Forensic entomologist speaks

November 12, 2013

"Insects are the most reliable scientific means of establishing time intervals of death." That was the lesson delivered Friday afternoon at Trine University by Dr. Neal Haskell, an expert and founder of forensic entomology.

More than 100 students, faculty, law enforcement and community members listened as Haskell explained how he relies on the life cycles of insects to determine time and location of death. It's also clear that Dr. Haskell employs humor as he recalls tasks that many might consider grim, macabre or just plain awful.

As he spoke about his work as an expert witness, he interjected bits of humor – often at the expense of lawyers. In one case, a lawyer asked him to tell about the oldest case he has faced. Haskell mentioned a case in which four bodies, all with the right sides of their skulls smashed. He determined death likely occurred between June and September based on the insect evidence. Taking insect activity into account, he narrowed it to June or July when the insects would have been most active. When the lawyer implied the case was not very old, Haskell replied it was in 750 AD; that brought laughs from the audience.

He has testified as an expert witness in numerous trials across the world and country, including the 2011 Florida trial of Casey Anthony, who was accused of murdering her toddler daughter, Caylee. He showed images of Caylee, Casey Anthony's white Pontiac  that was found abandoned and trash found in the car's trunk. Haskell brought the trash to his Indiana lab to determine whether it contained anything that would have attracted insects. He determined the toddler's dead body, not the trash, lured the insects.

The Trine University Future Forensic Scientist (TUFFS) club made possible Haskell's speech at Trine. Carol Absher-Vaughn, TUFFS president, extended the invitation. He encouraged the forensics students to get business cards for networking and to "come to Rensselaer when you graduate" to pursue graduate studies with him and his team. When he fielded questions, at least two times he asked the student posing the question if she would like to work on a project or apply for a grant to study an idea – stressing the need for business cards.

Haskell is well-known in the forensic science community as one of the founders of forensic entomology in criminal investigation. Entomology refers to insects and forensics refers to investigation into the cause of death. He co-authored the first textbook on forensic entomology for law enforcement and has been hired by hundreds of law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and Indiana State Police, as a forensic entomology consultant.

Dr. Haskell is a faculty member in the biology department at Saint Joseph's College in Rensselaer, Ind. He has received 11 grants for his research.

His work has been featured on PBS, A&E, The History Channel and The Learning Channel and in Popular Science and Discovery magazines. Dr. Haskell's work has also been published in several major journals and books and helped inspire the popular television show "CSI," short for crime scene investigators. The book "Dead Reckoning" by Dr. Michael Baden and Marion Roach devotes a full chapter to Dr. Haskell's research and training in Rensselaer and interesting case studies.

After Haskell was introduced, he asked Dr. Ruth Kohlmeier, a forensic pathologist who teaches at Trine and serves as advisor of TUFFS, to join him on the stage. He presented Kohlmeier with a copy of his book, "Entomology & Death: A Procedural Guide," and a T-shirt that pokes fun at the role of maggots.

Here's the buzz

Three interesting insect facts from Haskell's talk:

Forty percent of organisms on Earth are bugs.

Nearly 1 million insects are known.

There may be more than 10 million insects yet to be found and named.

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