So why is forensic textile evidence out of fashion…?
The recent ITV drama prompted me to revisit yet again the conundrum as to why the majority of police forces in England/Wales rarely consider the value of textile fibres during their investigations. Many no longer consider fibre recovery as part of their forensic strategy – potential evidence can be left behind and cases left unsolved.
There are various reasons why this happened. Back in the day, the Forensic Science Service routinely offered this service to the police nationally. Each laboratory had its own Forensic Fibre Expert – indeed I was one of ‘em – that was mirrored across many forensic laboratories internationally.
Of course, science moves on, techniques fall in and out of favour. DNA testing and digital forensics came like tsunamis. These techniques revolutionised the value of forensic science in the criminal justice system. Fibres took a backstep – the process was slow, the evidence often subjective, nor as powerful as DNA. The expertise soon became diluted.
DNA however, does not provide all the answers and the presence (or absence) of textile fibres, not only assists with contextualising criminal events, it can also assist in those most awkward of investigations where conventional DNA testing is confusing or has even drawn a blank. The location of transferred fibres can be particularly effective in targeting those key exhibits which are more likely to harbour that valuable DNA result. I and my peers have had considerable success applying this approach in high profile unsolved historic murders.
Two cases spring to mind:
The Pembrokeshire Murders. This was the most complex of cold cases which had been reviewed and re-reviewed over the years. I became heavily involved with the team in 2006 and painstakingly reconstructed events of both the Coastal Path murders, those at Scoveston, a couple of unsolved sexual assaults and the antics of the suspect, John Cooper. Eventually we found a tenuous link from a glove recovered from a hedgerow to the coastal path scene. This same glove was subsequently linked to both the Coastal Path victims and to various exhibits within Cooper’s home which subsequently linked in terms of fibres with the two sexual assault victims and Scoveston. Eventually using other exhibits, we unfolded the most complex of tapestries. Not only linking all the crimes together and back to John Cooper’s home but also pointed to those exhibits which were most likely to contain the DNA of the victims – a shotgun and a pair of shorts. The prosecution team didn’t wish to lose the jury on the technical aspects so I gave an effective media presentation in court in 2011. I always considered this was my Swan Song, the highlight of my career, but then…
The Claremont Killings. I was instructed in 2019 by the defence on a historic case in Western Australia – probably the largest case in the past 20 years. The murders of two young ladies in the late 90’s remained unsolved. The prosecution purported that the accused used his car to execute the crimes. Eventually the vehicle was located and inevitably the evidence emerged. Fibres from work uniform at that time and interior fabrication of his fleet car were linked to both victims. I spent 18 months ensuring the evidence was safe and robust. It was a compelling case and fibre links were paramount to the ultimate conviction. Bizarrely, one of my former fibre colleagues, Dr Ray Palmer, was also involved. He assisted the Australian fibre experts in their evaluation of the evidence. It was a thought-proving and particularly thorough case using a novel fibres database. The Australian experts were particularly well versed with the subject matter.
Undoubtedly, the prosecution would have struggled to get cases such as these to court without the extensive fibre links. There are plenty of other similar cases.
Whilst I’m not “the last man standing”, it is fair to say, forensic fibre experts are now a rare breed. The application of fibre techniques and associated expertise in England/Wales is on the endangered list. How many more cases will remain cold if this discipline becomes extinct?
Roger Robson – Affiliate, Principal Forensic Services and Visiting Professor Staffordshire University