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