Saturday, 18 July 2015

Forensic Imaging Software: A Tool to Break Cold Cases?

One group pioneering this technology is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), a nonprofit organization that works with law enforcement agencies and families to aid in cases of missing and exploited children. The NCMEC utilizes a variety of functions to fulfill its mission of helping to find, aid, and protect children. The agency has had great success in the past through its initiatives, as it has assisted in the recovery of more than 208,000 children.

Computer generated imagery is a relatively new technology, although it has been used heavily in recent years in cases of missing or unidentified children and has proven to be vital in investigations. This unit was first instituted by the NCMEC in 1990, and has been used so far in 6,000 age progressions, 1,300 of them leading to children being found or identified through the pictures. CNN reports, “forensic imaging and age progression are often fairly accurate and can help find the missing or unidentified children.” When comparing images created by forensic artists to real life photographs, it is evident that they are very close to the real thing, and are an integral tool in most cases.

For example, a recent case in Massachusetts has renewed focus on the benefits of forensic imaging technology. The remains of an unidentified young girl, who is believed to have only been about four years old and has been dubbed “Baby Doe,” were found in a trash bag on a Boston Harbor beach about three weeks ago. Even though the following computer-generated image of her has been seen by millions of people, authorities have had little to no luck in their efforts to identify her. This tragic case has mystified law enforcement and captivated the hearts of Americans nationwide, as people continue to search for any clues that could lead to the identification of this girl.

Authorities are working furiously to find any possible lead that could help them to identify the girl, perplexed as to how no one has recognized her yet. It is not clear whether her death was accidental or intentional, and investigators are desperate for any information at all that could lead to her identity or the cause of her death. Law enforcement in Massachusetts has teamed up with the NCMEC since this agency is well trained in these types of situations and offers many useful resources, including its expertise in forensic imaging.

The image of Baby Doe was created by Christi Andrews, a forensic artist who works with the NCMEC and who tried to make the face of the girl look as realistic as possible using Adobe Photoshop. In order for Andrews to join the Forensic Imaging Team and become a specialist, a job she has had for twelve years now, she had to first receive extensive training in order to master the software. She constructed the image by studying the precise details and photos from the autopsy. The picture has been shared hundreds of thousands of times on multiple different social media platforms and seen by over fifty million people, but unfortunately, no valuable tips have arisen.

This type of software is instrumental in many cases because it assists investigators in their efforts to identify deceased victims, create realistic, up-to-date photos of missing people that can be used when searching for them, and can garner useful information from the public once released. In the case of Baby Doe, Andrews was limited to pictures and information given from the coroner, although when creating age progression images, artists can often utilize pictures of family members to analyze similarities and use this to generate life-like images. Our culture’s obsession with taking photos has actually proven to be useful when it comes to creating these age progression images because it gives the specialists more to study and compare to.

After these images are produced, they are distributed to the masses via a variety of platforms, such as social media, billboards, flyers, through news stations, or other sources. The goal is to have as many people view it as possible so that the likelihood of someone recognizing the subject and contacting the police increases. This tool is especially helpful in cases of children who have been missing for many years, because the age progression feature gives investigators a glimpse of what the children might look like currently. This is crucial because not only does it increase the chances of other people recognizing this person, but also the missing person themself might see it. There might be children out there who were abducted at too young of an age to remember and are raised in a new family, so if they were to see these images displaying missing children that resemble them, this might cause them to recover old memories or even come forward if they suspect that they could be the child. Forensic imaging software is a critical tool for a multitude of reasons, although most importantly, it can be used to solve cases that seemingly have come to a screeching halt.

Saturday 18 July 2015

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MH17 dead honoured in Eastern Ukraine

Late in the afternoon of July 17 last year, Marina Volkova was nearly killed by a dead body.

Her husband, Yevgenny, a miner, was watching television and she was on the computer when two powerful blasts reverberated through their home in the village of Rosipnoye, Ukraine.

In the context of war, the explosions did not come as much of a surprise. Knowing that combat aircraft had been operation in the region, she assumed the village had come under attack.

"We'd already spoken about what to do," she told The Daily Telegraph a few days later. "So we dashed across the yard to the cellar."

It was then, as she opened the door of the house, that something crashed into the yard.

It was the body of a woman. They still do not know her identity.

Almost everyone in the villages of Rosipnoye, Grabovo, and Petropavlivka has similarly horrific memories of the moment Malaysian Airlines flight 17 was destroyed 10,000 metres above their homes exactly a year ago.

But for many, July 17 2014 was just one particularly dark day in a nightmarish war.

The war between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists has now killed more than 6,000 people. The grim reality, as Mrs Volkova put it last week, is that people were already living in fear when MH17 crashed, and they continued to do so for months afterwards.

Shortly after the disaster, the war washed over the crash site like a tide, leaving shell holes and bits of rocket scattered amongst the chunks of fuselage, airline seats, and personal effects that remained here for months before being moved.

Compared to other towns, Grabovo got it "relatively light," said Vladimir Berezhnoi, the local mayor, talking about the war as one would the weather. "We were only in our basements for a couple of nights."

The war has now retreated. Rebel gains over winter pushed the front so far away that you can now visit the crash site without seeing a single soldier, and the locals are making a stab at returning to normal.

But the approach of the anniversary brought back memories that many had repressed.

"I didn't sleep for nights, and it wasn't because I was busy," Mr Berezhnoi said last week as he recalled last summer. "I had never seen anything like that - bodies, bits of bodies, hands, legs, heads - and I never want to again."

"The smell is still there - not so much the bodies, but definitely still the fuel. And we still find bits. Bits of plane, bits of people," he said.

Eight lorries of such "fragments" have been dispatched to the Netherlands in the months since, he said. Many more likely remain in the earth.

For Mr Berezhnoi, who says villages have voluntarily brought in money, laptops, and phones found around the crash site, the reports of looting that circulated at the time were both offensive and confusing.

"It was a surprising thing to read. How could we have done? The soldiers set up checkpoints on both ends of the road straight away. We couldn't even get to the site."

"I think the Dutch didn't believe those stories, because the last time they were here the investigators offered everyone in the village humanitarian assistance," he said.

In fact, says Mr Berezhnoi, the tragedy and the war have in many ways brought out the best in people.

"We have a saying: tragedy brings people together. Before the war, if I tried to organize a subbotnik, or voluntary clean up, I'd get 15 or 20 people at most. When a shell made a big crater in the road I just had to say the word and hundred people showed up to help," he said.

Much as the recovery effort fell to the locals, so too has the business of remembrance.

Each village was holding a memorial service Friday - a modest attempt to honour the foreign dead.

And the villagers have also raised the only monuments to the disaster.

In Grabovo, the road-side cross that greets travellers entering the village has taken on the role of a shrine. Its traditional inscription of "save and protect" assuming a new, more sombre meaning since the centre section of MH17 fell in an inferno of black smoke and flame in the meadow across the road.

One of the few relatives of the dead to make the difficult journey here has left photographs of a victim pinned to it. The locals maintain a wreath there.

It is a fact lost on few that Grabovo itself escaped destruction by a margin of a little over 10 metres - a strange stroke of fate that Mr Berezhnoi thinks the village priest may find worth mentioning in his memorial sermon.

Across the road, on a telegraph pole next to the still charred earth of the centre-section fire, someone has affixed a placard with a poem of remembrance.

A new memorial at Grabovo, funded by donations from across the region, was unvieled at a ceremony attended by representatives of the separatist government on Friday.

At Rosipnoye, an Orthodox cross has been raised on the spot where the cockpit ploughed into a sunflower field.

A modest flower bed is arranged at its foot, and in front of it have been placed two tiny plastic hinges with American serial numbers - the kind of wreckage that can still be found in any garden or field in the area.

Mrs Volkova, who planned to lay flowers from her garden at the site, says she would like to see something more permanent.

At the Volkova's house, 100 yards away, the roof destroyed by the falling corpse has been repaired and the window that it hit bricked up.

Under the same eaves, a family of house martins has built a nest - a sign for good fortune for a house in Russia and Ukraine, and in many ways the very opposite of the tragedy that occurred here a year ago.

"They say that's a good sign," said Mrs Volkova. "So we're hopeful."

Saturday 18 July 2015

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