Has forensic science made it impossible to commit the perfect crime? Sarah Freeman meets a leading professor who always tries to be one step ahead.
Sitting quietly in his office, Professor Wesley Vernon occasionally thinks about how to commit the perfect murder. So far all he has come up with is, ‘get as far away as possible for the crime scene’ and ‘pay someone to pay someone to pay someone to do it for you’. It’s not exactly the plot of a Hollywood thriller, but then he knows just how difficult it is to get away with murder these days.
Prof Vernon is one of a growing number of experts based at Huddersfield University, which is fast becoming a centre of excellence for forensic science. Some specialise in DNA, a handful have led the way in developing lie detectors and others have concentrated on fingerprints. Prof Vernon is also concerned about digits, but his interest lies in the souls of the feet rather fingers and thumbs.
He reckons there is less than a dozen trained forensic podiatrists in the country, but with increasing numbers of police forces using evidence from both footprints and the way people walk to solve crimes, Huddersfield has just launched the world’s first postgraduate degree in forensic podiatry.
“When I first started out in the early 1990s I was getting maybe one or two cases a year. Now I probably get three calls a week. Also in those early days the requests tended to be from defence teams, many of whom were grasping at straws in an attempt to find evidence which might prove their client’s innocence or at the very least cast a little doubt on their guilt. However, now the vast majority of advice I give is to the prosecution.”
Prof Vernon says his interest in the field was sparked as a teenager and while the rest of his friends were arranging work experience placements in solicitors offices and insurance companies, he was doing a stint at the local mortuary.
“There’s not a cat in hell’s chance you could do it today,” he laughs. “But I was fascinated. To me being presented with a mystery which you had a limited time to solve, sounded like a great way to earn a living. Back then forensics wasn’t something careers teachers really mentioned, but I knew what I wanted to do.”
Much later, Prof Vernon admits he used to have a recurring nightmare about that mortuary, but it also confirmed that his hunch was right. When he didn’t make it into medical school, he trained instead as a podiartrist, but that early desire to solve crimes never went away and he soon realised that the studies he was making of feet might also be of use to forensic teams.
“Partly it was about using our records as a means of identification, but I suspected it might have a much broader use,” he says. “There are often shoeprints at the scene of a crime, but the suspect might say, ‘Yes, I know you got that shoe from my house, but you know what? It’s not mine’. DNA often fails in these sorts of circumstances, but we look at how the soles have worn and the imprints made by the foot to aid identification.”
Prof Vernon has since worked on cases all over the world and provided key evidence in one of Australia’s most high profile and controversial cases of recent years.
In the summer of 2007, the body of Corryn Rayney was discovered in a shallow grave just a few miles from her Perth home. The initial police investigation went cold, but three years later her estranged husband Lloyd Rayner was charged with her murder. A respected barrister, the arrest sent shockwaves through the Australian legal system and the subsequent trial in 2012 was played out in the full glare of the media.
“Part of the prosecution argument was that the scuff and gouge marks on her boots suggested that she had been dragged across the paving outside her home,” says Prof Vernon. “Those claims are easy to make, but they don’t stand up to forensic examination.
“I have examined hundreds and thousands of boots and shoes and have seen similar damage on most of them. Lloyd Rayney was eventually acquitted and at the time many said that it had been a narrow escape from a miscarriage of justice.”
Over the years, Prof Vernon’s evidence has played a key part in numerous criminal trials. However, ask him if there’s one which justified the hours he has spent pouring over imprints of shoes and grainy CCTV footage and he doesn’t hesitate.
Gary Chester-Nash had developed an obsession with knives and was well-known to the local police in Cornwell’s Cabris Bay. A regular in Magistrates Court he had received numerous ASBOs and had previously served a jail sentence for burglary. However, on October 2005, he stabbed 59 year old Jean Bowditch to death as she cleaned a bungalow that he had been planning to rob.
“He was picked up by police who noticed specks of blood on his shoes,” says Prof Vernon. “His story was that he had spent the night in a squat and claimed that in the morning a man with a foreign name that he couldn’t remember had borrowed his clothes and shoes, gone out and returned an an hour and a half later.
“It clearly sounded implausible, but the key was proving that those shoes didn’t just belong to him, but had not been worn by anyone else.”
Chester-Nash’s shoes were passed to Prof Vernon and after a series of painstaking examinations, he had the answer the police were looking for.
“If someone else had worn the shoes for that length of time we would have expected to see two sets of impressions in the soul. There was only one. When the police confronted him with the evidence, he changed his story. He admitted that he had been at the bungalow, but still insisted the murder had been committed by someone else.
“It was one change of story too many. The prosecution knew they had a strong case and he was eventually found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. I remember when the case came to an end, my deputy turned to me and said, ‘If we never do another case again, it won’t matter. We have just helped to make the world a slightly safer place.”
Prof Vernon has never lost his early love of puzzle solving and recently has been trawling through the Complete Sherlock Holmes for evidence of early forensic podiatry.
“I’d read them as a a child, but had forgotten most of the stories so when I got a Kindle one of the first things I did was buy the entire lot,” he says. “In A Study in Scarlet, The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb and The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist Holmes has a stab at forensic podiatry.
“He doesn’t always get it right. In A Study in Scarlet he says you can calculate a man’s height from the length of his stride which isn’t actually true, but you do have to give Arthur Conan Doyle a lot of credit because in many respects he was way ahead of his time. Holmes may have had a lot more confidence and zeal than your average forensic expert, but he was halfway there.”