Detectives turn to podiatry to help solve murder case
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Smithfield detectives are turning to an obscure scientific discipline to bolster their case against a Newport News man charged with murder. They hope a foot specialist will be able to confirm that a shoe left behind at a murder scene on Dec. 19, 2012, was last worn by 24-year-old Shymeek Stanfield.
"This is new for us," said Smithfield police Lt. Patrick Valdez, one of two detectives investigating the shooting death of Travis Newby. "From what I understand, it's been used in just a handful of cases across the nation."
There is a reason for that. Forensic podiatry is just now starting to draw the attention of law enforcement.
Dr. John A. DiMaggio, president of the American Society of Forensic Podiatry in Oregon, said that his organization formed in 2003 and has fewer than 60 members around the world. He added that the International Association for Identification - the world's largest forensic organization - only recognized it in 2009.
DiMaggio, who is not involved with the Stanfield investigation, said forensic podiatrists typically examine bare footprints and footwear. On occasion, they are asked to review a homicide victim's bones and, if they have access to video, a person's gait.
It's sometimes possible to determine who wore a shoe by examining the imprint inside and comparing it with another one the person wore.
Dr. Michael Nirenberg, a podiatrist in Crown Point, Ind., who conducts forensic exams on the side, said he must look at the two shoes and make numerous measurements. From there, he steps back and sees whether the various shapes match.
"You want to identify enough things that you can determine a person made a footprint, or in the alternative, that there is no way they made it," he said.
Valdez said he didn't know such comparisons were possible until late May, when Nirenberg contacted him. The doctor read about the Stanfield case online and offered his assistance.
"I was like, 'Is this a joke? Is this real?' " Valdez recalled. "But he seems to really to know what he is doing."
DiMaggio estimated that law enforcement seeks the help of his membership on 30 to 40 cases a year. But he expects that number to grow as more police departments learn about the discipline.
"I think they are buying into it more and more," he said. "These things take time."
Part of the problem is that forensic podiatry is not an exact science. DiMaggio noted that it is difficult for a podiatrist to say with certainty a person wore a shoe.
"It's usually not 100 percent," he said.
DiMaggio said the science is typically used when police have a viable case but want additional evidence to tie a suspect to a crime.
Stanfield is set to stand trial Sept. 16 in Isle of Wight Circuit Court on one count each of first-degree murder, robbery and use of a handgun during the commission of a felony. But earlier this year, prosecutors encountered problems when they presented their evidence in court.
General District Judge W. Parker Councill dismissed all charges against Stanfield on May 15, citing a lack of evidence.
Jennifer Walsh, Stanfield's attorney, said the judge did not believe that DNA recovered from the scene conclusively linked her client to the crime.
After Stanfield was released from custody, Commonwealth's Attorney L. Wayne Farmer chose to take the case before a grand jury. He secured three felony charges against Stanfield.
"We are pretty confident our case is sound even without the testimony of Dr. Nirenberg... but if we can put his foot in the shoe, that would be a nice something extra," Valdez said.
Walsh said this week that she didn't know until The Virginian-Pilot contacted her that the Police Department was interested in her client's shoes.
A search warrant affidavit filed in Suffolk Circuit Court in June, less than two weeks after Stanfield was indicted, indicated that detectives wanted to examine the shoes he was wearing when he was rearrested May 23 in Yorktown.
Valdez said investigators took pictures of the inner part of the size 11 Nike tennis shoes and sent them to Nirenberg. Detectives haven't heard back yet, but if the doctor says there is enough of an imprint on the insole, they might take the shoes to Indiana for examination.
DiMaggio, who co-authored a textbook on forensic podiatry that was published three years ago, explained that the key to making an identification is the shoes.
"It's hard to make a positive identification," he said, but "you can get pretty close."