Northumbria University Centre for Forensic Science

Casework - Prof. Martin Evison

‘The body in the bag’

In January 2000, the badly decomposed body of a man was discovered in a large hold-all in an industrial area of Sheffield. Police quickly realised that identification of the body of ‘Mr X’ would be difficult.

Martin conducted a forensic osteological examination, which indicated the individual was middle aged, between 5’4” and 5’8” tall and probably right handed. Martin’s examination also revealed the individual suffered from bunions and arthritis of the neck and lower back. He had lost the tip of a fingertip some years before and changes to the bones of the forearm were symptomatic of hand-arm vibration syndrome. The dentition suggested he routinely chewed tobacco or something similar.

In order to further investigations by utilising BBC’s Crime Watch, the police requested a reconstruction of the victim’s face from the skull, as it was hoped someone would recognise him.

Using the information gathered from the post mortem examination, a reconstruction of the face completed by Martin’s graduate students was shown on BBC Crimewatch UK and the victim was quickly identified as Mohammed Nasser Ali, who came to England from his native Yemen in the early 1960s to work as a buffer or polisher in the Sheffield cutlery industry.

Hanratty Appeal

In 2002, following a review by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), the Court of Appeal heard evidence in the case of R v James Hanratty, one of the last people to be sentenced to hanging by a British court.

Martin accepted an instruction from the solicitors representing the Appellant’s family to review the DNA evidence in the case, with particular attention to the possibility of innocent transfer or contamination. Martin was able to show that there were potential sources of Hanratty’s DNA kept in a document file that also contained a fragment of clothing from the victim.

The file contained two microscope slides with hair mounted on them that were broken. Two of the five hair samples seized in the original investigation came from Hanratty. There was also a broken glass vial on the file, the contents of which were unknown—although it is known that a semen sample from Hanratty’s clothing was examined in the original inquiry.

The file and its contents had been taken away for investigation on occasions since. Having heard Martin’s evidence and that of scientists instructed by the Crown the Court found, however, that the possibility of contamination was not a real one and that the DNA findings were compelling evidence of Hanratty’s guilt.

Identification of the ‘Desaparecidos’

A mass grave containing 1,200 bodies was discovered on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1990. It was thought that the individuals buried there were mainly poor people, vagrants and political dissidents from the days of military rule in Brazil, which ended in 1985.

Working in partnership with Dr. Marco Guimarães from CEMEL (the Centro de Medina Legal) in the University of São Paulo’s Faculty of Medicine at Ribeirão Preto, Martin developed a capacity building programme in forensic human identification in Brazil, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office Global Opportunities fund and by the Brazilian agencies FAPESP and CAPES. The project relied on Martin’s research and practical experience in forensic anthropology and genetic analysis of skeletal material.

Exchanges permitting training in forensic osteology, facial reconstruction, DNA analysis and computer visualisation modelling were supported and new infrastructure was established in Ribeirão Preto.

CEMEL has now completed the analysis of numerous skeletons encountered in the Ribeirão Preto region, resulting in the identification of missing persons and the victims of organised crime and extra-judicial executions. CEMEL has become recognised as a reference centre for forensic anthropology in Brazil and now assists local police services and the Polícia Federal (Brazilan Federal Police) and supports the Comissão Nacional de Verdade (National Truth Commission) in its investigations into the human rights violations that occurred during the periods of military government.