• Researchers are studying the decomposition process inside suitcases and dustbins
  • They use nearly 70 samples of stillborn piglets
  • The study will be presented at a forensic science conference next year

Crime cases involving dead bodies found abandoned in suitcases are so common. We hear such stories every other day. But these suitcase crimes hamper forensic analysis of the remains. To make things convenient for forensic scientists across the world, a team in Australia is conducting the largest-ever study of simulating dead bodies in suitcases.

Most crime movies show criminals leaving dead bodies above ground in open spaces or buried underground in shallow graves. In reality, the murder victims are hidden in inconspicuous items available at the last minute.

Mostly, criminals look for something that is easily available, large enough and does not draw attention. Moreover, it should be convenient to carry around. The humble suitcase checks all the boxes.

Additionally, suitcases cover the decomposition for a while, buying time for the criminal to arrange for an alibi or disappear.

Forensic researchers dub them "limited access environment," because suitcases limit, delay or completely hamper one of the natural things that happen after someone is dead: the arrival of insects.

Generally, in a crime involving decomposing dead bodies, forensic entomologists can predict a lot of things by analyzing the insects found on them. They can estimate the time of death, spot the presence of drugs and foreign DNA and help in the event reconstruction of the crime.

Carrion insects – such as blue and green bottle blowflies, flesh flies, house flies and coffin flies – can hone in on the smell of decomposition due to highly specialized olfactory systems.

A cadaver exposed to a temperate environment will attract carrion flies on account of the smell produced by the decaying body. The insects will colonize the body within a few hours and lay eggs on the orifices and wounds. The tiny larvae hatched from the eggs would then start consuming the body.

But a suitcase presents a unique situation. It physically bars access to the insects. It remained unclear as to how insect dynamics change in these limited access environments.

Only two other pilot studies – one in the United Kingdom and another in Western Australia, have focused on this aspect before.

The new study focuses on the decomposition process in suitcases and dustbins using almost 70 samples of stillborn piglets. The researchers measured temperature, humidity and amount of rain in the field and inside the suitcases.

There was an initial delay in carrion insect colonization, but the team found eggs of blowflies on and around the suitcase zippers within a month.

As the suitcases were opened at intervals, the larvae of blowflies, along with coffin flies and some beetles, were found on the dead bodies. By this, the research teams inferred that the progeny of large flies and beetles must have reached the body through the gaps in the teeth of the zipper.

On the other hand, smaller flies could move through the zipper as adults and lay eggs directly on the decomposing remains.

Once the larvae transform into adult flies, they get trapped as none of them can escape the suitcase. This offers an opportunity for forensic scientists, as these trapped insects represent a rich source of information and can find toxicology-related data preserved in their exoskeletons.

The first data from the study will be presented at a forensic science conference in February next year.

Representative image of a suitcase PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay