Dr. Neal H. Haskell loves bugs. Roaches, flies, ticks, spiders, wasps - he loves them all. What he likes most about bugs is how they can help solve a crime. Neal Haskell, Ph.D., B.C.E. is a forensic entomology consultant. He assists investigators with crime scenes by identifying the insects that appear on the scene.
Haskell worked and testified at the Casey Anthony trial and Canada’s Homolka/Bernardo trial. He is qualified as an expert witness in 27 states and assisted in over 700 cases. He holds a Masters of Science Degree with a focus in Forensic Entomology (the first such degree in the U.S.) and a Ph.D. with Forensic Entomology (the first in the U.S. in that specific area of study). He has provided thousands of coroners, investigators, law enforcement officials, and medical examiners with skills and information on entomology (the study of insects) and forensics. Dr. Haskell knows his creepy-crawlies and can tell about a crime scene by examining the bugs that surround it.
“Forensic entomology is the name given to any aspect of the study of insects that interact with legal matters,” Dr. Haskell explains. Time of death can be determined by examining the larva and insects on the dead body. Location of death can also be determined as so many insects are indigenous to certain areas. Insects can aid in child and elderly abuse cases, theft cases (i.e. a stolen vehicle infested with bugs or has them in the undercarriage), and burglary (the thief left a clue behind when it fell off a shoe or clothing). The bugs can aid in identifying DNA and drugs in the deceased person’s system.
There are specific methods for collecting and preserving the insects. Careful measuring of various liquids must be done to either kill or preserve the insect. Shipment of insects must also follow a meticulous procedure. The insects are considered evidence, and the evidentiary value can easily be destroyed if handled incorrectly. Supporting data is equally important. Soil samples need to be taken at specific depths, and video, photographs, and weather information is vital.
“The most important group of insects associated with the decomposition of the human corpse is my friend, the blowfly,” Dr. Haskell says. The blowfly is usually the first insect to appear and will show in just a few minutes after death; it can smell dead flesh over a mile away. They lay eggs in less than an hour, depositing 250-300 eggs in several clutches.
Forensic entomology is “one of the first models for forensic science,” Dr. Haskell will tell you. In 1265 it was used by Chinese workers to solve a murder. A group of workers were clearing land with sickles when another killed one of the workers with the bladed instrument. The work supervisor had all workers lay their sickle down on a table. Flies were naturally drawn to the murderer’s sickle because of the miniscule blood traces, and the owner of the sickle was revealed as the murderer. In 1563 Francisco Redi used blowflies in his studies. “By the 17th and 18th Century, forensic entomology was established as a science.”
Dr. Haskell has assisted in many cases, helping the innocent go free and the guilty served justice. That is a lot of work for a tiny bug -- until forensic entomology consultant Neal Haskell, Ph.D., B.C.E. steps in.
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Credit: photo of Judith Yates