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Highlighting Significant NIJ Forensic Science Investments: The University of Tennessee, Knoxville Site Visit

Date Published
February 13, 2024

In early December, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville hosted a delegation from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research and development arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. The event highlighted significant forensic science advances supported by past NIJ funding and included a panel discussion followed by a tour of the Forensic Anthropology Center (FAC). NIJ also announced three new grants designed to:

  • Analyze possible DNA inhibitors to strengthen microbiome studies for more precise estimates of time since death (The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Award #15PNIJ-GG-04205-RESS).
  • Develop comprehensive geophysical methods to find hidden graves (The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Award #15PNIJ-23-GG-04226-SLFO).
  • Evaluate methods that improve the genetic genotyping of bone material in unidentified human remains / missing persons cases (Bode Technology, Award #15PNIJ-23-GG-04224-RESS).

See "NIJ Forensic Research Investment by the Numbers."

Dr. Donde Plowman, chancellor of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, delivered welcoming remarks, describing the university as a top-tier research institution that lives up to its motto: “Trying to make life and lives better.” She commended FAC’s internationally known Anthropology Research Facility (often called the Body Farm) which was established four decades ago by Dr. William Bass to study the various ways that human bodies decompose. Dr. Plowman noted that this work is a calling and a service to the community that is “deeply steeped in the dignity of people.”

NIJ Director Dr. Nancy La Vigne described NIJ’s investment in forensic science research since 2009, amounting to nearly $340 million . This portfolio covers all forensic science disciplines, including forensic biology, forensic anthropology, forensic pathology, seized drug analysis, toxicology, pattern evidence, and trace evidence, among others. NIJ is the leading federal funder of extramural forensic science research — supporting projects in academia, crime laboratories, federal agencies, and private and non-profit entities. It plays a role in everything from courts and corrections to policing and victim services. 

In FY 2023, NIJ announced $17.9 million in competitive grant funding to support forensic science research and development projects. Such funding improves the examination and interpretation of physical evidence across the practice community by identifying the most efficient, accurate, reliable, and cost-effective analytical methods. 

“All of [these new research efforts] will develop essential knowledge that can inform identification of decedents, cause of death, time of death, familial relationship — information that guides investigations, helps solve cold cases, identifies suspects, supports prosecutions, and brings justice to victims and their families,” said Dr. La Vigne.

This investment aligns with the important work of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). The only publicly available national database of unidentified persons, NamUs currently contains information for over 14,000 unidentified decedents and 24,000 missing persons. It helps investigators match missing persons with unidentified remains to resolve cases and bring closure to families. When foul play is suspected, victim identification can help investigators develop leads, serve justice and increase public safety. 

Dr. La Vigne underscored this work’s importance: “I’m so pleased we have partnered today to lift up this important research and engage in a panel discussion to learn from forensic scientists, law enforcement, and victim advocates about how this research is developed and used in support of NamUs specifically and in the interests of safety, equity, and justice writ large.”

The Discussion Panel

  • Lucas Zarwell, director of the Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences at NIJ (moderator) 
  • Diane Liggitt, contributing family member
  • Dr. Amy Mundorff, associate professor, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
  • Erin Sweeney, vice president of forensic operations, Bode Technology
  • Dr. Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan, chief medical examiner, Anderson and Knox County
  • Dr. Heather McKiernan, Forensic Services Program, NamUs
  • Brandon Elkins, special agent, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation

Lucas Zarwell led an informative panel discussion among NIJ-funded practitioners and researchers as well as a family member affected by this research. Mr. Zarwell noted that NIJ’s more than 50 years of support of the forensic sciences has ushered in faster, more effective technology and reduced crime lab backlogs. NIJ embraces a “listen, learn, and inform” approach, which focuses on listening to practitioners and assessing the forensic science community’s needs.

Dr. Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan described her extensive experience as a medical examiner with NamUs. Since NamUs’s start, she has successfully used its data and resources to make positive identifications but cautioned that making good use of NamUs requires dedicated staff to follow up on leads. Her medical examiner’s office requires one investigator who is focused on missing and unidentified persons cases and who “needs to be the right person, with passion for identifying an individual.” 

Brandon Elkins started working on cold cases years ago when his boss handed him two pieces of paper and said, “see if you can solve this.” For him, the difference between using traditional DNA methods to identify unknown individuals versus forensic investigative genetic genealogy (FIGG) is comparable to “driving a horse and buggy versus a Tesla.”

Special Agent Elkins described how he would turn to NamUs and the CODIS system after he had taken a case as far as he could. He recalled a 1984 cold case that he worked on with Dr. Bass, in which a young girl’s body was found but never named. Last year she was identified through FIGG, giving his office its first leads on the homicide. “You just can’t quit. It’s not a case, it’s a person,” he said. “FIGG has been a game changer for us.”

Diane Liggitt, a family member of a previously missing person also spoke. Ms. Liggitt’s aunt, Florence Charleston, went missing 45 years ago. Researchers used FIGG to identify relations, first finding Liggitt’s cousin and then Liggitt herself. “All these years we had missed her. All these years we had wondered what happened to her,” she lamented. 

Dr. Heather McKiernan observed that Ms. Charleston’s identification was made possible not only by advanced technology but also by NamUs.  She explained how local law enforcement could use the technology that helped people like Diane Liggitt, reminding listeners that FIGG is not the only way to generate positive identifications. Fingerprint analysis (through collaboration with the FBI) has also been quite successful in recent years. Compared to DNA analysis, anthropology and odontology can be faster, more cost-effective, and easier for local law enforcement to use.   

Dr. McKiernan emphasized that the NamUs database needs robust information to find matches effectively. She recalled a case in which investigators made a positive identification through FIGG. The previously unidentified individual had a tattoo on their chest with their children’s names and birthdates. When researchers went back to NamUs to see why the tattoo had not previously identified the individual, they found that the system only recorded “tattoo” without any specific details. 

Dr. Amy Mundorff, a forensic anthropologist and researcher, described the need for research on burned remains because burning masks many of a body’s identifiable features. She would also like to find a way to retrieve DNA from burned bodies, because teeth explode, fingerprints are erased, and nothing organic remains. She has challenged the long-accepted idea that long bones such as the femur harbor more DNA than other parts of the body. She has shown that ankle bones, which are more porous, preserve more blood cells and consequently more DNA.

Forensic Anthropology Center Tour

Following the panel, guests received a tour of the Forensic Anthropology Center (FAC) led by Dr. Dawnie Steadman, the Director of the FAC. She explained the current work aimed at becoming the first fully accredited academic forensic anthropology lab. Although a majority of forensic science labs in the U.S. are accredited, no forensic anthropology labs in academic institutions have yet attained such distinction. Accreditation ensures technical competence and signals a commitment to upholding the highest possible standards. 

Steadman explained that more than 2,000 people, aged 16 to 101, have donated their bodies to the FAC from across the United States. The team of five female scientists who lead the FAC recognize the significance of word choice in humanizing their donors. The staff refers to people who have donated their bodies as “individuals” or “donors,” not “cadavers” or “specimens.” There is a memorial garden at the entrance where family members can remember loved ones who have provided this gift to research. 

The William M. Bass Forensic Anthropology Building houses a processing lab, a classroom, a donor intake space, and a 10-body cooler. Following intake, each donor is placed at the Anthropology Research Facility for research and training.  

Dr. Joanne Devlin, an FAC associate director, demonstrated a 2019 NIJ-funded research project to inform whether a body recovered from a fire had been exposed to physical trauma beforehand. UT engineering students designed a pneumatic machine to deliver blunt force trauma to the donor’s body in a systematic way. Forensics researchers then exposed the donor’s body, which contained one side of damaged and one side of undamaged bones, to fire to discern the differential impact of burning. Devlin noted how important such information is to investigators.  “I need to be able to say who it is and what happened to them,” she said.

The Anthropology Research Facility (ARF) consists of about 3 acres of wooded land where donors are laid to decompose for research purposes. Most donors are on the surface, though some have been buried more deeply or have been placed in more unique situations depending on research needs. This variety allows the FAC to engage in research, like the recently funded project to utilize geophysical methods in the search for clandestine graves,  that mimics settings commonly encountered by law enforcement conducting human remains search and recovery operations. Approximately 150 – 300 donors are at the ARF at any one time, and most donors are enrolled in one or more project at a time. Their precise locations are mapped with GPS coordinates.

Dr. Giovanna Vidoli, an FAC associate director, discussed an NIJ-funded project examining the differences between microbial DNA and DNA recovered from surface and sub-surface burials – with the goal of reducing the impact of microbial DNA crime scene contamination. A previously unused area of the facility has been dedicated to this research.

Skeletal Collection in the Department of Anthropology 

The last stop on the tour was the Department of Anthropology which houses the FAC’s impressive UTK Donated Skeletal Collection. UT researchers have studied the effects of maceration, x-ray, and CT scanning on DNA recovered from the bones. In addition to studies with implications for the legal system, the lab supports clinical studies that inform improvements in orthopedic medicine (by helping to create better knee and hip replacements) and a better understanding of the effects of a modern lifestyle on the skeleton.  A myriad of important research questions can be addressed by a skeletal collection of this magnitude, the translation of lab research to both public safety and medical applications is limited only by one’s imagination.

Sidebar: NIJ Forensic Research Investment by the Numbers

  • NIJ has invested nearly $340 million in forensic science research since 2009. 
  • In September 2023, NIJ awarded $17.9 million in competitive grant funding to support forensic science research and development projects. 
  • Since 2007, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville has received $6.9 million from NIJ, supporting 22 research awards and four graduate research fellowship awards.
  • Since 2006, Bode Technology has received nearly $4 million from NIJ, supporting 11 research awards.

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Date Published: February 13, 2024