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The Serial Podcast

Ann and I must have been under a rock during the late fall of last year because we both managed to miss the original airing of Serial, a new podcast from the creators of NPR's This American Life. It came to my attention after Christmas through one of my Feedly blogs and immediately intrigued me. I downloaded all 12 episodes to my iPod, but then didn’t have a chance to get to it for a couple of weeks. But once I got started, I binge-listened to the entire series—nearly 12 hours long—in three days because I was hooked.

Ann and I are big on research (HUGE understatement there) so the podcast as a whole was fascinating from a process standpoint. Journalist Sarah Koenig, a producer of This American Life, researched and hosted the program. During the course of her research, she was granted access to not only the case records and photos through the Freedom of Information Act, but also audio records from police interrogations and from both trials (the first ended in a mistrial). Many of those clips are included in the podcast, giving the listener the effect of being immersed in the case as it progressed. Ms. Koenig and her team followed old leads, rechecked stated alibis, researched 1990s architectural plans, and even drove the route driven by the suspect that day to confirm timetables. It was a very in depth analysis of a single case.

This is the true story behind the podcast: On January 13, 1999, eighteen year-old high school senior Hae Min Lee disappeared in Baltimore, Maryland. She was last seen at Woodlawn High School, but both she and her Nissan Sentra went missing after leaving the school. She was supposed to pick up her six year-old niece, but she never arrived. On February 9, her body was discovered, buried in a shallow grave in Leakin Park. She had been manually strangled.

Three weeks later, seventeen year-old Adnan Syed, the ex-boyfriend of the victim was arrested for first degree murder. The case was put together based almost solely on information gleaned from police interviews with a friend Adnan spent the afternoon with, and cell phone call records from that day. They even determined the time of death based on those call records—Hae was killed during a 21 minute interval during the afternoon. The friend, Jay Wilds, reported that Adnan had shown him Hae’s body in the trunk of her own car after strangling her in a Best Buy parking lot. He also said that he helped Adnan bury the body in Leakin Park. It was Jay that led police to Hae’s car, weeks after her death and after her body had been recovered. When the case went to trial, Adnan was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

One of the great challenges of the program is the time elapsed since the events. People were asked to recall back fifteen years to events that happened in 1999. I don’t know about you, but often I have trouble remembering what happened at a specific time last week, forget about more than a decade ago. Most people had to admit that unless there was something specific that happened that day to make it stand out, memories of that time were vague and consisted of details like ‘I’d usually be in class at that time’. Adnan himself admits that he isn’t sure of his exact whereabouts that afternoon.

An interesting aspect of the podcast series was that it wasn’t recorded and then aired. They were working on later episodes as earlier ones were airing. Because of this, people who were familiar with the case or were personally involved started to contact the producers. Some of these were people who had never been contacted by police and had new information to contribute.

There were several areas of the case that certainly left the listener feeling as if they were not getting the whole story. For instance, a classmate of Adnan’s reported seeing Adnan at the library next door to the school during the 21 minute window when he was supposedly murdering Hae. If so, it's a physical impossibility that he could have crossed town to the Best Buy location and committed the murder. But did Adnan’s lawyer ever contact this classmate to bring her in to testify at either trial? She did not. Also, there is the matter of Jay’s constantly changing story to police. Each time they brought him into interview, his story changed—some aspect of where they went that afternoon appeared and then disappeared from the narrative, or the location of important actions, like Adnan showing Jay the body, changed with each telling. When Ms. Koenig drove the route Jay testified he and Adnan had taken the afternoon of the murder, the locations didn’t match the cell phone calls that took place at the same time (based on the physical location of towers pinged during each call). In my mind, this makes Jay about the most unreliable witness possible, yet the entire case was built upon his version of the story told during trial.

As someone who is interested in forensic science, the aspect of the case that horrified me most was the lack of evidence to support the case. The entire case rested on Jay’s testimony tied to records of cell phone calls from the afternoon. But while samples were taken from the victim, DNA testing was never done. DNA samples were taken from under the nails of a victim who died by manual strangulation while likely struggling for her life, and it was never tested for evidence of the killer's identity? Even a rape kit was done and while they tested for the presence of sperm, they never actually tested for DNA. Considering the lack of sperm, any DNA recovered would likely only belong to Hae, but it should have been tested regardless. Hairs were taken from the victim’s body, macroscopically compared to Adnan’s and found to be a mismatch, and then never pursued further. A liquor bottle was found near the body and collected. But it was never tested for DNA, something that might have pointed them toward a different killer, or confirmed the suspect they had in custody. This was 1999, well after the O.J. Simpson case; DNA testing was not new at the time. There’s no reason why this evidence was never explored.

As the podcast series ended, to the surprise of many listeners, there was no dramatic reveal or the unveiling of an alternate suspect. One of the police consultants the producers brought in described the case as ‘a mess’ and that was how it remained. There was no conclusive evidence one way or the other to exonerate Adnan or confirm his guilt. Many listeners were unhappy with the close of the podcast, but this is real life in the legal system—sometimes a case doesn’t have a neat ending tied with a bow like you see on TV.

As a result of the podcast and the attention it drew, the case is now in the hands of The Innocence Project, a group that works to exonerate innocents who have been convinced of crimes. They claim there is another suspect outside the investigation who might be responsible. Ronald Lee Moore had been in prison in Baltimore for sex crimes in 1999, but was released from prison just days before Hae disappeared. DNA samples previously collected from Moore, who killed himself in 2012, will be tested against the DNA evidence taken from the victim. Other suspects will also potentially undergo comparison DNA testing. They will also look into the possibility that Adnan’s lawyer, suffering from MS at the time (she has since passed away), botched the case. So the story of Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed may be far from over.

Did any of you listen to the podcast? If so, what did you think?


Forensic DNA Phenotyped Facial Imaging

On January 9, 2011, in Columbia, South Carolina, Candra Alston and her three year-old daughter Malaysia Boykin were brutally murdered. When no one heard from them in over three days, Candra’s father went in search of his daughter and granddaughter and discovered their bodies inside their own apartment. A computer, an expensive designer purse, and some children’s clothing were the only missing items. There was no sign of forced entry, leading the police to believe that Candra had known her assailant. There were no eyewitnesses to the crime and very little evidence was recovered from the scene. Police have released few details about the crime regarding the types of evidence or even the method of death beyond describing it as an “extraordinarily violent manner”.

Candra had a wide circle of ‘in real life’ and virtual friends over several social networks. Columbia police have interviewed hundreds of people from South Carolina and a number of other states. Over one hundred and fifty DNA samples were taken from possible suspects. Unfortunately, not one of the possible suspects has matched DNA recovered from the scene. More than three years after the fact, the case has officially gone cold.

But this past week, the case took an interesting twist. Enter Snapshot, a brand new, cutting-edge technology created by Parabon Nanolabs with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense. Snapshot is a new tool not only for law enforcement, but also for national defense organizations. Dr. Ellen McRae Greytak, the director of bioinformatics at Parabon, likens the technology to a DNA blueprint as opposed to the DNA fingerprint of typical sequencing.

Snapshot analyzes the DNA of a given sample, looking specifically at known gene sequences that affect our appearance, and then compares those specific sequences against a database of 10,000 subjects of known appearance. From these complex algorithms, Snapshot is able to produce a virtual likeness of an individual based on their DNA in a process called ‘forensic DNA phenotyping’. It not only predicts ancestry (even if mixed), but skin, hair and eye colour, face shape, and even the expected amount of freckling. The picture above was released only a few days ago by the Columbia, South Carolina police, revealing a potential representation of the suspect in the Alston/Boykin slayings. This is truly groundbreaking technology.

Currently, Texas is the only state to allow forensic DNA phenotyping. As often happens, acceptance of groundbreaking technology comes with skepticism and caveats. Foremost is how accurate the results are if this type of evidence is being used in criminal cases. The image to the right shows an example of one of the database subjects, both the virtual prediction based on the analysis of her DNA and her actual picture. While not exact, it’s a fair representation of the subject, enough in a criminal investigation to delve deeper with established gold standard techniques like DNA profiling.

Where Snapshot is at it’s most useful is through exclusion. Looking at the same image to the right, you can see that it has the highest statistical confidence in excluding the groups the subject does not belong to. Even if the system does not give a 100% accurate estimate of the suspect, just knowing who he/she is not still gives law enforcement an immense investigative lead by narrowing the suspect list and allowing investigators to concentrate on more likely individuals. Imagine a killer leaves skin cells under his victim’s nails during an attack. Given a set of exclusions, it might be determined that the killer was a male of Southern European decent with olive skin, black hair, and brown eyes.  This kind of information would progress a case by leaps and bounds in the absense of an eyewitness to the event.

The virtual estimation of the man above was released by the Columbia police in hopes it would generate additional leads. Time will tell, but with a little luck, maybe Candra and Malaysia will find justice after all.

Photo credit: Parabon Nanolabs and the City of Columbia, SC Police Department

We're coming to the end of our giveaways and only have a few copies left. Don't miss out on one of your last chances to get the new paperback version of DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT or an advanced copy of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER. Enter now!


Goodreads Book Giveaway

Dead, Without  a Stone to Tell It by Jen J. Danna

Dead, Without a Stone to Tell It

by Jen J. Danna

Giveaway ends January 31, 2015.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win


Goodreads Book Giveaway

Two Parts Bloody Murder by Jen J. Danna

Two Parts Bloody Murder

by Jen J. Danna

Giveaway ends January 31, 2015.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win



The Million-Mummy Cemetery

Welcome back to the blog! Ann and I would like to wish you a very happy New Year and all the best for 2015. It’s going to be an exciting year for us, with the latest release in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries next month and hopefully a few announcements along the way.

Here on Skeleton Keys we like to talk about forensics and forensic anthropology, but an offshoot of that is archeology. A big announcement in the field of archeology was made in December when we’d already gone on hiatus, so we wanted to make sure we took the time to talk about it when we came back. A team of Egyptian archeologists from Brigham Young University in Utah announced that they discovered new and startling details concerning a cemetery estimated to date back to between the 1st and 7th century A.D. This isn’t just any ordinary run-of-the-mill ancient Egyptian cemetery, if there is such a thing—this is a cemetery containing an estimated one million mummies.

Let’s stop for a minute and consider that. One. Million. Mummies. That’s 30% more than the current population of Boston, all in one cemetery. Truly mindboggling.

The cemetery is located on the Fag el-Gamous necropolis in the hot desert climate of the Faiyum region, sixty miles south of Cairo. The cemetery itself is not a new discovery—it was first revealed about 30 years ago—but for the first time, scientists are beginning to understand the scope of the find. So far, only 1,700 bodies have been excavated from the deep troughs cut into the limestone terrain, but the breadth of the cemetery is known, allowing them to estimate a total population size. The bodies are buried in dense groups: in a section of land only five meters square and two meters deep, an average of forty bodies are found. In some sections, the limestone shafts go down as deep as 23 meters (that’s 75 feet for our American readers). Do the math over the entire 300 acres and there could be a total of one million mummies.

There are some definite curiosities about the cemetery. The first being that there aren’t any nearby cities that would have produced such an immense number of deceased persons that didn’t already have its own burial ground. So where did the dead come from? It’s clear that these were not upper class Egyptians. While effort has clearly been put into burying the dead with love and care, the internal organs are almost always still intact (removal was an important step in the full mummification process of the rich and powerful), and the dead were buried with few, if any, grave goods. Instead of being buried in coffins, the bodies were wrapped carefully in linen or reeds and laid into the hot desert sands. It is the climate, rather than the burial process, that mummified the remains.

The burial pattern is also interesting. The remains are found grouped together by hair colour—blond hair in one section of the cemetery, red in another. Another group all had excellent teeth, an unusual trait for the time. It appears likely that families with strong genetic ties were all buried together.


One of the most telling burials discovered to date is that of an 18-month old girl. Lovingly wrapped in a tunic and linens, she was found almost completely preserved, indicating that her loved ones had done their best to start the mummification process for her. She wore a necklace and two bracelets on each arm, signs that she was buried with most of the family’s meager wealth as a sign of their love for her. She was found with several other bodies, likely family, but genetic testing will hopefully tell archeologists more.


The Fag el-Gamous site is clearly a cemetery of the common man during a time of Roman and then Byzantine rule in Egypt. The people who buried their dead were not the rich and powerful; instead they were the families that buried their loved ones with care and all their small wealth as they were able. Items such as small glass pots, glass beads and colourful woven children’s boots have been recovered. It says much about the people of the region.

Photo credit: Kerry Muhlestein, Brigham Young University



This is our last week before we’re going to take a break here at Skeleton Keys to enjoy the holidays (and write like crazy). But before we go, we wanted to share a holiday gift with our readers. We’ve got a little teaser for you today—the first three chapters of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, out on February 18, 2015 in hardcover and ebook formats.

If you want to read it in published format like in the book itself, you can find it here as a pdf: TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER  Chapters 1 - 3

For those that prefer to read it on the website, the entire excerpt is below. Enjoy!

And before you go today, be sure to enter the two giveaways at the bottom on this blog post. We're giving away a copy of the brand new paperback edition of DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT and an advanced reading copy of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER. Enter both for your chance to win!

See you back on the blog on January 13th as we begin our run up to the release of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER. From both Ann and I, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Click to read more ...


Forensic Case Files: Richard III’s Unexpected Surprise

We’ve been following the fascinating story of Richard III for over two years. From the discovery of remains in a parking lot suspected to be the long lost king, to the confirmation of the identity of the remains, to the legend of the Princes in the Tower, and to how Shakespeare coloured the way society regarded him, Richard has been a regular visitor to this blog. We thought the story was pretty much complete, but last week a new and surprising detail was announced by the scientists studying Richard III’s DNA: somewhere in his lineage there was an unrecognized illegitimate birth of a ‘royal’ son. Although we’ll likely never know where the break in legitimacy occurs, the implications could impact Britain’s history, right up to the present day.

When the remains were first discovered in Leicester, archeologists were cautiously optimistic that they’d discovered Richard III simply from the physical properties of the remains—the spine of the skeleton showed significant scoliosis and curvature. Shakespeare introduced the image of Richard as a hunchback (‘that foule hunch-backt toade’; Richard III, Act 4, scene iv), but back in Richard’s time, contemporary writings only make note that one of the Richard’s shoulders was higher than the other—a clinical symptom of scoliosis.

The group of scientists from the University of Leicester studying the remains wanted to confirm Richard’s identify in several ways:

  • Archeological: Richard’s remains were suggested to have been buried beneath the quire of Greyfriars Abbey. The abbey was destroyed in the 16th century, but its location was loosely known. The remains were found below where the quire would have been in the 15th century.
  • Osteological: The remains belonged to a man in his late 20s to early 30s, who suffered from scoliosis, showed signed of healed battle wounds, and had died from terrible fresh wounds presumably acquired in battle.
  • Radiological: the remains were dated to have come from 1456 – 1530, bracketing Richard’s death date of August 22, 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

The only method left at this point was to identify the remains by DNA, definitively connecting the long-dead monarch to modern living relatives. There were numerous challenges in this process however. First of all, it would be the oldest individual identification ever attempted on remains 527 years old. Also, Richard died with no living offspring, so all connections would have to be made through his sister Anne’s line.

The two types of DNA they wanted to examine were mitochondrial DNA—DNA passed down in near-exact copies through the female line— and the Y chromosome—the male sex chromosome. Two modern relatives, one a 16th cousin twice-removed, and one an 18th cousin twice-removed, were used for comparison. Scientists also analysed the sequences for both hair and eye colour to determine what the individual looked like.

They determined the DNA from the remains would have shown the characteristics of a man with blue eyes and blond hair. Although Richard was always portrayed with blue eyes and brown hair, they proposed that he was blond as a child. As a result of this analysis, they feel the painting that best portrays the monarch is the oldest surviving portrait, displayed at the Society of Antiquaries (see above).

The mitochondrial DNA proved to be an exact match between Richard and the female relative, confirming the same mitochondrial DNA passed to Richard from his mother was also passed to his sister and then down through the intervening generations.

But when they looked at the Y chromosome, an interesting disconnect arose. Due to issues around partial Y chromosome recombination, scientists only considered the retained/non-recombining sections of the chromosome. But even within those segments, a match could not be made between Richard and the male relative. A ‘false paternity’ event had occurred, interrupting the true family line. Three additional modern male relatives were subsequently tested and none of them matched Richard.

Overall, a complete Bayesian analysis of the skeletal DNA sequences report a 99.999% chance that this is indeed Richard III. So scientists are confident without a doubt now that their identification is complete.

But the big question remaining concerns the false paternity event and, more importantly, when it happened. If it happened in the line following Richard III, the royal lines remain unaffected. However, if the line happened before Richard, the royal line as we know it might have been affected. If the illegitimacy goes back to Edward the III and his son John of Gaunt three generations before, then it actually disqualifies Henry IV, V, VI, VII and VIII, and from there the entire Tudor and subsequent lines from the throne. The final supposition of which is that Queen Elizabeth II should not be on the throne and the royal line should instead have gone through Lady Jane Grey.

It is almost a certainty that we’ll never know the truth of where this break in the royal line occurred, and English history will remain as we know it, but it certainly makes for some interesting speculation when you wonder what England would have been like without the powerhouse of the Tudor dynasty. The Tudors were responsible for dynamic changes in world exploration and colonization, they brought about cultural change during the Renaissance, and had a huge impact on world religion when Henry VIII separated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church. It makes one wonder how world history might have changed if they had never come to power.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons 

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Two Parts Bloody Murder by Jen J. Danna

Two Parts Bloody Murder

by Jen J. Danna

Giveaway ends December 11, 2014.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win