According to CBS News, the City of New York is expanding the use of forensic animal evidence, such as DNA samples, to solve more crimes against both animals and people. With the help of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and their mobile evidence lab, investigators are using cutting-edge technology to solve crimes against animals, but prosecutors have commented that such tests can link a suspect to crimes against people as well.
Forensic animal evidence has been used in criminal prosecution in the United States for some time. The controversial conviction in the murder of an Illinois woman, Karyn Hearn Slover, relied on only circumstantial evidence. Karyn Slover went missing in September 1996. In 2002, Karyn’s ex-husband, Michael Slover, Jr., and his parents Michael and Jeannette Slover were convicted of her murder. The prosecution advanced the theory that Michael Sr. and Jeannette feared Karyn would take her son, their grandchild, out of state following the divorce between Karyn and Michael Jr. and murdered her in order to gain custody of the child. With no murder weapon recovered and no available witnesses, prosecutors developed a circumstantial case. They used negative statements made by Slover family members about Karyn, psychiatric analysis of Karyn’s son (who they believe may have witnessed the murder), and matching environmental evidence, including dog hair discovered on duct tape used to seal garbage bags containing parts of Karyn’s body. The dog hair matched that of Michael Sr. and Jeanette’s dog. The Slovers’ case is currently being reviewed by the University of Illinois, Springfield Innocence Project.
In less circumstantial cases, animal forensics can be helpful in bolstering the prosecution’s theory. In England, cat DNA was recently used to help solve the murder of David Guy, who was found dismembered and wrapped in a curtain. Cat hairs found on the curtain and hairs from the cat of the suspect were analyzed by California lab and found to be a match. More information was needed to give this match evidentiary value, so geneticist Jon Wetton put together the first database of cat DNA, including samples from 152 cats. (Wetton had previously put together a similar database for dogs for use by Britain’s Forensic Science Service.) Of the 152 DNA samples, only three profiles matched that of the cat hair found on the Guy. While more substantial evidence (including Guy’s blood found at the home of the suspect) ultimately confirmed the identity of the suspect as the murderer, the cat hair connection strengthened the prosecution’s case.
The regular use of such evidence is only beginning to emerge in criminal prosecutions, but with databases like those created in England, animal DNA evidence could prove to be a critical link in some cases. Just like human forensic evidence, animal hair or blood found on the clothes of a suspect, in a suspect’s home or vehicle, or on a victim can definitively place a person or animal at the scene of a crime and open entirely new avenues of investigation in many types of crimes, including animal cruelty.