January 14, 2014
80-Year-Old Murder Mystery Solved With DNA Analysis
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
While DNA analysis is often used to catch perpetrators of crimes, recent work from scientists at the University of Leicester has shown that the technology can be used to identify victims as well.
Two researchers from the university, John Bond and Lisa Smith, were able to use genetic techniques to identify the victim of a homicide from 1930 that took place in the British town of Hardingstone. The body of the male victim was incinerated in a car fire – preventing investigators from making a definitive identification. However, authorities were able to catch, try, convict and execute the perpetrator, Alfred Rouse.
An initial postmortem examination had been conducted near the time of death by Bernard Spilsbury and another local pathologist. Forensic records showed that that the victim’s jawbone was detached to help with possible identification and tissue samples were taken from the prostate and lungs.
In recent years, one potential victim came to the fore: William Briggs, who disappeared after leaving his family’s house for a doctor’s appointment near the time the crime was committed.
Wanting to verify rumors from earlier generations surrounding their patriarch’s disappearance, some of Briggs’s relatives approached local police in an attempt to solve the 83-year-old mystery and expose the identity of the victim.
The police and family contacted the University of Leicester and negotiated with The Royal London Hospital museum, requesting the examination of one of the remaining tissue samples. The University of Leicester scientists, along with colleagues from the Northumbria University Centre for Forensic Science, worked to determine if there was enough mitochondrial DNA in the tissue sample and, if there was, to see if there was a match with the surviving relatives of William Briggs.
The scientists were able to obtained a full DNA profile and match it to the family.
"It's been very interesting and rewarding working on such a famous, local murder case,” Lisa Smith said. “It was quite a unique investigation to be involved in, as the perpetrator had been identified long ago and brought to justice while the victim's identity remained unknown.
“It was a great example of how the scientific and criminological expertise at the University of Leicester and Northumbria University, working together with the police, could provide answers to this family after 83 years,” she added.
"From our perspective this is a closed case, the offender Alfred Rouse was convicted of murder and hanged, but this has been a long-standing mystery in Northamptonshire as the identity of the victim has never been established,” said Paul Phillips a local police detective."Our work at Northamptonshire Police is victim focused so I was delighted to learn of new opportunities to establish the identity of the victim through the development of forensic science.”
“Projects such as this highlight the fact that forensic DNA analysis is not confined to catching criminals,” added Eleanor Graham from Northumbria University. “DNA analysis also has a critical role to play in the identification of those who have been killed during criminal acts, accidents or natural disasters, which have occurred recently, or many years ago.”