Cocaine on banknotes

I was surprised at a news article in the English MailOnline, which states that Every British bank note is contaminated by cocaine within weeks of entering circulation. I wasn’t surprised about the cocaine issue, but about the fact that the media seemed to think this was new or unusual.

I’ve been working on cases involving drug traces on banknotes since 2002 and even back then 95% of English banknotes were contaminated with traces of cocaine. To my mind, the most comprehensive database dealing with drug traces on banknotes is compiled and maintained by a company in the West Country of England. When I left England in 2008, practically 100% of banknotes in the database were contaminated with cocaine (and not just contaminated but high levels of contamination), less were contaminated with MDMA (from Ecstasy) and amphetamine, and less still with diamorphine (from heroin) and THC (from cannabis).  The company is question is not one of the mainstream prosecution laboratories but a standalone organisation that has developed specific equipment to deal with analysing traces of drugs on all sorts of items including vehicles, clothing, mobile phones and, of course, banknotes.

It should be remembered however that the traces of drugs we’re talking about here are so minute that they can’t be seen with the naked eye.  To put it into perspective, if one took a grain of salt and divided it into 1,000 pieces and then if one took one of those pieces and divided again into 1,000 pieces, this is the level of contamination that the anaytical equipment can detect – it’s teeny, teeny tiny.  The other way to look at is if the total amount of drugs present on one million English banknotes (each contaminated with this small weight) was bulked together it would amount in size to no more than a single grain of salt.

Drug traces on banknotes can be extremely valuable for assisting Police and Customs to determine whether or not seized quantities of money have been involved with the drug trade but cocaine has always been a difficult one to interpret.  Wouldn’t it be great if the technology could be applied in New Zealand, given that there is such a problem with P here?

UK from space – cool

Not even vaguely related to forensic science but it’s a great photo from this link:

A country at a standstill

Rubbish criminal – an example

I don’t normally consider anything written by the UK’s The Sun newspaper as overly credible but this story just begs to be told (assuming that it’s true).  A man placed a webcam in a store changing room so that he could cop a free look at people trying on the new season’s Spring collection: Peeping Tom caught in the act. He placed the camera in an ASDA supermarket store, which is like placing it in a Warehouse changing room.  As he placed the camera in situ he managed to take two photographs of himself.  Staff in the store noticed the camera within half an hour and notified the Police.  In addition to the photo he took of himself, it looks from those photos like he wasn’t wearing gloves at the time he placed the camera – maybe there is someone out there who doesn’t watch enough crime scene TV programs.

He hasn’t been caught yet but when he does (and I can’t see how he won’t – he’s plaster over one of the most popular tabloids in circulation), it’s a gift to the Crown Prosecution Service and it’s a cautionary tale: there are people out there who will do this sort of thing – and some of them will do it better and not get caught.  Be warned – shopping is bad for you!

When others are fleeing, UAE embraces DNA database for ALL

In a world where Western countries are running from the tide of DNA data that is washing over them, the United Arab Emirates seems to be taking a totally different stance.  At the moment, the UAE only collects samples from suspects or convicted criminals.  What they are looking at doing is expanding the DNA database to include every citizen (and I use the term in a colloquial sense, not a Border Control sense) – so that’s the entire population, both local and expatriate.  The thinking behind this is to assist with victim identification following mass disasters (natural and, presumably, man-made) and also to assist in missing persons cases.  They also apparently consider that it will drastically control crime,  reduce the number of unnecessary suspects and innocent suspects and reveal the real criminal in a case faster than at present.

The samples will start being collected within the next year, starting with the youngest end of the population, taking 1 million samples per year (that’s more than 2,700 each day).  Rather than write new legislation, the population could just be issued with a Security Directive to give a sample.

In a country with a population around the 4 and a half million mark and expanding rapidly, that’s a lot of DNA data, given that they currently have only 5,000 profiles on the current database .  I just hope their statistical interpretation software is up to the job.

Crime DNA databases should be independently examined

Who has ever analysed the data in national DNA databases?  Courtesy of programs like CSI and the news/media, we all know that DNA can be an extremely powerful tool in crime solution.  When a sample from a crime scene is compared with a sample from an individual it should be the easiest thing to be able to say whether or not they originated from one and the same person, shouldn’t it?

In forensic science (and many other areas of science), without a solid and reliable database, interpretation of results can be troublesome or even meaningless.  So who has checked all the databases that have been built up by Police and prosecution agencies over the years?  Who checks them to make sure that the data is correctly entered or that the statistical basis for the interpretation is still correct and appropriate?  As it turns out, it doesn’t appear that anyone is really doing it, particularly in relation to the USA.  An article in this week’s New Scientist demonstrates this: Unreliable evidence? Time to open up DNA databases. Most of the world’s DNA results (and I am talking about those relating to criminal casework) are interpreted using the results of relatively small studies undertaken during the early years of DNA forensic casework.

The opening two paragraphs of the article cover it quite nicely, I think: “When a defendant’s DNA appears to match DNA found at a crime scene, the probability that this is an unfortunate coincidence can be central to whether the suspect is found guilty. The assumptions used to calculate the likelihood of such a fluke – the “random match probability” – are now being questioned by a group of 41 scientists and lawyers based in the US and the UK. These assumptions have never been independently verified on a large sample of DNA profiles, says the group. What’s more, whether some RMPs are truly as vanishingly small as assumed has been called into question by recent insights into DNA databases in the US and Australia. I find that slightly unnerving because I know from professional experience that if a DNA result is presented in court, it’s unbelievably difficult to shake anyone’s faith in the result.

I’m not suggesting that there is anything significantly wrong with any of the DNA databases but they should be open to examination by independent scientists so that the reliance that is placed on DNA interpretations can be shown to be well-placed. It makes the results relevant and reliable, which is important for acceptance as evidence in court.

The article does a good job of explaining the problems associated with DNA databases, describing three possible reasons why some profiles on the reference databases match one another (if they are all from different people then they should all be different): 1. duplication of the same profile in the database; 2. assumptions about frequency of occurrence of allelles in populations (see article for definition); and 3. the large number of relatives that may be on a given database (people who are closely related share more common areas of DNA in their profiles than people who are unrelated, which is logical). Particularly in relation to the latter point, if only a partial profile is obtained from a crime scene (i.e. only part of the DNA profile ‘picture’ can be detected), the chances increase of the sample matching more than one person’s database profile. (N.B.  There are essentially two sets of information in DNA databases – DNA profiles obtained from crime scene samples (so initially we don’t know who is the source of them) and DNA profiles taken from actual known people, usually suspects (depending on the legal jurisdiction)).

Of course, the converse of this is that if a DNA profile in the database has been incorrectly entered in some way, the chances of getting a “hit” on a cold case are also affected (a “hit on a cold case” is where re-examination of evidence is undertaken some time after a crime was committed, usually years afterwards, and a newly-acquired crime scene DNA result is run through the database for the first time.  If the crime scene profile matches a person’s profile already on the database, you’ve got a “hit”).  If the data’s not correct in the database, a ‘hit’ might become a ‘miss’.

The big question is whether the FBI will allow a group of independent scientists to review the USA’s CODIS database – and the answer at the moment is no.  This to me is a fairly typical attitude of prosecution agencies for this kind of access.  I can understand their reluctance in a way but I would think it would be a better thing to have it reviewed now rather than wait for a case to demonstrate a monumental stuff-up and get beaten with the consequences later, particularly to have it reviewed by people who would sign confidentiality agreements and then look at the data as a whole rather than focussing on one case where there may well be a problem.  As the closing commentary says, “Without external scrutiny of the databases, doubts will remain….All of this can be resolved by letting scientists have access to the data to do what they need to do.”  We all have our dreams, and I hope theirs comes true.

[The New Scientist article is based on a Science article, December 2009, v.236, p.5960]

55 year old murder – solved

Much is made of the traditional techniques used in forensic science, and rightfully so.  However, sometimes the power of the internet and what the general public is doing with it cannot be underestimated in solving crime.

A 55-year-old murder case from Boulder, Colorado, has finally been solved using a combination of media (TV’s “America’s Most Wanted”), exhumation, DNA extraction, forensic anthropology, forensic artistry and someone watching case progress over the internet (Victim of 1954 Homicide Case, “Boulder Jane Doe,” Identified).

The battered body of a young woman was found on a river bank near Boulder on 8 April 1954 but she was never identified and she was later buried in a simple grave.  Eventually, after prompting by a local historian, Silvia Pettem, the case was re-investigated, funds were raised, the body was exhumed in 2004 and a DNA profile was obtained.  An artist’s impression was created and shown in the media, including on “America’s Most Wanted”.  Silvia Pettem kept the case alive with a website (www.boulderjanedoe.com/Jane%20Doe.html).

After a long time, a woman came forward to suggest that the deceased could be her long-disappeared aunt.  The woman who came forward had been following the case on the internet and eventually decided it was worth a punt to suggest her aunt’s name.  A DNA profile was obtained from another aunt and it came up with a match for the deceased.

Everyone thinks “it couldn’t happen to me and mine”.  In this case, a woman who was watching the case over the internet thought “maybe it could be me and mine”.

Legal blunders, Xmas style

Ahh, so it’s Christmas and we can start to relax.  Instead of being all serious, here are a few little stories about things that went wrong around the world in the legal arena this year (these are from Week on the Web on which are all the original links to the international sources):

  • A mistake by a bailiff in a Houston, USA, courtroom led to a murder trial being declared a mistrial. It was only after all the testimony had been heard, the jury had deliberated and the verdict was being given that the judge noticed there was one jury member too many.
  • A man in the public gallery of an Australian courtroom was lucky not to be charged with contempt after his mobile phone went off in court. The problem was exacerbated by his ringtone – the sounds of a woman in the throes of pleasure echoed around the silent courtroom until he finally managed to turn his phone off.
  • A 25-year-old man from Oregon, USA, wandered off from jury service after only half a day in court. The judge issued an arrest warrant for the missing juror on charges of contempt. When the police finally caught up with him, the juror said he had been “extremely bored.”
  • I hope no-one gets any ideas from this one…… A 38-year-old man who was on trial for burglary in San Diego, USA, took drastic steps to ensure his request for a mistrial was granted. After his initial request was rejected by the judge, the Defendant brought a bag of his own faeces to the courtroom, which he proceeded to rub on his defence attorney and throw at the jury. The judge declared a mistrial and the Defendant was assigned a new lawyer.
  • I can think of many times when this would have been a good idea….. A judge in Ohio, USA, frustrated with constant interruptions from a defendant, warned him that if the disruption continued, he would have his mouth taped up. The defendant didn’t take the judge’s warning too seriously, and after yet another interruption the bailiff taped up his mouth with duct tape.
  • It was never this interesting when I went to the Central Criminal Court….. A trial at the Old Bailey, London, England, had to be temporarily suspended after a female juror became inadvertently distracted. Sitting opposite the juror in the raised public gallery was a transsexual who had dressed in a skirt, but forgotten that women generally wear underwear and cross their legs when seated…..
  • An American man, desperate to avoid jury duty, tried to make himself as undesirable as possible for jury selection. In his pre-selection questionnaire and interview, the gentleman declared himself to be racist, homophobic and a liar. Unfortunately, the judge saw through his tactics and he found himself facing possible perjury charges.
  • Can you imagine this?!?!    A judge in Colorado, USA, has come up with an unusual punishment for people who break noise pollution laws by playing loud music. The guilty party, who is usually a young adult, has to sit for one hour and listen to music such as Dolly Parton and Karen Carpenter being played loudly in the courtroom.
  • Defendants must give some thought to what they wear before appearing before Florida judge Daniel Perry. The judge has a very strong objection to men wearing loose and saggy trousers, and any defendants who enter his court room ‘with their rear ends hanging out their pants’ are immediately sent back to jail to find more suitable clothing.