Killer Swore He Wasn't at Lake. Bug Scientist Proved the Lie

'Smithsonian Magazine' profiles pioneering forensics expert Paola Magni
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 14, 2024 5:01 AM CST
Updated Jan 14, 2024 5:31 AM CST
Killer Swore He Wasn't at Lake. Bug Scientist Caught Him
Paola Magni in a screen shot from video.   (YouTube)

Investigators in Italy initially ruled the death of teenager Federica Mangiapelo to be from natural causes. Her body was found near an Italian lake, though it wasn't clear whether she had actually been in the water. The case seemed closed until a police officer who had recently attended a presentation by bug expert Paola Magni suggested she take a look. As Smithsonian Magazine explains in a profile, Magni found telltale traces of microscopic phytoplankton (called diatoms) on the clothes of Federica's boyfriend, destroying his claim he had not been to the lake that night. "Goosebump moment," recalls Magni. A new autopsy found the same diatoms in Federica's tissue. The boyfriend is now a convicted murderer, and that 2012 case launched Magni into a pioneering role in her somewhat obscure field of forensics entomology. (The story notes that the US has fewer than 20 people accredited by the American Board of Forensic Entomology.)

Magni has a formidable knowledge about bugs of all kinds, and what their presence can tell us about decaying bodies, and she has a particular expertise in uncovering secrets from bodies found in water—the story digs into the sometimes grisly scientific principles at play. Magni, in her early 40s, is a native of Italy who obtained her master's at Michigan State and now teaches forensic science at Australia's Murdoch University, and she has in the last decade become an "international figure" in her field and even an "academic celebrity" in Italy, writes Jordan Michael Smith. A character in a CSI-like show in Italy is modeled after her, the story notes. While she finds the science fascinating, Magni says the cases involving female victims around her age haunt her. She is Australia's ambassador to the Red Shoes Project, an art initiative that raises awareness of gender-based violence. Read the full story. (Or check out other longforms.)

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