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Britain’s forensic scientists are the best in the world: So why is their elite force being disbanded?

Posted on: April 20, 2011

If the shoe fits – Britain’s world-leading forensic criminal scientists will rapidly know who to pin it on. Adam Luck reports on the extraordinary laboratories that convict the guilty and acquit the innocent… and asks why so many are soon to be shut down.

mmy award-winning make-up artist Diane Chenery-Wickens was supposed to join her husband David in London on the afternoon of January 24, 2008, after her meeting with the BBC. But she never turned up. He telephoned the police to report her missing, then returned to Hazelden Cottage, their home in Duddleswell, near Uckfield in East Sussex.

When interviewed by police, David Chenery-Wickens, a 52-year-old psychic healer, professed his innocence. But within days lines of search teams dressed in white-and-blue protective suits were drafted in to start combing the woods around their house to hunt for clues.

On February 5, the first submissions from the couple’s house and car were bagged, taped, sealed and sent to the Forensic Science Service (FSS), a grim concrete bunker in south London on the site of what was once an abattoir. Once there, the items were recorded on the central computer and filing system before being transferred to a central store unit where an inventory is kept of who has handled what, where and when.

Among the items examined by senior forensic scientist Dr Sarah Jacob and her team were 13 pairs of shoes, along with images of another eight pairs, to see if a match could be found with a partial footprint found in the couple’s Audi A4.

But this first batch of items sent to the FSS did not include Mrs Chenery-Wickens’s watch and ring. They were not seen by police at the cottage.

The FSS holds the most comprehensive collection of footwear patterns in the UK, gathered over 25 years, including sole and upper shoe images, brand logos and examples of each type of footwear.

Posters from the National Footwear Reference Collection help narrow down the type of shoe they are looking for if all they have is an imprint, while an online footwear coding and detection database, including tread patterns, helps officers quickly identify any footwear marks left at crime scenes and then perhaps link them to other crimes and suspects.

The Lambeth FSS laboratory is the only one in the UK to have developed so-called ‘Cinderella analysis’, which means its scientists can show who the regular wearer of a shoe is, using information such as the angle of footfall and weight distribution. They are also building a comprehensive database of soil from around Britain (they hold 10,000 samples from England and Wales), to help place someone at a crime scene or to eliminate them.

It was not until May that police were called to a wood where a dog walker had reported a strong smell and skeletal remains were finally found. Soon after, in a further search of the cottage, Chenery-Wickens’s watch and ring were found. Her friends insisted that she wore them constantly, so when they suddenly appeared police suspected that they had been removed from her and then placed back at the cottage.

 A police officer personally delivered the wedding and eternity rings to DNA specialist Helen Myhill at the Lambeth laboratory. Separate laboratories were used for items owned by Diane and her husband to prevent cross-contamination.

‘The items were examined using an illuminated microscope for any staining that looked like blood,’  she says.

‘There were stains on both rings which had the visual appearance of blood and which gave a positive chemical test result.’

The specks were tiny, but beyond that the FSS scientists were further able to prove not only that her blood was on the rings, but also that they had been removed when she was actually bleeding.

‘At least some of the bloodstains present on the rings had formed as a result of small blood droplets landing on them. The bloodstaining on the rings was in a similar position on the outer uppermost surface and not on the inner surface. Given the appearance and location of the bloodstaining on the rings, in my opinion it was most likely that they were being worn when they became bloodstained.

‘This was particularly relevant to the investigation as the items were not present when the cottage was searched initially, but after her body was found.

‘At the trial, the prosecution suggested that David had revisited the body at the deposition site to remove the jewellery from Diane to prevent her being identified.’

The evidence from the lab proved vital, and in March 2009 David Chenery-Wickens was convicted of murder at Lewes Crown Court and jailed for life with a minimum tariff of 18 years.

The FSS has four remaining laboratories – in Lambeth, Wetherby, Huntingdon and Birmingham – and processes around 90,000 cases a year.

It helped to identify the victims of 9/11 in New York, the 7/7 bombings in London, and even the Russian royal family (remains were found in a shallow grave in Yekaterinburg, central Russia, in 1991).

It regularly deals with cases of murder, sexual assault, burglary, drugs and firearms. As scientific techniques have developed, so has the ability of the FSS and the police to consider ‘cold case reviews’ using something called Low Copy Number (LCN) testing, which can take minuscule traces of DNA from clothing or other items and amplify them to get a DNA profile.

But in December the Government announced that the FSS would close by March 2012. Home Office minister James Brokenshire said that the service was losing £2 million a month and stated it was ‘uncompetitive by charging too much for its services and consequently losing business to commercial rivals’.

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