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Scanning for the facts: Forensic testing centre born of automotive tech helps police and prosecutors get to the truth

Using high resolution digital scanning technology and 3D printing has transformed the way the police collect and present evidence in criminal investigations and resulting trials in recent years. It was West Midlands Police Force’s initial conversation with Professor Mark Williams at WMG, University of Warwick, which triggered this innovative work and led to establishing the Forensic Centre for Digital Scanning and 3D Printing.

Underpinned by the principles of Metrology (the science of measurement), the Centre offers a number of techniques and services and has a track record of supporting the West Midlands Police on high profile cases through techniques such as X-Ray scanning and 3D rendering to expose microscopic injuries or uncover causes of death.

Detective Chief Superintendent Mark Payne from West Midlands Police explains: “We knew we needed precision measurement to crack a particularly complicated case, which involved matching bone fragments from a dismembered body with the tool potentially used to do it.

“We had heard about the scanning kit that WMG had, and that it was being used in new ways, so we set up the meeting with Professor Williams to see if we could work together.”

Professor Williams was already working with a knee surgeon to help him measure the accuracy of a reconstructed joint. He had made very high resolution images of a cadaver knee, producing image resolutions 1000 times more detailed than a hospital CT scan. This helped the surgeon to perfect his methods before operating on his famous footballer patients.

Professor Williams says: “When the surgeon approached me I considered it a little outside my normal work in automotive research, but well within the capabilities of the lab’s technology, so I was really interested in what we could produce.

By chance the cadavers used for medical research were stored in the same mortuary as those under investigation by forensics and pathology and that is how news of the very high resolution scans of body parts reached the West Midlands Police.”

How tech is key to unlocking the truth

DCS Mark Payne says: “Having seen the images Mark produced of knee joints and the incredible level of detail they showed, we knew this kind of technology could be applied to minute pieces of evidence in difficult cases.”

In 2014 the force took the grisly case of dismembered body parts found in a suitcase to Professor Williams. They wanted to see if the WMG scanning technology could help answer some questions.

Professor Williams comments: “We were able to help the West Midlands Police by examining a charred piece of evidence thought to contain human bone. We discovered that it was a perfect jigsaw fit to another piece of bone in the suitcase and, using the very high resolution scanning technology, we were able to show the tool marks on both pieces in micro scale (one 50th of a millimetre). These matched the characteristics expected for the type of saw the offender had disposed of, alongside the victim.

“Our 3D printed models of the two pieces were able to demonstrate the evidence to the jury in court.”

DCS Mark Payne of West Midlands Police, continues: “In this case of complex dismemberment, we were able to deliver one of the first examples of micro-CT technology as a forensic radiological method in a UK courtroom.

“Since that first case, we’ve continued to work closely with the WMG team over several years. Their advanced 3D scanning technology has proved crucial in helping us uncover the truth behind some of our most serious crimes. It has undoubtedly played a key role in convicting killers and helped us better understand the circumstances surrounding other deaths.”

Professor Mark Williams adds: “In one case, where we were tasked with producing technical evidence, a post-mortem examination had revealed two fractures at the base of the person’s skull, only centimetres apart - this did not appear consistent with a fall. At the scene, a damaged front door and signs of a struggle in the hallway meant detectives had suspected foul play.

“We were able to produce a precise 3D printed model of the skull in our lab which was taken to the scene where it showed perfect matches with the geometry of the door handle. This suggested that the individual had fallen, twice hitting his head. The model therefore helped establish an accidental cause of death.”

Access to state of the art technology

The establishment of the Centre is continuing to drive forward techniques and research areas. Since the first case in 2014, Professor Williams and lead researcher Dr Val Baier – Warwick’s first forensics research fellow – have worked on hundreds of cases with police forces from across the UK.

Assistant Director of Forensics for WM Police, Michelle Painter, comments:

“This strategic partnership with WMG has enabled police forensics to access state of the art technology to progress investigations.”

The Centre’s high resolution X-ray (micro-CT) scanner supported the investigation into the high profile story of nine week-old baby Teri-Rae Palmer – a case which made national headlines.

The technology was used to scan the rib cage of baby Teri-Rae to produce images with one thousand times the detail of a hospital scanner, enabling the expert team to detect two more microscopic injuries which could otherwise have been missed by conventional medical CT scanners.

The evidence produced helped reveal a total of ten injuries of varying ages. 3D renderings of these injuries were shown during trial to provide visual context and support the bone specialist’s expert testimony.

This secured a guilty verdict for the charge of manslaughter for Teri-Rae’s mother.

Endless research possibilities

Assistant Director of Forensics for WM Police, Michelle Painter, adds: “In addition to the homicide cases being delivered through the centre, we are also pushing research boundaries; combining scientific skill, knowledge and history with innovative technology and presentation techniques.

“Additionally, PhD studies have commenced on dismemberment tools and we will be finalising further research projects including scanning fingerprint and footwear marks and assessing damaged digital devices for protected data sources. The research and partnership possibilities are endless and exciting.”

Professor Williams continues to find the work challenging and significant. He says: “This is important work which at times can be difficult but it is hugely satisfying to be able to produce information which contributes to finding the truth for victims and their families. It is equally important that our research can rule out foul play.

DCS Mark Payne concludes: “It’s vital UK policing is innovative in its use of technology and embraces academic developments. This is a pioneering partnership with WMG and one that puts us at the forefront of police forensics. I’m delighted West Midlands Police has been able to provide funding to sustain and develop the fantastic collaboration between us and WMG.”

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