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Forensic science

A forensic scientist is unmasking the planet’s tiniest criminals – minute creatures who contaminate crime scenes and threaten to throw detectives off the scent.



Italian-born Dr Stefano Vanin, who lectures at the University of Huddersfield, is making discoveries which will enable crime scene investigators to determine whether injuries to a body or damage to a corpse’s clothing were caused by a human killer … or were the work of insects which moved in after death had taken place.


Very often, says Dr Vanin, tiny creatures can cause lesions to a dead body which closely resemble injuries left by a human assailant.  For example, ants which clamber over a corpse’s face can deposit marks which mimic the effects of a punch.  It is vital that detectives can separate post-mortem insect damage from wounds that were caused before death by a killer.


Dr Vanin is building up a body of knowledge about the various ways in which insects can distort crime scenes and he reports on some of his latest findings in the new issue of the journal Forensic Science International.  This time he investigates the damage caused to dead bodies that are found underwater, where they are preyed on by aquatic creatures. Retrieval of the body of a 28-year-old man in the River Brenta, at Padova in Italy, provided Dr Vanin with the opportunity to add another piece to his jigsaw of knowledge. The man had drowned – witnesses had seen him struggling in the water and there were no signs of injury on the body.  But during the autopsy a series of small abrasions in the upper eyelids were discovered. These were caused by large numbers of amphipods – tiny, eyeless crustaceans which had been feeding on the body and were discovered when the corpse was pulled out of the water.


This enabled Dr Vanin and his colleagues to analyse and record the post-mortal damage caused by the amphipods.  The marks were very similar to those deposited by ants on dry land.


As a result, when detectives and forensic scientists are examining future corpses recovered from fresh water, they will have data which will help explain unusual markings on the body.


Born in Treviso, Dr Vanin came to the University of Huddersfield in March 2011.  His previous post was at the University of Padua.  His research is wide-ranging.  For example, he is involved in a project to analyse some of the hundreds of mummified bodies, possibly 500 years old, that were discovered in the vaults beneath a church at Roccapelago in Italy.


And he has played a role in one of Europe’s most notorious murder cases, which culminated earlier this year in the jailing of Italian killer Danilo Restivo, found guilty of the killing of Heather Barnett in Bournemouth.


Restivo’s alleged first murder victim was the Italian girl Elisa Claps in 1993.  Her body was not discovered until 2010, but a link – the fact that Restivo cut the hair of his victims – was made between the two crimes.  Dr Vanin was asked to estimate the season of Elisa Claps’s death and to analyse modifications to the crime scene that were possibly due to insect activity. The article ‘Post-mortal lesions in freshwater environment’, by Stefano Vanin and Silvano Zancaner, appears in Forensic Science International 212 (2011).


Embracing new scientific partnerships could unlock possibilities for developing the research base in forensic science and translating this into solving crime, a researcher in the field has said.


Professor Niamh Nic Daeid, of the University of Strathclyde’s Centre for Forensic Science, suggested that, while great technological advancements have been made in recent decades in the use of science to detect crime and secure prosecutions, much more fundamental research needs to be done – particularly in understanding and evaluating the effectiveness and usefulness of the technology available or being developed to address operationally relevant questions.


Professor Nic Daeid delivered Strathclyde’s Faculty of Science’s annual lecture on Tuesday, 15 May, on the theme of Developments in Forensic Science: a new age of enlightenment. She drew parallels with the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century, which saw thinking in science, economics and philosophy put into practical use with worldwide benefits still being felt. The lecture came at a time of extensive international debate over the rigour of scientific evidence presented in court cases and of structural changes to forensic science in the UK. 


Prof Daeid said: “Although there has been great progress in the technology used in some areas of forensic science, the actual physical examinations, other than in DNA, haven’t altered a great deal and there is still a lack of fundamental understanding and scientific underpinning of many aspects of the subject.


“For example, if you sit on a chair, we still don’t completely understand why some fibres will transfer to the chair while others won’t or how, why and under what circumstances those fibres will persist. Similarly, assessments of blood patterns may not always take into consideration how the blood interacts with the different surfaces it lands on and what effect this will have on the resultant bloodstain pattern.  These and other fundamental issues have been recently highlighted in the US National Academy of Science report on forensic science and echoed elsewhere.


“At the Centre for Forensic Science, we’re involved in a wide variety of research looking into fundamental issues associated with different evidence types, with a heavy emphasis on the robustness of the scientific approach and rigorous analysis of the resulting data.  Our work includes operational involvement and relevance to real world problems such as fire investigation, drug profiling and body fluid identification.


“There are high expectations of forensic science and it’s important to enhance the understanding we have so that we can deliver on these expectations. In Scotland – between Strathclyde and a very few other institutions – we have one of Europe’s major research bases in forensic science and, with the proposed reforms of Scotland’s police and fire services as well as the provision of forensic science and legal services, this has been a good time to look at how we can work together, practitioners and academia in partnership, to increase knowledge and enhance practice.”


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