Crime scene

Forensics feature -  shoes can be distinctive
Forensics feature - shoes can be distinctive
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BLACKPOOL is a far cry from the glamorous but gory locations of TV’s Crime Scene Investigation.

But the resort offers rich pickings for the masked men and women who turn up, as forensic scientists and other specialists, to investigate crime scenes.

Lancashire Constabulary’s in-house Scientific Support squad was back in Blackpool this week to gather findings from the scene of a teenager’s death by stabbing in South Shore.

They have also gathered clues from the scene of two sexual assaults on teenage girls this summer – an alleyway leading from Garstang Road to Grange Park.

Dr Kath Mashiter, head of the department, says the earlier the shout from local bobbies, the better the chance of gathering evidence before a scene is contaminated by footfall, the elements or other factors.

Even after weeks of lying undetected in a ditch in Kirkham, the frail frame of an abandoned baby boy rendered crucial DNA.

If a match or near match indicating familial links can’t be found on the national database, the break could come in time.

The pity is a change of law, imposed by Europe, could curtail the time suspects’ samples can be held in storage – on grounds this is a breach of human rights, particularly for those acquitted.

History has shown not all of those who walk free are innocent.

And technology can bring villains to justice decades later – so long 
as forensic evidence remains to hand.

Dr Mashiter says she cannot comment on current cases as examinations – and investigations – are ongoing, but concedes: “Blackpool keeps us busy”.

The forensic investigation unit examined the scene of the murder of Blackpool nurse Jane Clough in July 2010.

Two months earlier, they investigated the abduction and sexual assault of a 10-year-old girl in Fleetwood.

She managed to give such a comprehensive description of the interior of a vehicle in which she had been carried (in the car boot), the car was identified and examined and DNA recovered.

Earlier this year, a robbery happened at an off licence – a knife and imitation firearm used by the offender, a cash box containing £1,800 was stolen.

A DNA hit was achieved for Matthew Kenneth Sharkey from a jacket recovered in a park, along with the firearm and cash box. Sharkey was sent down for 32 months.

Dr Mashiter admits she’s seldom on the “sharp end” these days, although her specialist training as a forensic scientist, for a department later closed by Government cutbacks, has held her in good stead.

The Forensic Science Service, which analyses crime scene evidence across England, shut last year. Dr Mashiter had already made the move to the constabulary. She counts herself lucky she recruited four fine scientists from the service when the Chorley lab closed.

She says: “Their expertise is invaluable.”

Her passion is for cold cases, reviewing old unsolved crimes using new technology now at her disposal.

She’s cracked cases she investigated at the very start of her forensic career.

“I can’t say how good it feels to lay them to rest. Some scenes live with you forever. We’ve got 17 cold cases on the books. Some files have my name on them. I’m very much involved in the cold case review.

“It’s just like being in a sweet shop, going back to files 10 to 20 years old, knowing evidence will be in the freezers in the lab for our microscope slides.”

Unlike her TV counterparts, she can’t crack a crime in an hour.

Her officers don’t go from gathering and analysing saliva, semen, blood, fluids, fibres, footprints, finger prints and more, to interviewing witnesses and interrogating suspects.

The so-called CSI Effect elevates expectations of what forensic science can deliver. Dr Mashiter reckons CSI and Waking the Dead have a lot to answer for.

“I find myself constantly questioning the methodology,” she admits. But she does have a soft spot for New Tricks, a very British drama series which featured the reopening of old cases. “Some of the characterisations rang bells.”

Her team’s expertise is called upon to glean tell-tale clues from the scenes of assaults, robberies, and other cases requiring a comprehensive investigation of a crime scene.

The forensic precision applied to the art of detection by the county’s scientific support squad is famed across the land.

Lancashire was the first force in the country to provide investigative teams with such a wide range of biological search, recovery and screening services to UKAS, the sole national accreditation body recognised by government to assess against internationally agreed standards.

Lancashire’s in-house forensics team has already received international quality standard accreditation for two other specific forensic services – and is likely to achieve much the same with its fingerprint laboratory later this year.

The labs at Hutton police headquarters have become a pilgrimage point for specialists from other forces. The value of an in-house service rests in the rapid response.

“We can be on the scene as fast as it takes us to get from Hutton to Blackpool,” says Dr Mashiter. Turnaround times for forensic examination results are faster, costs have been cut from the old out-sourcing to external service provider days, both are massive factors when time is of the essence in bringing offenders to justice.

Dr Mashiter concludes: “This latest accreditation means we can run a more cost-effective service, and that service will be to the same exacting standards as any forensic science laboratory in the country.

“This area of work is where we have a real impact upon the most serious of crimes, such as murders and sexual assaults.

“This means we can assist in catching criminals more quickly, and make Lancashire safer for all of us.”

n, or tweet her @jacquimorley