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Crowdfunded forensic lab aims to put an end to miscarriages of justice

UCL seeks public funds to bolster the struggling sector

The UK’s first publicly funded forensic laboratory, which will home in on research to improve the interpretation of evidence, is on the right track to being established.

The University College of London’s Centre for the Forensic Sciences launched a crowdfunding page, seeking £1million to set up a facility to study and advance the way evidence is gathered and deciphered.

Cuts to sector are increasing the risk of miscarriages of justice and innocent people could be wrongly convicted or criminals could walk free if crucial evidence is missed due to falling standards in the sector, Forensic Science Regulator Gillian Tully warned in her latest report.

Dr. Ruth Morgan and the rest of team have now decided to take matters into their own hands as there are no other sources of funding.

In 2007, Dr Morgan assisted in an investigation, which saw the court quash the murder convictions of two men.

Rachel Manning was murdered in Milton Keynes in December 2000.

Soon afterwards, Barri White and Keith Hyatt were arrested with Mr. White being convicted for murder and Mr. Hyatt for perverting the course of justice.

The key evidence that the verdict depended on was metallic particles found both on the seat of Mr. Hyatt’s van and on Rachel Manning’s skirt.

The prosecution said that not only were the particles very rare, but that they would only persist on clothing for a very short time.

This was critical to the conviction because it indicated that the victim had to have been in the van a very short time before being left at the location where her body was later found.  

Analysis revealed “rare” particles were not actually rare at all. 4000 of these particle are produced every time a common disposable cigarette lighter is used.

The particles can persist on clothing fabric much longer than the prosecution expert had suggested.

It showed the two major assumptions made by the prosecution had no evidence base and the particles could have been transferred to the clothing from other sources, and long before the murder.

Mr Hyatt was freed, despite already having served three years of his five year sentence.

Mr White was released on bail pending a retrial having already spent six years in prison.

Finally, in November 2008, at the retrial he was found not guilty, with the research into the forensic evidence undertaken by Ruth and the team considered to be pivotal.  

A new investigation was then started in 2009 resulting in another man that was found guilty of the murder.

As a result, Dr Morgan and the team are determined to avoid further miscarriages of justice in the future.

The team will be seeking new solutions to solve crimes using environmental evidence such as soil, dust and pollen in forensic reconstructions.

DNA transfers between people and different objects will also be examined and how it persists over time, detecting the transfer of trace residues, such as those from a gunshot, on pieces of evidence.

Cognitive bias and decision making processes in interpreting evidence is also on the agenda. 

Dr Morgan who said the project is going in an “encouraging direction”, added: “The lab is designed to be the first dedicated lab that will address the issue of interpretation of forensic science evidence, and the focus will be on doing the research that produces the data we need to understand better, and evaluate the significance of trace evidence.

“We'll also be carrying on with our research into understanding the human decision making that goes into the whole forensic science process and how that affects the understanding of what a particular form of evidence means in a specific case.”