UWI student reiterates value of insects to crime investigation

It is Rochelle Daley’s dream to see forensic entomology implemented across Jamaica and other Caribbean countries.

Daley, a PhD candidate at The University of West Indies (The UWI), told the Jamaica Observer that forensic entomology, otherwise called insect evidence, can be a major addition in the investigation of crimes involving the death of an individual.

“It is a long-term goal amongst our research group to see forensic entomology implemented as a practical field used in Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. This will take co-operation from all sides — the researchers, those who work in the judicial system, law enforcement, and the Government of Jamaica. The value that this can add to our country must first be acknowledged and funded for the future and betterment of our country,” Daley explained after last week’s research seminar series hosted by UWI’s Department of Life Sciences.

Forensic entomology, the scientific study of the developmental stages of arthropods that colonise cadavers, can be utilised to determine the time of death among other important information about a crime or victim.

Daley’s appeal comes five years after the Jamaica Observer first highlighted the value of the science to the investigation of crimes. In a 2018 article, the Observer reported then PhD candidate at The UWI Latoya Foote expressing surprise at the casual manner in which evidence that could have helped determine time of death was being raised during the enquiry into the security forces’ May 2010 operation in Tivoli Gardens to apprehend Christopher “Dudus” Coke.

More than 60 people were found dead after the operation, and Coke, who had fled the community during two days of fighting between gunmen loyal to him and the security forces, was eventually captured on June 22 and extradited to the United States to stand trial on a number of charges. He pleaded guilty to racketeering and is now serving a 23-year prison term.

“Many times they said they found maggots on the bodies and they were just mentioning it, and to me, this is evidence,” Foote told the Observer at the time.

“In many of the cases they said that they didn’t know whether the individuals were killed before the operation or during the operation. But based on the maggot activity that they found, that information could have been given. So they had the evidence but they did not know how to use it,” added Foote.

Dr Jeffrey Wells, an associate professor at Florida International University’s Department of Biological Sciences and the Global Forensic and Justice Centre, was the main speaker at last Thursday’s seminar at The UWI. He spoke on the topic of molecular genetic applications for forensic entomology.

Ahead of the seminar, Dr Wells reiterated to the Observer that the study of flies and their movements is highly important in cracking criminal investigations.

“This seminar concerns aspects of forensic science, in particular death investigation. I know some people might find that a bit gruesome but…certain insects are highly attracted to human corpses and lay their eggs on the victim, then these grow up as larvae, or what we call maggots. This can be quite useful evidence in the investigation,” he said.

Dr Wells said that with the knowledge of forensic entomology, investigators at a murder scene can utilise maggots and other insects to answer “very important questions”.

“There are standard questions that would happen in any death investigation — who is this dead person? How did this person die? When did this person die? And this is a part of the process of reconstructing the circumstances of the death, and it is obvious why that’s important,” he said.

“Insects provide a couple of biological clocks that may help the investigators to narrow down the window of time during which the death occurred,” Dr Wells continued.

With this in mind, investigators utilising this science would be able to estimate the time of a crime to narrow down their list of suspects, he said.

“If I go to a death scene and I collect a maggot from the corpse and I am reasonably sure that the maggot is three and a half days old, then almost certainly that person has been dead for not less than three and a half days. Based on that analysis, it could be longer because we are not trying to estimate how it took the mother fly to find the corpse,” said Dr Wells.

In addition to that, the associate professor said understanding the types of insects found on a crime scene is a very useful skill.

“The other way is to take advantage of the fact that the set of species that are found on the body change over time, so there are flies that will be attracted to someone who is freshly killed and there are species that won’t come right away — they will come in after other insects have started to feed, and then there are some insects that will come later. This is the biological process of succession. The set of species present on the corpse change as a function of how long decomposition has occurred,” Dr Wells explained.

For her part, Daley told the Observer that she is studying the species of flesh fly that is mostly found in Jamaica.

“I am currently studying flies from the family sarcophagidae, flesh flies, of forensic importance. This is one of the main families used in forensic entomology to calculate post-mortem interval which can be used as evidence in criminal cases,” she said.

“I am working on the identification of these flies using larval morphology and their biology. There is little known about the biology of the flesh flies we have in Jamaica and one of the first critical steps in forensic entomology is identification of the insect of importance.”

The PhD candidate said that inviting Dr Wells to share his research on forensic entomology at the research seminar series was also a move to foster a relationship between The UWI and Florida International University.

“At The University of the West Indies we have a developing forensic entomology programme with MPhil and PhD candidates from the Department of Life Sciences doing research on the topic to generate baseline data and a course provided by the Faculty of Medical Sciences on forensic entomology within the forensic science programme,” Daley explained.

“Professor Wells is a well-known and respected forensic entomologist and we at the university wanted to foster a relationship with him and his university to broaden the awareness of this field and its potential benefits to the Jamaican legal system. It was enlightening as [students] doing research in forensic entomology to hear from a certified practitioner within the field,” she said.

“From this initial contact and traction generated from his presentation, we hope to truly stamp the importance of forensic entomology as a tool that can aid in legal investigations amongst Jamaica’s high unsolved criminal cases,” Daley told the Observer.