forensic work in the bite molds which are still used to this day.

Good ol' Ted thought he could still beat the guilty verdict and turned down a plea deal.

In 1979 he want on trial for the sorority murders where he again acted as his own attorney. The trial was televised and Ted attempted to play up to the media and charm the jury. It didn't work. He was found guilty and sentenced to death.

In 1980 he was put on trial for the death of Kimberly Leach, the 12 year old victim. This time he had an attorney and his court room behavior was nothing like the charismatic man known to so many. He appeared angry, slouched and glared. Appearing perhaps more the man he really was than the congenial mask. He was found guilty and received a third death sentence.

During the sentencing phase, he surprised everyone by calling Carol Boone, who was convinced of his innocence, as a character witness and marrying her while she was on the witness stand. She later gave birth to Bundy's child, a little girl who Bundy adored. Eventually Boone divorced Bundy after finally realizing he was guilty.

On January 7th, 1989, prior to being put to death, he gave details of more than 50 women he claimed to have murdered. Those closest to the case thought there were as many as 100 victims to Ted Bundy, but whether this is true or not has not been proven. He confessed to keeping severed heads and participating in necrophilia. On January 24th, 1989 at 7:13am he was put to death by electric chair while the crowd outside cheered his death.

But it's not over, because just recently Ted Bundy has made the news again. Speculation was that eight year old Ann Marie Burr may have been Ted's first victim when he was 14 years old and lived in the girl's neighborhood. A DNA profile of Bundy was recently obtained and now cold cases are being brought to light again in an attempt to link Bundy to previous murders with the forensics capability that is available now. This case did not show a match, but how many others will? The very fact that we are still looking at Bundy after his death shows the fascination is not over.