Gallery: Fighting crime - in the lab

Forensic science is a crucial tool in bringing criminals to justice.

James Marston

Forensic science is a crucial tool in bringing criminals to justice. It helps solve burglary, rape, murder, vehicle theft - the list is endless. JAMES MARSTON finds out more.

FORENSIC evidence has helped bring to justice some of Suffolk's most notorious killers and criminals.

The murders of Joan Albert, Dawn Walker and five Ipswich sex workers have all be solved with significant help from evidence gathered by Suffolk police's scientific services team.

Evidence found and disclosed at the scenes of crime can make a huge difference in putting criminals behind bars and making Suffolk one of the safest places in the UK.

But how does forensic science work in practice? How is evidence collated and who does it?

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David Stagg, scientific services manager said: “The whole process begins with the scene of a crime and that is where the scientific aspects begin.

“We have three scenes of crimes officers (SOCO) teams in Bury St Edmunds, Lowestoft and Ipswich and they cover all of Suffolk.

“SOCO examine the scenes for classic evidence like DNA, fingerprints and trace evidence like fibres and glass and also footwear evidence, there is often quite good evidence on footwear. SOCO are among the first to arrive.”

The core function of scientific services is to examine crime scenes and take forensic exhibits, which will provide investigating officers with intelligence to help in the investigation of the crime and identify the offender as well as provide forensic evidence to secure a successful conviction.

Scientific investigation begins when a scenes of crime officer (SOCO) visits a location where a crime has taken place. He will be looking for minute clues or tell-tale traces that could identify the offender or prove a particular suspect's involvement in the crime.

This material has to be examined, catalogued and analysed - and the unit at Halesworth provides the facilities to carry out much of this work.

David added: “There are two aspects to our work, volume crime like burglaries vehicle crime, criminal damage and theft and major or serious crimes like murder, rape or robbery.

“Some evidence is quite obvious, other evidence is latent or hidden but can be revealed by forensic techniques. A good example is fingerprints.

“A finger mark is a very fine film of sweat that gets left behind when somebody touches something. We use special powders to disclose the evidence and then match the mark with the finger print database. If we think there may be a finger mark on other items like plastic or paper we use various other techniques in the fingerprint development laboratory here in Halesworth.

“The SOCO will recover the item and bring it here and we use the chemicals or other techniques to see if a fingerprint comes up.”

David said other forensic evidence is submitted to external forensic service providers across the UK. The services are paid for by the constabulary.

Scientific services is divided into four units:

Scenes of crime

Photo imaging and fingerprint development laboratory

Fingerprint bureau

DNA administration.

David said: “SOCOs use digital photography and these images are processed by the photo-imaging unit at Halesworth.

“The photo-imaging facilities include a digital mini-lab which utilises touch-screen technology to produce conventional prints from all kinds of media, digital or analogue, including different video, DVD and photography formats.

“There are two sides to the work of the photo imaging and finger print development lab, one is the general production of photographic evidence from things like robberies, road traffic accidents and other scenes of crime.

“The team also provide graphic reconstructions of things like crime scenes, injuries used to present in the court to demonstrate what has happened. This makes it easier for juries and means they do not have to look at the real images of the injuries caused.”

Senior photographer Neil Longdin said: “We process SOCO digital images and produce images for court presentation and images for forensic comparison. We also manage the custody database of images.

“Our graphic interpretation pulls together witness statements, images and forensic evidence so it is easier to understand when in the justice system.”

The fingerprint bureau processes finger marks submitted by SOCOs.

These finger marks can be added to and checked against the National Automated Fingerprint Identification System (NAFIS IDENT1), a computerised system which holds around six million sets of offenders' fingerprints, along with finger marks from other undetected crimes.

Graham Cook is the constabulary's principal fingerprint officer and has been working in the bureau since 1969.

He said: “We process fingerprints taken from offenders and potential offenders in custody. We also make identifications by using finger marks taken from scenes of crime compared to IDENT 1.”

Graham oversees a team of ten including eight fingerprint experts. These experts go through a stringent training process that can take up to five years.

He added: “The experts provide the witness statements to court on a daily basis. There is a buzz when you make an identification and we make identifications of people from across the UK. Suffolk has its share of travelling criminals.

“Fingerprints are very strong evidence and we have been successful in recent years with high numbers of identifications being made year on year.

“We have stringent quality control processes and each identification is checked by three people so it is a rigorous system and a big team effort.”

Staff at the fingerprint development laboratory conduct the specialist treatments which enable prints and marks to be taken from materials ranging from paper to polythene bags.

Alison Usher, fingerprint development officer, said: “We use various chemical procedures to find the latent fingerprints off objects like envelopes, newspapers, anything really.

“The theory is often quite simple but it has to be a consistent process and on a scientific basis. There are many different ways used to find a latent finger mark and we also have portable equipment we can use to go to a scene of crime.”

DNA samples are also proving very effective in detecting offences.

Suffolk's Scientific Services has a DNA administration unit, which deals with DNA samples taken from prisoners and crime scenes in Suffolk for the National DNA Database.

Christine Barrow, DNA database administrator, said: “Two mouth swabs are taken from each prisoner, each has its own barcode on the swabs and packaging and paperwork. Various protocols must be adhered to and followed before the samples are placed in the freezer to await collection.”

Suffolk Constabulary takes a DNA sample from anyone arrested for a recordable offence.

Christine added: “We process about 150 samples a week that come in from police stations across Suffolk.”

Over the last 20 or so years David has witnessed forensic techniques develop significantly.

He added: “I've worked in SOCO for 23 years. When I started we were limited to blood grouping, now we have DNA evidence which is far more accurate and reliable.

“We work on the principle that every contact leaves a trace and as science has moved on those traces are more and more usable.

“There are more opportunities to retrieve forensic evidence and the evidence itself is much better. We now have national databases and national resources we can use so we can search remotely and stop transient criminals.

“The use of forensic science in tackling crime has brought us and the public more offenders to justice.”

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The investment in scientific services has greatly contributed to the reduction in burglary offences within Suffolk over the past year.

In 2006-2007, SOCOs attended 3,162 burglary scenes and also dealt with 2,494 vehicle crimes across the county. This yielded a total of 1,048 DNA hits and fingerprint identifications for Suffolk crimes.

The Suffolk Constabulary Scientific Services department has a total of 48 staff and a budget of more than �1million a year.

FORENSIC science was instrumental in bringing serial killer Steve Wright to justice in 2008.

It was in December 2006 that the world's media spotlight shone on Ipswich with a killer preying on sex workers.

Codenamed Operation Sumac, the hunt for the killer was intense as police from across the country battled to stop the killings.

David Stagg remembers the moment of breakthrough that police were looking for.

He said: “We were under tremendous pressure and it was unprecedented for how fast-moving the enquiry was.

“It was very challenging and there was huge pressure to deliver. The first two bodies found were naked and in running water which made forensic evidence difficult to collate. But we managed to get evidence from the other deposition sites and that evidence was instrumental in making an identification at an early stage.”

David said the evidence was used alongside other policing techniques to make the breakthrough including studying CCTV footage and making house-to-house enquiries.

He added: “There was a killer on the loose and at that stage we did not know who had done it though we had some lines of enquiry. Then a name came up and we had a match with the three land-based depositions. It was late afternoon on a Sunday and it was the boost the investigation needed.

“It was hugely rewarding and it brought an end to the offending.”

n Dawn Walker was found dead beside the River Lark near Bury St Edmunds in February 2005 and her ex-boyfriend Kevin Nunn, formerly of Woolpit, was convicted of her murder.

n Joan Albert, 79, was stabbed 12 times in her home in Capel St Mary in December, 2001. Simon Hall was convicted of her murder.

After starting his working life in the research and development lab of a board mill in the north of England, David joined Cumbria Constabulary as a scenes of crime officer (SOCO) in 1986 and became a senior SOCO in 1990.

In 1999 he became Suffolk's principal SOCO and he now oversees 24 SOCOs based at Ipswich, Lowestoft and Bury St Edmunds plus DNA administration staff at the scientific services base at Halesworth.

As head of scenes of crime and the DNA unit for Suffolk Constabulary he is responsible for policies and force forensic strategy, budgeting and equipping staff with the appropriate information technology and keeping up-to-date with the latest developments in the fast-moving forensic world.