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New Forensic Test May Be Used in Homicide Investigations

Canadian police are using a new forensic test, stable isotope analysis, to determine where a homicide victim may have lived before death. Isotopes are variations of basic chemical elements and are deposited in hair and bone through food and water consumption.

This stable isotope analysis has been used in several European criminal investigations. Questions have been asked as to whether the technique has been used in the Suffolk County Gilgo Beach murder investigation, where a dozen murders over the course of 15 years remain unsolved.

Stable isotope analysis comes in when there is no other way to identify the murder victim, no family members or DNA. Based on what people eat and the water they consume, a variety of isotopes found in the decedent’s body can reveal whether there was sugar beet consumption, more prevalent in Europe, or more corn consumed, meaning that the victim was likely living in the United States. In addition, distribution rates of stable isotopes for hydrogen and oxygen can be mapped globally, which helps pinpoint a victim’s home.

In interviews with the New York City, Nassau County and Suffolk County police departments, the NYPD and Nassau police claim never to have used the technique. The Suffolk police avoided saying whether they are currently using the technique in the Gilgo investigation although they said it had not been used in any closed case.

A new technique’s reliability under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 depends on a number of factors, including whether:

  • The technique can be or has been tested
  • The technique has been subjected to peer review
  • The test procedures have been published
  • The test has a margin of error and, if so, at what rate
  • The technique, as applied, conformed to existing standards for the test.

Criminal defense attorneys with experience handling complex cases know to insist that the prosecution identify all use of scientific tests, including any new procedures. This ensures that they satisfy the requirements of Rule 702 and state evidentiary requirements.

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