JOHN DAVIES: The science of using bugs to solve crimes

2013-05-12T00:00:00Z JOHN DAVIES: The science of using bugs to solve crimesBy John Davies nwitimes.com
May 12, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Down the hallway from a bumper sticker that reads "Back Off. I’m a Scientist," resides Neal H. Haskell, a world renowned forensic entomologist in the Evans Arts and Sciences Building at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer.

Knowing Haskell, I concur with National Geographic’s high praise of this professor who helped solve the 250-year old death of a veteran of the French and Indian Wars by analyzing dead insects.

Unlike the bumper sticker down the hall, Haskell reaches out to anyone who can advance this field. This professor of forensic science and biology has put this college on the map as a leading center in the study of insects to solve criminal cases.

His reputation will only grow as he launches this June one of the nation’s few master’s degrees in forensic entomology, and likely the only one that offers nontraditional courses in forensic science. It’s a thesis-driven degree involving a CSI supervisor from Las Vegas, and even an appellate court judge from New Mexico speaking about ethics.

When he was named a finalist for The Society of Innovators, Michael Griffin of Highland, one of our judges, said, “Forensic entomology is an ancient science. It will be interesting to learn his contributions.”

When I mentioned this to Haskell, he said, “This field is at least 800 years old.” Then he cited the case in which a peasant was murdered in China, and the magistrate called all the field hands together who might be involved. “He had them lay down their scythes and step back.” Then he said, “The flies gathered on the scythe used in the crime, attracted to tissue, blood and bone of the victim.” Case solved!

When I asked if this still applies today, he cited the case of Casey Anthony in Orlando in which this science was used, but rejected by the jury. He said, “I used this same 800-year old principal in my analysis to determine the death of her daughter.” This is one of the nation’s infamous cases, in which 2-year old Cayley was missing for 31 days.

Unfortunately, his expertise was not sought until two months after the mother’s car had been confiscated and traces of the victim had been removed. Still, he found damaging evidence. Despite this and other scientific findings, the jury chose to acquit her.

That’s his most notorious case. Indeed, Haskell has testified in more cases than any other forensic entomologist. Also, he is the first in the world to graduate with a master’s and doctorate degrees in this field.

But likely his greatest contribution is developing procedures for the collection, identification, and analysis of insects at crime scenes. Indeed, he helped write two handbooks that are widely used, and he continues to champion proper scientific procedures.

Moreover, he and his son Joel performed groundbreaking research that proved the sequence of insects in the decomposition of large pigs is the same as with humans.

All honor to Neal H. Haskell, a 2012-2013 Fellow in the Society of Innovators. He has advanced a science that can lead to truth and justice!

John Davies is managing director of The Society of Innovators of Northwest Indiana, part of the Gerald I. Lamkin Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center of Ivy Tech Northwest. The opinions are the writer’s.

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