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Loyola biology faculty win $154K grant from U.S. Department of Justice to develop technique for law enforcement to distinguish fly artifacts from human bloodstains

| By Nick Alexopulos
David Rivers Loyola University Maryland
Loyola biology professor David Rivers observing blue blow flies used in forensic research.

A team of faculty members in the biology department at Loyola University Maryland has won a $154,521 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to help ensure more accurate analysis of critical evidence in crime scene investigations by developing a technique for law enforcement to distinguish fly artifacts from human bloodstains.

No empirical methods currently exist for reliable distinction between fly artifacts (e.g., regurgitation and feces) and human body fluids, and fly artifacts are virtually indistinguishable morphologically from human bloodstains. Absence of a method, much less a tool for law enforcement, leaves the distinction to subjective interpretation, which is highly problematic because the artifacts can be mistaken for true bloodstains. At a crime scene, fly stains provide false information about the location, direction, and appearance of blood spatter evidence, hindering reconstruction efforts.

“Our goal is to add a new arrow to the quiver of tools and techniques available to crime scene investigators so they can determine whether certain evidentiary objects are actually meaningful to their overall investigation,” said David Rivers, Ph.D., professor of biology and principal investigator on the grant. “Ultimately our hope is to further enhance the accuracy of the independent and unbiased investigations that are absolutely essential for someone to get a fair trial.”

Rivers will lead the two-year project with collaborators Rebecca Brogan, Ph.D., associate professor of biology, and Andrew Schoeffield, Ph.D., associate professor of biology. The team will bring on a Loyola undergraduate student research assistant through Loyola’s Hauber Research Fellowship Program in summer 2017 and another in summer 2018. Involvement in the project is an opportunity for students to experience a direct, applied aspect of biology and shape their identity as scientists.

The idea for the project evolved from Rivers’ scholarly interest in forensic science and forensic entomology and courses he teaches in Loyola’s interdisciplinary minor in forensic studies, which has grown more than 200 percent since its launch four years ago.

“We’re excited,” said Rivers. “This area of research in forensic science is extraordinarily limited worldwide.”

The results of their research will, at minimum, complete the complex beginning stages of developing a detection assay that leads to confirmatory fly artifact tests. The assay will require minimal training to use to ensure widespread adoption among crime scene responders across the United States. Target audiences for the results of their research include bloodstain pattern analysts, crime scene technicians, and researchers working to develop enhanced tests and measures for evaluating physical and trace evidence discovered at crime scenes.

This award, from the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), is one of two DOJ grants Loyola has received this year. In September, Loyola and nine other Baltimore-area colleges and universities together won a $750,000 grant from DOJ to generate new strategies to prevent, respond to, investigate, and hold offenders accountable for sexual assault and dating violence, and strengthen trauma-informed, victim services on campus and in the community.

More information about awards from the DOJ’s National Institute of Justice is available at nij.gov.

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