On today’s True Crime 101, Hannah tells us about the first time DNA was used to assist in solving a crime.
Lynda Mann, a fifteen year old girl was walking home from her babysitting job on 21 November 1983 in the small town of Narborough, Leicestershire. When she didn’t arrive, the police were alerted and Lynda’s parents and neighbours went on the search for her. Her body was found on a footpath nicknamed locally as the Black Pad. She had been raped and strangled. As part of the investigation, they took semen samples. The forensic science available to them at the time was fairly limited all they could determine was that the person who attacked and murdered Lynda had type A blood. They also determined that the attacker had an enzyme profile that only around 10% of males had. But sadly, with no leads, no witnesses and no further evidence and the limited forensic science available, the case started to go cold.
Two and a bit years later, on 31 July 1986, Dawn Ashworth, who was also fifteen years old, went to visit a friend. She left her friend’s house at 4:30pm and began her walk home. She didn’t arrive. Her parents called the police and a search was launched but sadly, Dawn’s body was found, two days later, in a wooded area off a foot path. She had also been raped and murdered. This happened in the same town.
As the murders were so similar – same MO, similarities with the crime scenes and the attacks, they compared the semen samples from each murder and noted that the blood types matched but this was as far as the forensics could go. Type A blood.
The local newspapers captured the fear in this small community – the Leicester Mercury ran headlines like “Killer in our midst” and ar-ticles contained quotes like “If we don’t catch him, it could be your daughter next”. They did however have a suspect now. Richard Buckland. He was seventeen years old and lived locally. He had learning disabilities. He had been questioned by police and during that questioning, had admitted to the murder of Dawn Ashworth, but not to the earlier murder of Lynda Mann. He revealed some details that hadn’t been released to the public. During questioning he would say that he killed Dawn and then say that he didn’t, then say that he did, and then say he didn’t.
However, on 10 August 1986, he was charged with murder. The police were sure that they had their man and that he was lying. They believed that he had killed both girls. So they took a bit of a leap. They contacted Professor Alec Jeffreys of Leicester University who had been working on DNA profiling. Dr Jeffreys was a geneticist and he had been studying how inherited illnesses pass through families. He took DNA from cells, spread it on some photographic film, developed it – almost like a photograph – and it produced an image of some little bars. DNA is actually an acid, called deoxyribonucleic acid which carries the genetic code. DNA can be found in every human cell so it’s quite hard to avoid leaving it somewhere you don’t want it to be left.
Jeffreys realised that everyone’s little profile is different, just like a fingerprint. This DNA fingerprinting/profiling wasn’t immediately used for criminal matters. In fact, Jeffreys had first been approached by immigration officials who were disputing whether some children should be given British citizenship because they were struggling to prove they were the children of British parents. Anyway, Jeffreys gave a talk about his, pretty amazing discovery and said “well, we could probably used it to catch some criminals”. Some people in the audience laughed. Jokes on them because Dr Jefferys, Dr Peter Gill and Dr Dave Wer-rett of the Forensic Science Service published a paper in 1985 on utilising profiling of DNA to forensic matters. They had been working on pulling DNA profiles from “old stains” and Dr Gill is quoted assaying “The biggest achievement was developing the preferential extraction method to separate sperm from vaginal cells – without this method it would have been difficult to use DNA in rape cases.” They took the samples from the two murders and a blood sample from their suspect and the outcome was that the samples from the murders matched, but they didn’t match their suspect. Police were frustrated. The senior investigating officer is quoted as saying “one minute we got the guy, and the next we’ve got Jack shit”. Richard Buckland was released from custody, where he had been for three months, and therefore became the first suspect ever to be excluded from a criminal investigation based on DNA profiling. Great news for Richard Buckland. Bad news for the Police. Terrible news for the community. The person who killed Lynn and Dawn was still out there and therefore, a terrifying threat. The Police decided to go for a sledgehammer approach – they had this new technique and if it’s been used to rule someone out, then they can use it to rule someone in… Mass DNA testing. They call these DNA dragnets. They wrote to every man born between 1953 and 1970 who had worked or lived in the area and asked them, voluntarily, to come in for a blood sample. They opened two testing centers which were open three days a week and had two sessions a day so samples could be taken. Each man was told to bring ID with them. Some men refused to give samples. They said they didn’t like needles, they didn’t like police, but a lot of pressure was put on them by the local community because two fifteen year old girls had been brutally attacked, raped and murdered. In all they took 5,511 samples over eight months. None of them re-turned a match. Including some suspects that had been questioned previously. Over a year after Dawn was murdered, some men were in a pub in Leicester drinking pints and doing whatever men in 1987 Leicester did in pubs. Nothing sinister about that. However, in that group of men, was a man called Ian Kelly and the group’s discussion turned to one of Ian’s colleagues – Colin Pitchfork. Colin was 27 years old, a father of two and a baker. Ian said that Pitchfork had asked Ian to pretend to be him and go give a blood sample. Ian asked why. Pitchfork said that he had done the same for a friend who had a sexual crime conviction. Pitchfork altered his own passport, inserting a photo of Ian, drove him to the test site and waited for Ian to go in and give his sample. Pitchfork had been questioned previously by police during their initial investigations of Lynda Mann’s murder but he had an alibi – he had been watching his baby son that night.
Six weeks later, someone from that group recounted the story to a local policeman. Ian Kelly was arrested and then Colin Pitchfork was shortly in custody thereafter. Police questioned Pitchfork. He confessed. In 1983, his baby son had been asleep in his car nearby as he raped and murdered Lynda Mann. When questioned about the murder of Dawn Ashworth, detectives asked him “Why Dawn Ashworth?” And he replied “Opportunity. She was there and I was there.” They tested his DNA and it confirmed that it was a match for the samples from the murders. He also confessed to two other sexual assaults. He pleaded guilty to two counts of murder, two counts of rape, two counts of indecent assault and one count of conspiring to pervert the course of justice. A psychiatric report was undertaken on Pitchfork which was presented to the court and it notes that the had a “personality disorder of psychopathic type accompanied by serious psychosexual pathology”.
It also said that Pitchfork “will obviously continue to be an extremely dangerous individual while the psychopathy continues”. He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment with a mini-mum term of thirty years. Pitchfork came before the parole board in 2016 and heard the case for his early release. His team argued that he was reformed, that he was educated to degree level, that he had become somewhat of an expert in transcribing sheet music into braille for blind people. Lynda and Dawn’s families were unsurprisingly vehemently op-posed to his release. However, he was moved to an open prison in 2017. He was spotted walking around Bristol in 2017 which means he could be having unsupervised day releases. He was again denied parole in 2018 and was potentially eligible for parole last year but we are unable to find any information in relation to this. In 2009, a sculpture made by Pitchfork in prison was exhibited as part of the Bringing Music to Life exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall. The sculpture was of an orchestra and choir and had been purchased by a trust for £600. Obviously, victim advocate groups and the media were fully outraged by a double murderer having his artwork exhibited like this and it was eventually removed from being display. As Pitchfork had pleaded guilty, the DNA evidence was not actually used as part of the prosecution and therefore couldn’t be deemed as being tested by the court. Even so, the Home Office started employing technicians and forensic scientists and training them, to allow profiling to be added as a routine thing in police casework.
The use of DNA fingerprinting/profiling was also pretty rapidly taken up by police agencies around the globe. We know it now to be one of the strongest forms of identification. DNA dragnets are now fairly rare. A lot of countries have DNA data-bases and most agencies believe that if someone has committed a pretty serious crime then they would have been in contact previously with law enforcement. The first DNA database was created in 1995 in the UK and in 2016 it held samples from 5.1m people which was roughly 8% of the population at the time. Further, techniques have been refined so much now that obtaining DNA from a suspect can be done from retrieving a discarded item or something that they touched – Joseph James DeAngelo – or the Golden State Killer’s DNA was collected from the door handle of his car and a tissue out of his bin. Although DNA can be taken from other sources. There is a scientific paper called accessing Medical Biobanks to Solve Crimes – Ethical Considerations which raises some really thought provoking points about how ethical it actually is to retain a DNA profile for someone. Whilst it does contain information for identity recognition it also contains a lot of personal information about an individual. The Met Police say in England and Wales your biometric info (which covers DNA but also fingerprints) can be held indefinitely if you are convicted of an offence regardless of punishment (the offence and punishment could be minor such as a “caution, warning or a reprimand”). If you are under 18 and are convicted of something, it’s a bit different – on your first offence, it can be retained for five years plus the length of any prison sentence, but if you receive a second conviction, they can keep it indefinitely. However, you can apply for early deletion through the Criminal Records Office and the guidance says that you have to evidence your claim. The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 was implemented from 31 October 2013. Prior to then, if you were arrested for something and your DNA was taken, then you were on the database, regardless of whether or not you were charged and/or convicted of that crime. There was a case from two men called S and Marper v the United Kingdom, which was eventually taken all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. One had been arrested and charged when he was 11 for robbery but he was acquitted a few months later and the other was arrested and charged for harassment of his partner, however they reconciled and the charges were not pressed. They both applied to have their biometric data deleted from the system, and was rejected. Ultimately, the European Court of Human Rights court ruled in their favour and said “the blanket retention of DNA profiles taken from innocent people posed a disproportionate interference with the right to private life, in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights”.
Dr Jeffreys was fully in support of this reform on how the police and other agencies hold biometric data. He was knighted in 1994 for services to science and technology.
The Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jun/07/killer-dna-evidence-genetic-profiling-criminal-investigation
Murderpedia – https://murderpedia.org/male.P/p/pitchfork-colin.html
De Groot et al – Accessing medical biobanks to solve crimes: ethical considerations https://jme.bmj.com/content/early/2020/06/04/mede-thics-2020-106133
Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colin_Pitchfork
Forensic Science Simplified – http://www.forensicsciencesimpli-fied.org/dna/
S and Marper v UK (2008)(ECHR Judgment)http://www.bailii.org/eu/cases/ECHR/2008/1581.html
Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 – gov.uk – https://www.gov.uk/gov-ernment/publications/protection-of-freedoms-act-2012-dna-and-fin-gerprint-provisions/protection-of-freedoms-act-2012-how-dna-and-fingerprint-evidence-is-protected-in-law