There has been crime for as long as there have been those around to perpetrate it, and although our propensity for murder and mayhem has changed little over the millennia, our methods of analyzing them have evolved considerably. We have come a long way in our sophistication in dealing with evidence and crime scenes, but along the way we have hit some cases that have caught us off guard and managed to leave us confounded despite our burgeoning scientific knowledge and advancing techniques. One such case was that of a murdered woman who according to the evidence on hand at the time seemed to show that she had been killed by an actual time traveler.
In the 1997, a woman was found ruthlessly and savagely murdered without much evidence left behind except for what looked like a trace amount skin embedded under her fingernails, suggesting that she had struggled with and perhaps scratched her attacker. Some of the biological material was removed for analysis, hoping it would shed light on what had happened, and this was a pretty big deal at the time, as DNA analysis was still relatively in its infancy in those days and for a lot of people the ability to identify someone from just a few scrapes from their skin seemed like it might as well have been magic.
The samples were sent in and run through a database, where they soon managed to turn up a match. Yet far from solving the case it would only make things more bizarre. It turned out that the DNA match was from another woman who had also been murdered, and not only that, she had been killed a full three weeks before the original victim in a totally different are of the city. There was no connection to the two murders that could be ascertained, baffled authorities at the time could find no explanation for why a dead woman should have the biological material of another woman who died three weeks before under her nails, and it became known as the case of the “Time Travel Murder.” It was a puzzling case surrounded by weird circumstances and evidence that pointed to something that seemed to be rooted more in science fiction than reality. How could this have possibly happened?
An investigation into the baffling case was launched and it was at first suspected that the fingernail samples, which were collected as standard procedure for forensics, must have been mixed up somehow or contaminated. Mike Silverman, then national account manager for the Forensic Science Service, and author of forensic history book Written In Blood, was tasked with finding out just what in the world was going on, but it wouldn’t be easy. He originally suspected that there had been a mistake made by the laboratory, and that the fingernail samples had been simply mislabeled, with the clippings labeled as coming from the second victim actually coming from the first one, but a careful look at the nail polish pattern proved that the samples were correctly labeled after all. It was also found that since the two samples from the two different victims had never been taken out at the same time there was next to zero chance that they could have been accidentally switched.
The stumped Silverman then looked into the methods which had been used to collect the fingernail samples from the two victims, and it was discovered that both bodies had come to be given autopsies at the same location 3 weeks apart. The body of the first victim had been kept in cold storage while an investigation was carried out over the next few weeks, after which the nail clippings were taken, and the next day the mysterious body of the second victim arrived at the same morgue. Interestingly, it was found that the same pair of scissors had been used for both victims, and although they had been carefully cleaned it was surmised that some of the genetic material could have perhaps survived for the second series of clippings in order to contaminate the samples taken from the second victim. This was a pretty groundbreaking revelation at the time, as little was known about cross contamination of evidence via DNA.
This was not totally far-fetched, as since the science of forensic DNA analysis was very new and as such there were few agreed upon procedures as to how to really prevent such a thing from happening, and little knowledge as to just what extent such a thing could occur. We just didn’t have enough knowledge of this strange new science to make effective protocols for dealing with DNA evidence, and so there were many problems that we didn’t even realize we had yet. This was far from the days of the totally sterile crime scenes of today, where investigators know to wear protective gear and go through great pains to avoid the chance of any contamination. What they didn’t know back in 1997 is that DNA samples can be dramatically affected by just a few stray cells, resulting in cross-contamination which can muddy results and even derail entire cases built upon DNA evidence.
Sure enough, it was found that the nail scissors had DNA from three different people on them, and that the sample from the first victim had carried over, resulting in the first victim’s DNA traveling to the second, and the illusion that a killer had traveled through time to commit murder. In reality, the two women had had nothing to do with each other. The mishap and the resulting seemingly mysterious case led to the custom of using disposable scissors to take fingernail clippings for forensic autopsies, and then putting the scissors with the samples to prove that they have not been used again.
Although this case was eventually solved, and there was no time traveling murderer after all, it is an odd little episode in the weird history of forensic science, and shows that sometimes our ever-expanding technology can get ahead of itself, developing faster than our understanding of how it all works or what to do with it all. DNA analysis has proven to be an incredible tool for solving crimes and cold cases and unearthing mysteries from history, but it has not always been, and perhaps still isn’t, perfect.