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Soil, a key trace material in forensic investigations

Soil forensic analysis (c) James Hutton Institute
"Soil's geological, chemical and biological characteristics can provide vital clues about where and how crimes have been committed or where and how death might have occurred, helping to contribute to the investigative jigsaw of crime investigation"

The important role soil can play in forensic investigations has again been highlighted by the involvement of the James Hutton Institute’s soil forensics team in a high-profile case, this time the enquiry by South Yorkshire Police into the disappearance of toddler Ben Needham on the Greek island of Kos 26 years ago.

Professor Lorna Dawson and Dr Tom Shepherd analysed objects discovered during searches of farmland in the area where the toddler disappeared, and found signatures of human blood decomposition on soil covering a fragment of a sandal and debris from inside a toy car, both indicative of coming from a human who had bled in contact with those items.

Detective Inspector Jon Cousins, South Yorkshire Police’s lead investigator in the search for Ben Needham, said: “Our drive has always been Ben’s family and their welfare, and to be able to provide them with a full and thorough account of the events which we know to have taken place, and also discount any speculations over Ben’s disappearance.

“Based on the facts and the information obtained, it is still my professional belief that Ben died as a result of a tragic incident involving heavy machinery.

“There has been a thorough and comprehensive review of all the information and evidence gathered, with ongoing forensic work and pioneering, scientific techniques conducted on items recovered from Kos during the searches.

“Detailed forensic work is continuing in an attempt to abstract possible DNA, with a view to determine whether or not it relates to the investigation.” 

Professor Dawson commented: “In addition to being a key resource for food security and human sustainability, soils contain many physical, chemical and biological characteristics, along with trace material, such as diatoms, pollen grains, plant debris and physical particulates, which can potentially be of great use to the investigative and reconstructive processes.

“This information can assist the intelligence stage of an investigation, such as the search of a missing person, and provide trace evidence which could be subsequently presented in court.”

Professor Dawson also took part in the investigation of the World’s End murders, providing evidence which helped secure a conviction for notorious criminal Angus Sinclair, and was instrumental in building overwhelming cases against convicted murderers Alexander Pacteau and Christopher Halliwell, among others.

“Geological, chemical and biological characteristics can provide vital clues about where and how crimes have been committed or where and how death might have occurred, helping to contribute to the investigative jigsaw of crime investigation,” Professor Dawson concluded.

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Printed from /news/soil-key-trace-material-forensic-investigations on 18/08/19 09:06:19 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.