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Is a Vital Forensic Skill Dying Out?

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It has played a significant role in many of this country’s most high profile and complex cases across a wide range of evidence types, from burglary and car thefts to sexual offences, murder and terrorism. According to the 2009 website of the now defunct government Forensic Science Service textile fibre examination is the ‘second most utilised evidence type after body fluids and DNA, often providing compelling evidence in a variety of cases’.  It is one of the most researched and respected of all evidence types amongst the global forensic science community.

So why is it that the use of fibres as tool in forensic investigations has declined so much that I have had to close our specialist forensic fibre laboratory, Contact Traces?  

A fibre examination can provide information to an investigation at any stage. In the investigative stage fibres can provide valuable information such as the type of clothing likely to be worn by a suspect, whether a victim has been smothered, whether a weapon is the murder weapon, the type of vehicle used to transport a body or the textile environment where bombs are being manufactured. The investigative leads provided have the potential to steer an investigation into lines of enquiry that would not otherwise have been discovered by DNA, fingerprints of footwear marks.

In the evidential stage, fibre evidence provides links between surfaces. The value of these links largely depends on the context of the case. In a rape case where the issue is one of consent, the suspect’s and victim’s accounts may differ – for example, one party may state that sexual activity occurred in the bedroom and was consensual, the other party may say the activity occurred in an alleyway and was rape. DNA won’t help in these situations, whereas the presence or absence of fibres from the bedclothes on the victim’s clothing could be used to support the account of one party over another.

There is clearly more to securing convictions than DNA, fingerprints or footwear marks. In cases where there is no clothing available, fibre populations can be used to link vehicles, bombs and suspects to the scene or each other. IEDs were linked to the same bomb-maker through fibres found on the tape used to bind each device, the laboratory’s view was that it was likely that the fibres arose from the same prayer mat used by the bomb maker as he moved from one location to another.