Forensic evidence plays growing role in criminal investigations – The Science Show
Robyn Williams: Now have you wondered how they managed to put this Batavia history together? Large-scale forensic work. Well, it turns out that the west is a big center of forensic medicine, as Paola Magni insists. She teaches it at Murdoch University.
Paola Magni: Yes, at the time there was the Center for Forensic Science based at UWA. Now at UWA we only have forensic anthropology, but at Murdoch University we have an incredibly bright group of different forensic scientists interested in DNA, wildlife, entomology. forensic, aquatic forensics, toxicology, they all together teach students a different level of forensic studies, but also biosafety because we also have to remember that a crime can occur under any which form and can occur against people, animals and things, so biosecurity is very important thing in forensic science, borders, considering the environment, movement of goods, movement of people , and today, with COVID-19, we know how important biosecurity is.
Robyn Williams: Indeed it does, and of course I have done a number of entomology interviews where you look at maggots on the corpse and how long does it take for the fly to lay eggs and eggs. to hatch, and you can determine the Schedule. But another thing you just mentioned was aquatic forensic work. Is this a new area or something that people haven’t focused on much before?
Paola Magni: Well nowadays it’s become a new area because there are a few more people taking an interest in it. You must always remember that we live on the blue planet, the planet is mostly covered with water rather than earth, and humans are not aquatic animals, we are not mermaids, it is very, very easy to die in the water or to hide something, evidence or a body in the water.
There are so many cases of drowning in swimming pools in Australia still every day. How many cases are just sudden deaths and things that happened because it’s just an unfortunate situation, and how many cases are murders? This is something we need to investigate. And what happens in water is vastly different from what happens in a terrestrial environment. The animals that can intervene in the decomposition process will obviously be different. Have you ever seen a fly swim? No, the fly is flying. But there are other insects in the rivers or in the lakes or in the wells which can reach the body, but not in the sea. In the sea we have their cousins, the crustaceans, they arrive and they do not eat the body, they colonize clothing. So instead of analyzing what happened to the body, I personally work on the clothes and the shoes. Being a woman interested in fashion this is actually pretty good because for one of my research I had to buy 128 shoes of one type and 128 of another type. Combining fashion, forensic medicine and shopping.
Robyn Williams: Imelda Marcos /Silent witness star, yes indeed. But give me some examples of cases you have worked on that relate to water.
Paola Magni: Well there was a case in Western Australia where there was something suspicious under the water it was a package and we didn’t know what it was and then the toxicologist then figured out that it was a bomb. And what I was asked was how long this package (at the time I didn’t know what it was) is underwater. The reason is that if you put something fishy and dangerous underwater and stay there for a few days, there are only a certain number of people who can be in danger. But if the same thing stays underwater for an extended period of time, say a year, there are more people who can be involved in a possible accident. So the fine imposed on the person who turns out to be the author of this, well, they might get a different kind of fine, a different kind of outcome of the case.
Recently, I took part not in the investigation but in comments on the discovery of the shoe apparently of Melissa Caddick in Sydney. I was asked to comment on this simply because I’m the only one working on shoes and what happens to shoes underwater, how shoes are colonized, how shoes can move in the ocean because they have positive buoyancy, so following the currents you can get information about the origin of the shoes.
Robyn Williams: It’s very interesting because of course she was accused of committing a fraud, millions of millions of dollars, and her body was gone, and people thought in Dover Heights that she might have jumped and had committed suicide. And his foot came off, and there was this running shoe or whatever. So from Western Australia did you go east to look at the shoe or what?
Paola Magni: Not in this case, because we currently have problems to travel even within the country. I had a conversation with people there and received photos to look at, but in a different situation I will go there because I need to see firsthand what’s going on.
Robyn Williams: Are many colleagues experts in aquatic work?
Paola Magni: Unfortunately no. It would be nice to compare our research results with those of other people. Aquatic is very complex because there are a lot of dynamics that we have to consider, so the experts are there but are in different fields. So we have people who are more interested in the toxicological point of view, I am interested in zoological things and also in the planktonic information that one can get from the bodies involved in the suspicious death, be it the victim or the author. And then there are also the coast guards who can help us because they know a little more, people who work on satellites to see what is happening because we cannot go back in time but with a satellite that I can see in time. So the survey can be quite exciting because it is very related to new technologies and it has never been conducted before.
Robyn Williams: Is there a lot of demand for your work? Isn’t Western Australia a very peaceful place with few killings?
Paola Magni: It is certainly one of the most peaceful places I have worked …
Robyn Williams: Compared to Italy?
Paola Magni: Coming from Italy and working a lot in the south, there are a lot of mafia and camorra situations that I have been involved in. It is a peaceful place but obviously there are always situations that you can never foresee. Recently we had the case of a human being found underwater, hidden in a wheelie bin. Hidden environment and water, piled up decomposition. We have had cases of a skull found on Rottnest Island. We have had cases of quokkas that were killed and stuffed into a tree in Rottnest. And one of my latest research is on understanding the decomposition processes on Rottnest Island, because until this research nothing was known about what is happening on Rottnest. Is it the same on the continent where we already have data, or is it different? Because if a case arises there, I need to have some basic data to back up my conclusions in court.
Robyn Williams: What happened to the case in the wheelie bin? Was it very delicate?
Paola Magni: In this case I think there was a person who confessed to the murder quite quickly, but it was very interesting from my point of view because in my research I am interested in hidden environments, limited environments, so I ‘ve worked in suitcase body decomposition, and helped my former PhD mentor in his work on wheelie bins and farm body decomposition in America.
One of my other jobs that I did recently is on nicotine. Few people smoke in Australia, but a lot of people use electronic cigarettes. The reservoir of the electronic cigarette is extremely toxic. If a small person or a small child drinks it, they can die. Even a small child with nicotine stains on their body can be poisoned. It is something that you can buy in a supermarket. So human bodies can be very good bodies but, hello, it’s very easy to die, and things around us can be very, very dangerous.
Robyn Williams: Paola Magni is Senior Lecturer in Forensic Pathology at Murdoch University. And besides inferring who the murderers are in a case, she too, as you’ve heard, is also keen to analyze environmental phenomena. Appropriate for this International Environment Day.