At the head of every chapter of the A.D. Garrett forensic thrillers which features Professor Fennimore, there is a quotation. Fennimore’s favourite authors, or one of his personal strictures. I call these Fennimisms. He is very fond of saying, ‘Context is everything.’ It’s true of many situations, but has special importance in forensic science.
Context can tell you if a suspect violently assaulted a victim, or just happened to be around before or after the assault. For example: The police arrest two men at the scene of a fatal stabbing. Both have the victim’s blood on their clothing. One man is barely conscious, and seems to have sustained a blow to the head. The other is agitated and aggressive; he has blood on his hands and the murder weapon in his back pocket. So he must be the attacker – right?
Well, maybe . . . Or maybe he witnessed the attack, disarmed the attacker (maybe even knocked him out), and tried to help the victim. If he applied pressure to the wound, of course he would have blood on his hands and clothes. And if he witnessed the murder, you would expect him to be agitated, wouldn’t you?
Context is key. Context is everything, forensics expert Prof. Nick Fennimore often says. Which is why he will always insist on seeing the scene – even if years have passed since the murder was committed. In Believe No One, Chief Inspector Kate Simms is on a placement with St Louis PD, sharing US/UK expertise. Simms worked closely with Fennimore for years, so when the team discusses an unsolved murder in the blighted projects of East St Louis, she asks to visit the scene. ‘You know how it is,’ she says. ‘The place tells a story, gives you the context.’ The building where the murder took place is condemned, but they go anyway. Using crime scene photographs, they work out where the bed was, where the victim died, and where her blood had been spattered and sprayed across the walls. Of course the blood was washed away and any stains painted over years before. But a close look at one of the scene photograph reveals a single drop on the wall that is not like the others – it’s low velocity – a drip, rather than spatter. ‘Blood is slippery stuff – you’ll often see cuts on an attacker’s hand, where it slipped down the knife onto the blade,’ FBI agent Detmeyer says. So this could be the killer’s blood. Because they are there – because they have context – the team can work out roughly where that single drop might have been on the wall. One of the LED arc lights is repositioned, and they all see it: a tiny gap between the wall and the skirting board. A power saw makes short work of retrieving the evidence – a brown stain between the skirting board and the plaster. One tiny drop of blood, but it’s enough to give them a DNA match on CODIS, and they catch their killer.
The forensic science behind this little fictional vignette comes from a real case in Cardiff, South Wales. Lynette White, a young prostitute, was murdered in a frenzied attack at a flat in Cardiff on 14th February, 1988. Three men were wrongly convicted of her murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. They were released after an appeal in 1992. But it wasn’t until 2000 that the case was reopened. The forensic scientists tasked with an evidence review returned to the scene.
The house had changed hands and had been refurbished and repainted several times in the twelve years since Lynette’s murder. Yet fresh forensic evidence was found: ten traces of blood, discovered under several layers of paint
at the house where Lynette had been murdered. DNA techniques weren’t sufficiently advanced at that time to identify the killer, but in 2003, after the development of the Second Generation Mutliplex Plus (SGM+) test, Jeffrey Gafoor was finally identified, confessed to the murder, and is now serving a life sentence for the killing.