University of Leicester helps bring justice after 30 years

Reviving the original technology of DNA fingerprinting helps bring justice after 30 years to convict rapist

DNA fingerprinting tests performed at the University of Leicester has this week helped to convict Benjamin Whitehead for a rape he committed whilst burgling his victim’s house in Nottingham in 1988.

The original DNA fingerprinting method was invented in 1984 by Sir Alec Jeffreys, Emeritus Professor of Genetics, University of Leicester. The technique had already been used to eliminate several potential suspects as the source of the semen that was the critical evidence in the original 1980s investigation. However, the identity of the perpetrator remained a mystery until the case was reopened.

The only pieces of scientific evidence that could link him to the crime were the original DNA fingerprints and a tiny trace of male DNA that might remain on a microscope slide. The DNA was cross-checked against the UK national database and identified Whitehead as a possible suspect for the first time. Further checks into his background then revealed he was an active burglar at the time.

A team at the University of Leicester’s Department of Genetics and Genome Biology was asked by Nottinghamshire Police and the East Midlands Special Operations Unit (EMSOU) forensic team to see if it could wind back the clock and replicate the methods used 30 years earlier, on a new sample taken from Whitehead.

Recreating the techniques used in the 1988 investigation, however, was not easy.

Dr Jon Wetton, Co-Director of Alec Jeffreys Forensic Genomics Unit, who started his PhD on DNA fingerprinting within a month of its invention, said:  "DNA fingerprinting was the very first method of DNA-based identification and completely revolutionised forensics. But by 1989 it was already being replaced by more sensitive techniques, and hasn’t been used in casework for 20 years. So, it was a real challenge to recreate the methods we used back then."

To do the lab tests, the team not only had to track down the right equipment and materials, but also had to obtain new blood samples from people who were originally fingerprinted 30 years ago.

Dr Celia May, Lecturer in Genetics, who worked with Professor Sir. Alec Jeffreys for 18 years before his retirement, explained: "We had to track down relevant equipment and materials, and use fresh blood samples taken from the people originally fingerprinted alongside the crime-scene sample back in 1988. It took several months to get to a point where we could replicate as closely as possible the patterns of the victim and others on the original fingerprints, and only then did we test the new suspect for the first time. As soon as we developed the result it was immediately clear that we had a match."

Detective Inspector Justine Wilson, who oversaw the investigation, said: "We are very grateful to have the University of Leicester in our East Midlands region who have this expertise. Their expertise and assistance has been invaluable to the case and we hope to work with them again in future."

The team at the University of Leicester’s Department of Genetics and Genome Biology are now looking to use DNA fingerprinting to assist with other unsolved cases.

Dr Jon Wetton said: “It was great to see that a technique we used so long ago still has relevance today. Now it has been resurrected we are keen to help out with other cold cases where DNA fingerprints may be critical to finally solving the crime.”

In the light of the Leicester team’s evidence, plus the results of new tests on the microscope slide by the forensic testing company Eurofins, and the police evidence that showed a history of offending in the same region of Nottingham, Whitehead pleaded guilty to rape. Justice has been done after 30 years.