Using insects to help solve crime

Jamaican, Colombian forensic entomologists collecting flies for vital research

Executive editor — publications

Monday, June 18, 2018

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Latoya Foote sat and listened in awe to what she knew was evidence being casually raised during the enquiry into the security forces' May 2010 operation in Tivoli Gardens to apprehend Christopher “Dudus” Coke.

More than 60 people were found dead after the operation and Coke, who had fled the community during two days of fighting between gunmen loyal to him and the security forces, was eventually captured on June 22 and extradited to the United States to stand trial on a number of charges. He pleaded guilty to racketeering and is now serving a 23-year prison term.

The enquiry, headed by former Barbados Attorney General Sir David Simmons, with Professor Anthony Harriott and retired Supreme Court Justice Hazel Harris as the other two commissioners, was established to assess events leading to the operation, events after the operation, and to make recommendations. The commissioners started hearing testimony from victims, the police, the army, and a number of specialists in 2014.

“Many times they said they found maggots on the bodies and they were just mentioning it and to me, this is evidence,” Foote told the Jamaica Observer in an interview two weeks ago.

“In many of the cases they said that they didn't know whether the individuals were killed before the operation or during the operation. But based on the maggot activity that they found, that information could have been given. So they had the evidence but they did not know how to use it,” added Foote, a PhD candidate at The University of the West Indies who has an MPhil in Zoology with a specialisation in Forensic Entomology.

Visiting forensic entomologist Dr Eliana Buenaventura, a post-doctoral fellow at the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution, agreed.

“They probably didn't even know it was evidence,” Dr Buenaventura said. “Sometimes it's ignorance, but sometimes it's also that they don't have the tools.”

For the past six months both scientists have been collecting flesh and blow flies (sarcophagidae and calliphoridae) here in order, as Dr Buenaventura explained, to get a good estimation of their diversity and distribution.

That, she explained, can help police investigators determine when victims of crimes are killed.

“Through our research we can provide a list of species that potentially could be important as forensic indicators of the time of death,” Dr Buenaventura, a Colombian, said.

Foote, who is benefiting from Dr Buenaventura's experience and instruction, nodded in agreement.

“We want them to be able to use the tool,” the Jamaican student said. “I know that as forensic entomologists we may not be able to go on the crime scene, but if it is that the police and the investigators are trained to just collect the evidence and hand it over to us, we could look at it and identify the species involved. And once we identify the species involved we will know the succession, we will know the life cycle — and those are the two tools that we use to give a time since death.”

Forensic entomology, the scientific study of the developmental stages of arthropods that colonise cadavers, is definitely not for people with weak stomachs.

The science is most commonly used to determine the time since death. However, scientists have shown that insects can provide other important information about a crime or victim.

“There are many methods to provide a time frame for a crime,” Dr Buenaventura said. “Usually when the corpse is fresh, you will use the time that the fly has taken to go from one developmental stage to another. Let's say, as we know, the flies go to a corpse, they lay eggs and from the eggs you get larvae. The larvae go through three different stages of development, and then they pupate, and we get another adult.”

The time from egg to larvae, she explained, is usually short — about three to five days. But that, Dr Buenaventura explained, depends on the species.

“The species is really the key factor, because there are flies that take longer to go from egg to larvae or to pupae, and that's why we need to develop this basic research, to know the flies, to know the taxonomy, to know how to identify them. So using this basic research we can tell... this is the species that colonised this corpse and it took three days from egg to larvae, so this is the time frame we can give for a case — so that would be using the life cycle of the fly as a tool to give an estimation of the time of death,” Dr Buenaventura added.

She said that during that time the corpse would be colonised by between five and 10 species of insects.

“But then, it happens that sometimes the corpse is discovered very late and is very decomposed, so there will be many insects already established on the corpse because it is a source of food and shelter for them,” she said. “So using these sets of flies and other insects like beetles we can determine the time when the person died, like how many days before.”

The duo, who work from a lab in the Department of Life Sciences at The UWI, say that their research is being funded by The UWI, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Natural History Museum of Denmark, where Dr Buenaventura earned her PhD.

“If three big institutions like these join to do this, it's because it's important,” Dr Buenaventura reasoned before emphasising that what she and Foote are trying to do is create the baseline of forensically important species in Jamaica.

“Once we have that baseline it is applicable to criminal investigations,” Foote said, pointing out that in some instances a pathologist is unable to determine a definite time of death.

“The aim of this is to get the police force and the criminal investigators to see that this science is here, and we can use it to help,” she said.

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