|"Will I have to testify?"|
We’ve all heard that every criminal leaves something at a crime scene and takes something away. While dog or cat hair alone won’t lead police to a previously unknown perpetrator, it can clinch the case against someone who is suspected of a crime and can’t explain why his pet’s hair is at a murder scene or hair from the victim’s pet is on his clothing. The Denver, Colorado, district attorney’s website has a list of major cases in which nonhuman DNA, most often that of pets, has played a decisive role.
In a few instances where people have appealed convictions for crimes committed before the widespread use of DNA testing, the move has backfired because prosecutors were able to use new technology on old evidence – animal hair found at the crime scenes – and match it to the defendants’ pets. When Wayne Williams, the Atlanta child killer, appealed his conviction, prosecutors ordered tests on hairs found on his victims, and the tests revealed that the hairs came from Williams’s dog. His appeal was denied.
Forensic evidence has also become important in fighting crimes against animals, and some experts specialize in this branch of science. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the University of Florida have created the first veterinary forensic sciences program at a major university to train crime scene investigators to gather and evaluate evidence in crimes against animals. The ASPCA has its own forensic veterinarians, who examine and testify about ballistic, toxicology, and blood spatter evidence in abuse cases. The Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California at Davis has the largest database of domesticated animal DNA in the country, and each year its scientists examine evidence in up to 200 cases involving abuse of animals by humans, animal-on-animal attacks, animal attacks on humans, and other cases in which animal hair might yield clues.
In 2010, the ASPCA, in conjunction with several state SPCA organizations, broadened its campaign against illegal dogfighting by creating a national database of fighting dog DNA. Called Canine CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), the database will be maintained at UC-Davis and will contain samples from animals rescued from fighting operations. By identifying links between dogs, owners, breeders, and fighting sites, Canine CODIS can help law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. clamp down on a multi-million dollar criminal enterprise that kills and maims thousands of animals every year. I mention the database briefly in my latest mystery, Under the Dog Star. You can read more about it here.
In short, the animals who share our lives now have their own branch of forensic science. Should we expect a new CSI television show focusing on animals? What do you think it might be called?