Interviews July 22, 2021

By Angela Gallop

In the final instalment of Lynda La Plante’s Listening to the Dead podcast series, Forensic Access’ Group Chair and one of the UK’s leading experts in cold cases, Professor Angela Gallop, revisits the trials and tribulations of cold case investigations. Here we share some details of the cases, which contain graphic descriptions which some readers may find disturbing, but others will undoubtedly find fascinating.

How did you come to specialise in cold cases?

“I started specialising in cold cases in the firm that I co-founded, Forensic Alliance, back in the late nineties. It was a sort of “happy accident” when I look back on it now.

“Prior to setting up this company I had been doing quite a lot of defence work – which included supporting lawyers representing people accused of crimes when there is forensic evidence against them. I began to notice that standards for police were slipping slightly and I couldn’t help but think there might be a better way of doing things.

“So, with a couple of colleagues I set up Forensic Alliance specifically for the police and one or two forces, particularly local ones, took us up on this and it gave us an opportunity to show just how good, imaginative and different we could be.

“The cold case work I have done has mainly been for the police, who tend to get in touch with me when they’re reviewing a case after a lapse of few years and who think there might be some new technology in the forensic line that might help. I have also, on occasion, been approached by the families of victims or the lawyers representing them and so we’ve started reinvestigating something because of that. Those are the two main routes.”

Can you give some examples of what the extra challenges might be when reviewing cold cases?

“First of all, understanding what happened – both at the crime scene and during previous investigations. You need to be briefed on everything properly by the police because usually the crime will have happened years beforehand. You need to study photographs of the crime scene, and read all relevant expert reports and eye witness statements taken at the time, and generally get as comfortable as you can with all the circumstances surrounding the crime.

“The next thing is to find out what exhibits might still be available to examine in the case, and that can be really difficult. There are several cases that we’ve worked on where we’ve been back and forth to the Forensic Science Service (FSS) archive and they’re telling us ‘no you have it all, we haven’t got anything else’ but where we know they must still have something else because it says so in the original case notes. Usually they find it in the end.

“You have to gather all of these items together and then look into how they’ve been treated over the years. If they have been in and out of their packaging and handled and tested during the course of successive reinvestigations, there could be a potential question of contamination of one item by another – this is something you have to be really careful about. You have to be absolutely certain about anything you intend to present as evidence including making sure that contamination couldn’t have played a part in it.

“You also have to take a close look at what the scientists did originally to see if you can identify any holes in their methodology, or gaps in their interpretation of results and which could be filled by a closer look, a new approach or new technology. Then you have the issue that the person who examined the items first probably had the best bits in relation to evidence, so you have to be more imaginative about where you look for samples to test for new evidence. It could be a good idea to look for things that the original scientists didn’t analyse, or look in different places.”

Can you give us some examples of the things you would do differently when re-examining a cold investigation?

“We have learned a lot of lessons over the years from each cold case that we have investigated. People think that cold case investigation works because you have new technology, and of course that is extremely important, but it’s not the whole deal – it’s only really half of it.

“Going back to the crime scene, no matter how old, is invaluable to cold case investigations. You have to physically go back there to understand the geography and topography, and the layout of everything. You can then get a sense of what’s possible, what’s not possible, what may be likely and what’s unlikely. 

“There’s also a tendency to assume, particularly with the older cases, that the people who originally attended the scene understood the finer details. While they usually got the general gist of what happened there, often they didn’t drill down and understand the precise sequence of events in the way that is sometimes possible. I think that’s really important because the scenes are where all the forensic opportunities present themselves and you really have to understand them. Especially in a reinvestigation when you often have more time and space to think about the circumstances.”

“There are lots of other lessons to be learned. For instance, don’t assume that because you had a really good scientist who did the work originally they will have found everything. They will have been under pressure. They will have begun working on the investigation before some of the information came in through the investigative channels, and maybe some of the investigators didn’t pass all of the information over to the scientists because they were busy doing other things. We may not necessarily hear everything during a live case that we would do with an older one.

“We have also learned that one type of evidence can sometimes lead to another. The Stephen Lawrence case is a good example. We were really interested in DNA because it is capable of producing such powerful evidence of links, but sometimes you can’t just look for DNA and find it – you have to look for something else first which may help show you which items you need to focus on. In the Lawrence case we started looking for textile fibres at an early stage. These can be incredibly important because they tell you about what clothing might have been in contact with what other clothing, and even sometimes what parts of the clothing were in contact. They can point you in the right direction and give you a focus for a much more detailed blood search. This was extremely successful in the Stephen Lawrence case and also in the Costal Path murders – which I don’t think would ever have been solved without a search for fibres first.

“It’s also about recognising when you’re onto something. I think it’s very easy as a scientist to do a test – however properly, but then fail to consider the results in sufficient detail. This means that you can miss critical but subtle clues that might otherwise have given you the way into a case.

“Another factor is trusting the science, realising that truth is often stranger than fiction. You may get a unusual or unexpected result. That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong – however much others may try to tell you so, it just means that you’ve got to think about it in rather more detail in the context of the particular case circumstances.

“We have certainly experienced some very interesting results over the years. I remember in one particular case we had been doing well finding evidence pointing in a certain direction, and then we came up with a really strange result and the lawyers instructed us to conduct the tests again because we ‘must have got it wrong’. We carried out the test again several times and involved other experts, and the evidence just grew stronger and stronger, so we decided to revisit the crime scene to see if there was anything there that could help explain it. And, of course, there was. It gave us the answer in the way that a crime scene usually does, and it actually made the evidence a whole lot stronger than it was before! You just have to be aware that things like that do happen. New techniques and new approaches go hand-in-hand.”

There’s a huge responsibility when it comes to cold cases and correcting a miscarriage of justice, but it must be incredibly rewarding when things go right like they have several times in your career…

“I suppose it’s doubly-rewarding when you find evidence that the court believes is enough to make the difference in a case and allow it to safely convict someone, and at the same time exonerate someone else. There have been quite a few examples of that. There was the Rachel Nickell case where Robert Napper was convicted and long term suspect, Colin Stagg was exonerated, and Lynette White where the Cardiff Three were exonerated and Jeffrey Gafoor was convicted.

“Like every case, any satisfaction you get at the time you discover a potential link between a suspect and a victim for example is always only fleeting because you immediately start thinking about alternative innocent explanations for it. And it’s only when you have explored and, if possible, have been able to discount them, that you can relax, and by then, the novelty of what you found has worn off a bit. It’s only now really, looking back, that I begin to think about how satisfying it was. At the time I was always thinking about the next step”

Do you feel that if detectives applied objective, balanced scientific principles to their work, rather than just doing everything in their power to prove their case, they would have better (less subjective) investigations?

“I think that the police are there in the white heat of the investigation and they are under a lot of pressure, and I wouldn’t dream of telling them how to do their job. The only thing I would say is that, as a body, they currently have a dual role to play in that they are responsible for detecting (and preventing) crime and also increasingly for producing at least some of the ‘independent and impartial’ scientific evidence which will underpin prosecutions. I don’t think it’s possible to do both and so I don’t think they should be required to do both.”

“As independent forensic scientists we have developed a particularly robust and structured way of working out what we should be looking for and producing a balanced assessment of the value of anything we may find. When we look at a case we think: the prosecution proposition is this, the defence proposition is that. If we don’t know what the defence’s stance is we assume it is to deny involvement. So we have two propositions and we then have to consider what tests to apply, the results of which will help us to decide whether there is something to support the prosecution or to support the defence, or which is neutral.

“Having said that, increasingly, and with tight budgets very much at the forefront of their minds, the police often simply instruct scientists to look at this, or test that. The danger of this approach stems from the fact that you can skew forensic evidence very easily - just by the number and choice of things you look at and the tests you apply. In addition, nowadays there’s less dialogue between investigator and scientist than there used to be, and I think that is a real loss to the investigation process as a whole.”

Can you remember any of the breakthrough moments in any of your high-profile cases?

A particularly important breakthrough was in the case of Lynette White, the young woman who was killed in Cardiff.  This was a really brutal murder for which the Cardiff Three were wrongly imprisoned.

“In this case we were looking for foreign blood at the scene. Lynette had fifty stab wounds and the original scientists who worked on the case discovered some blood that was different from Lynette’s through blood grouping (which was the only kind of body fluid testing available at the time of the murder). It was quite likely in those circumstances that the blood had come from the offender. This was such a violent and sustained attack, and if you’re wielding a sharp instrument like a knife in those circumstances – the hand of the offender can very easily slide down, in the slippery blood, off the handle and onto the cutting edge of the blade. From there on every thrust made with the knife could scatter the offender’s own blood about the crime scene as well as that from the victim. There the art is to distinguish which is more likely to be victim blood and which could be the offender’s blood.

“Because we knew there was some foreign blood present at the scene, we were very keen to try and find some more. There was very little left of the original foreign blood because it had virtually all been used up in testing as every new DNA technique that was developed was applied to it to the extent that the case essentially described a large part of DNA profiling history. But, for one reason or another, none of this testing was successful and, in the end, we were having to be as imaginative as possible about where to look for more of this foreign blood.

“We started looking at stuff that the original scientists hadn’t bothered with, and this included a bit of cellophane from the end of a cigarette packet. Most of the blood on it was smeared and we thought it was probably from Lynette. But there was one tiny round spot, which indicated that it had come from an airborne droplet of blood that had just happened to land on the packet. This could be some of the offender blood we were so desperately trying to find. So we thought we’ll have a go at just that one stain, to see if we could get anything out of it. We got a nearly full profile, and it hadn’t come from Lynette.

“Immediately and imaginatively we called him Cellophane Man because it was a male profile, and that was the breakthrough moment where we thought ‘this could be it’, and then shortly afterwards, ‘now we’ve got to find some more’. So we did some amazing things like getting the police to take some woodwork - the skirting board and the front door off its hinges, because we could see in the crime scene photographs there was some blood on these that could conceivably also have been offender blood. The skirting board came from very near where Lynette had been attacked, and the front door had smeared blood on it as whoever was making his way out of the flat was groping for the latch – they would have been in the dark. So we got the woodwork to the laboratory and we scraped away at the paint that had been applied in the intervening years - the flat had been painted twice in that time, trying to expose any blood that might have been there, hoping desperately that whoever had painted it hadn’t prepared their surfaces first; fortunately we were lucky – they hadn’t.

“It was an intricate balance between not scraping too deep - when we would wreck the blood, and not scraping too shallow when we would never expose it. It was quite tricky and all had to be done under a microscope, but in the end we managed to expose some of the blood on the skirting board and to get a  DNA profile out of that. It matched Cellophane Man.

“We then carefully selected a few individual blood stains on a cardboard box, a few swabs that had originally been taken of blood staining in the flat, and the other odd item from there. And after scraping the paint on the front door, we found mixed Lynette and foreign blood which strengthened the connection between Cellophane Man and Lynette. Then we went to Lynette’s clothing, and even though it was completely soaked with her own blood we managed to find offender blood on it by re-enacting the way in which she would have been manhandled because her clothing was misplaced. From all of this we started to get a picture of the extent of foreign blood on and around the body and on the exit route out of the flat and we had no doubt that whoever it had come from had been intimately connected with her murder.

Time and again fibres comes up in your stories, is it an undervalued form of evidence?

“Absolutely. Textile fibres can provide important evidence in their own right, but they can also point to which items it might be most useful to focus on in the search for other evidence such as DNA. The problem is now that we’re losing much of our fibre expertise. We have very few groups left who can search for, analyse and compare fibres because the police think it’s too expensive and you can understand that. But fibres can sometimes cut straight through an investigation – finding evidence that wouldn’t otherwise come to light and saving money through greater focus. And, with a bit of research and development,  the techniques are there in the wider scientific community to make the whole process a lot quicker and more cost effective.

I’d like to finish by saying that our experience has indicated that when cold case reinvestigations are conducted properly, particularly with the technology and new approaches we have now, forensic science should usually be able to provide the answer.”

To find out more about how To find out more about the cold case services offered by Forensic Access visit: Cold Case Reviews or Tel: 01235 774870 to speak with a member of our team.

To listen to the podcast visit: Listening to the Dead - Forensics Uncovered