A machine that has helped solve numerous cases by revealing fingerprints on evidence could help catch even more criminals thanks to a two-year Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) between the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and the world-leading manufacturer of this forensic fingerprint development equipment.
In May 2007 serial killer and rapist Peter Tobin was sentenced to life imprisonment after he murdered Polish student Angelika Kluk and buried her body under the floorboards of a church. Subsequent fingerprint evidence found on the tarpaulin covering her remains helped put Tobin in jail for life. The machine enabling police to identify these prints was built by West Technology Systems, the leading manufacturer of these devices.
West Technology, based in Yate, realised it lacked crucial forensic science expertise to develop the system. The VMD (vacuum metal deposition) machine works by evaporating metal particles onto an evidence exhibit to reveal fingerprints. This method has proven successful in developing palm prints on fabric and this can aid in targeted DNA recovery.
But while the VMD method was successful, the company wanted to learn about the science behind it and optimise the machine. “The process was a black art and not even the Home Office knew entirely how it worked,” says Managing Director Ian Harris. He needed someone with specialist forensic knowledge to research and extend the equipment’s capabilities on black bin liners and polymer banknotes, both notoriously difficult surfaces for revealing finger or palm prints.
Finding the right expertise
The firm therefore looked for these skills externally and approached UWE Bristol, applying for a KTP, a government-backed programme that connects skilled graduates with businesses and universities. UWE Bristol forensic science graduate Eleigh Brewer proved to be the perfect match.
“Since Eleigh started, our orders on the forensics side have gone through the roof and she has been critical to the success of the company,” says Ian.
The KTP meant Eleigh spent two years between the university, where West Technology supplied a VMD machine to use for testing, and the company itself. “This was a fantastic opportunity for me and we were able to get results from our research that the company could use,” says Eleigh
Metal and money
The forensic scientist tested the system’s functionality with different metals. The most common method uses gold to cover the piece of evidence, then zinc to highlight any fingerprints. But gold and zinc are not necessarily the best metals to use according to some experts – especially on certain polymer materials like banknotes.
Knowing the UK was due to release a new polymer five-pound note as legal tender, Ian asked Eleigh to test and adapt the machine for use with these notes. With samples provided by the Bank of England, Eleigh set to work, forming a working relationship with the Home Office’s Centre for Applied Science and Technology (CAST) along the way.
Dr Carolyn Morton, Eleigh’s academic supervisor throughout the KTP, says her research was beneficial to UWE Bristol and has cemented its reputation as an important centre for forensic research. “By linking us with CAST and connecting us to a national network of fingerprinting research teams, this KTP has put UWE on the map,” says Carolyn, who is a senior lecturer in forensic science at UWE Bristol.
With Eleigh’s help, Ian now wants to make it easier for the VMD to highlight prints on fabric, another notoriously hard material to work with in criminal cases. “If we could determine the strength of an assault by looking at grab impressions, we could make a big difference,” says Ian.
And perhaps help catch and convict more high-profile murderers like Peter Tobin.
If you are a company interested in setting up a KTP, please get in touch or leave a comment.