Crime-buster’s dream

Auckland City Harbour News - - FRONT PAGE - By EMMA WHITTAKER

A NEW foren­sic sci­ence fa­cil­ity will make crime that much harder to get away with.

En­vi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence and Re­search is a crown re­search in­sti­tu­tion that pro­vides ad­vice to the po­lice, the Min­istry of Jus­tice and other agen­cies.

The foren­sic teams based at its Mt Al­bert ser­vice cen­tre help po­lice solve crim­i­nal cases, ex­am­ine and dis­man­tle clan­des­tine drug labs and pro­vide ex­pert ev­i­dence in court.

A $5 mil­lion up­grade of the cen­tre has just been com­pleted. In­cluded in the re­vamp is a new firearms test­ing area that fea­tures a 25m in­door range and bal­lis- tics fir­ing tank. Sci­en­tists work­ing in the lab hope to make world-first ad­vances in analysing blood­stain pat­terns and ‘‘backspat­ter’’ from gun­shots.

In­ter­na­tion­ally there have been a num­ber of con­tentious cases where peo­ple ac­cused of crimes have had fine sprays of blood on their cloth­ing and the prose­cu­tion has ar­gued that it got there be­cause they struck their vic­tims and the blood flew back at them.

‘‘The al­ter­na­tive sce­nario is the per­son ac­tu­ally came to the aid of some­one who is in­jured. If some­one is bleed­ing in­ter­nally it is not un­com­mon for them to cough and a spray of blood can come out. It can be very dif­fi­cult to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween that and backspat­ter,’’ foren­sics gen­eral man­ager Dr Keith Bedford says.

A lot of bal­lis­tics work, par­tic­u­larly in the United States, is done by po­lice of­fi­cers or oth­ers who have built up their un­der­stand­ing of the field.

But ESR’s PhD qual­i­fied sci­en­tists are try­ing to un­der­stand the un­der­pin­ning sci­ence of what goes on, Dr Bedford says.

The new lab is a big step up from the old one, which staff de­scribe as a bunker un­der the stairs with piles of Yel­low Pages to stop the bul­lets.

Se­nior foren­sic sci­en­tist An­gus New­ton says the firearms test­ing area is the ‘‘coolest room in the build­ing’’.

‘‘It means we can do our job com­pletely, we don’t have to go off-site.’’

The lab­o­ra­to­ries will also be a hub for ESR’s foren­sic sci­ence teams whose re­search in­cludes de­vel­op­ing break­through tech­nol­ogy called STRmix which can un­ravel mixed DNA sam­ples. Sci­en­tists can al­ready use DNA to find out if mul­ti­ple peo­ple have been at a crime scene. But de­ter­minig what DNA be­longs to who can be dif­fi­cult.

‘‘STRmix al­lows us to go fur­ther, and we will be open­ing up some old cases,’’ Dr Bedford says.

The fa­cil­ity is also be­ing used to ed­u­cate agen­cies about the role of foren­sic sci­ence. A team of judges got a run through last week.

‘‘We’re very proud of the in­for­ma­tion we can pro­vide to help the court, but we also need judges to un­der­stand there is a limit to what foren­sic sci­ence can of­fer.

‘‘We talk about the CSI ef­fect. It’s where there is the ex­pec­ta­tion, be­cause of the dra­matic li­cence that is taken in things like the CSI tele­vi­sion se­ries, that foren­sic sci­ence can tell you any­thing in great cer­tainty.

‘‘The truth is there are lim­its, I’ve seen many things on CSI that make me wince.’’

Photo: EMMA WHITTAKER

Coolest room: ESR se­nior foren­sic sci­en­tist An­gus New­ton in the new firearms and bal­lis­tics lab­o­ra­tory.

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