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Archive for the ‘DNA FORENSICS’ Category

ripper sketch image

The 125 year old Jack the Ripper mystery may be finally solved, alas.

Like many, when I saw the news that Jack the Ripper had finally been identified, I thought, “Here we go again”. Who was the serial killer going to be this time? Gladstone? WG Grace? After all, the list of suspects contains the likes of Prince Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence and even Lewis Carroll, so I was bracing myself for somebody really spectacularly silly; perhaps even Queen Victoria herself.

But as I read more about the story, it became apparent that this wasn’t some outlandish claim peddled by a money-grabbing junk historian. In fact, it all seems very sensible. In 2007, a businessman called Russell Edwards bought a shawl that was said to belong to Catherine Eddowes, one of the Ripper’s victims. Mr Edwards took the shawl to Dr Jari Louhelainen, a senior lecturer in molecular biology at Liverpool John Moores, and a specialist in genetics and forensics. Using a process called “vacuuming”, Dr Louhelainen was able to extract enough DNA from bloodstains on the shawl to match the DNA taken from one of Eddowes’s descendants.

Even more excitingly, Dr Louhelainen was able to find some seminal fluid, from which he was also able to obtain some DNA.That DNA is a 100 per cent match for a female descendant of the sister of one of the Ripper suspects – a Polish-born hairdresser called Aaron Kosminski, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and hallucinations, and was admitted to mental asylums from 1891 until he died in 1919. If the science is correct, then the case is closed after nearly 125 years

Chief Inspector Donald Swanson,  Jack the Ripper identified Aaron Kosminksi as the suspect.image

Chief Inspector Donald Swanson, who worked on the Jack the Ripper investigation for the London Metropolitan Police and identified Aaron Kosminksi as the suspect.

And even though I am a historian who delights in debunking junk history, this time I’m convinced. But I’m also disappointed.Unlike so many suspects, Kosminski is boringly plausible. The idea that the Ripper was a madman who was strongly suspected by the police – and even monitored by them – rings true, but dully true. Because although my head realises that Kosminski has to be the killer, my heart doesn’t want the case to end.

Like others, I’ve been fascinated not only by the case itself, but also by the legion of obsessive people who call themselves “Ripperologists” – a faux-scientific label if there was one. Be in no doubt that these people will keep the case alive.

The notion that there is nothing left to solve, no more leads to follow up, no more evidence to dissect, will surely leave their lives empty and seemingly worthless. One can already see anguished signs of this denial on discussion forums, in which the Edwards-Louhelainen theory is peevishly dismissed.

Among those who will doubtless be rubbishing the idea of Kosminski as the serial killer will be the crime writer Patricia Cornwell, who is the queen of Ripperology. In 2002, Cornwell published a book in which she confidently asserted that the painter Walter Sickert was the Ripper. Much of Cornwell’s evidence was flimsy – not least her desperate claim that the poses of the women in some of the artist’s paintings are similar to those of the corpses of the Ripper’s victims. Cornwell’s problem, which is shared by many of her fellow Ripperologists – and, to be honest, by myself – is that she wanted the murderer to be someone remarkable.

The notion that such unsolved sensationalised murders were committed merely by an obscure maniac is simply not satisfying. Kosminski’s modest character does not have sufficient strength to carry the hugeness of the story and the culture of books, films, TV shows and tours that has been built around it.

The truth is that the answers to so many of these notorious cases are indeed boring and short. President Kennedy was shot by a lone misfit, and was not the victim of some multi-tentacled conspiracy. Subconsciously, we treat these horrible, true crimes as extensions of the entertainment industry. While a work of fiction may have Jack the Ripper as a personage, in truth, we now know that the murderer was a mere person. But even if the DNA evidence had shown that the Ripper was, say, a son of Queen Victoria, many would have dismissed it. Mysteries are fun. Solved mysteries are not.

Had Kosminski been found guilty in 1888, then the case of “Jack the Ripper” would have been all but forgotten. There were plenty of other serial killers in the 19th century, but few today can name, say, the likes of Dr William Palmer who poisoned several of his victims, or Sarah Freeman, who killed at least nine, including her own brother. However, we must learn to accept the science, and not let our imagination triumph over the facts. That is indeed a worthy and sensible observation, and one we should all heed; but it’s not one that I find very satisfying. If Dr Louhelainen’s methodology is found to be flawed, then I for one will be secretly delighted.

The Daily Telegraph



Australian police and researchers are developing a ground-breaking test that will help them identify suspects based on the DNA evidence they leave behind.

It is set to change the way police use DNA evidence. Officers may soon be able to use a single strand of hair from a crime scene to pinpoint whether a suspect has a cleft chin, how many moles they have and whether or not they are bald

The University of Canberra’s Dennis McNevin is working on the four-year project set to finish at the end of next year and called ”From Genotype to Phenotype: Molecular Photofitting”, with Victoria Police, the Australian Federal Police and the Queensland Institute of Medical Research. He said Australian police now used DNA evidence to link an existing suspect to a crime scene, but eventually research might lead to their using DNA to create photofit images of potential suspects.

Dr Dennis McNevin is part of a team developing DNA tests that can draw exact pictures of suspects. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Victoria Police forensic officer Runa Daniel, who is working on the project with her colleague Roland van Oorschot, said the research could be used in the absence of other leads or to supplement eyewitness statements.

”DNA phenotyping may provide more accurate information on some characteristics and could be used to direct valuable police and forensic resources in the primary and critical stages of an investigation, particularly when traditional DNA profiling techniques have not been informative,” she said.

Fantasy Lingerie

Dr McNevin said there were DNA tests to determine hair and eye colour, but this new research was working towards pinpointing other distinctive features, including ear lobes attached to a person’s face and their bio-geographic ancestry, and the team was already fairly confident in identifying male pattern baldness.

”There are situations commonly encountered where there are no suspects, or there is a very large pool of suspects, and it becomes unfeasible to collect a reference DNA sample from what could be hundreds of different suspects … this is where we might want to collect intelligence value from that DNA,” he said.

DNA testing could identify if a person was from a broadly European, Asian or African background and Dr McNevin said he hoped to add Oceanic, indigenous American and perhaps others to that list by the end of next year.

He said it would not be long before a DNA sample could be used to fairly accurately determine a person’s bio-geographic ancestry, so in a case similar to the recent Boston Marathon bombings, a tiny sample might identify the suspects as, say, Chechen.

Queensland Institute of Medical Research scientists are examining the whole genome of individuals, using twin studies to find which pieces of DNA were associated with certain physical characteristics.

At the University of Canberra, researchers are using that information to develop predictive algorithms to determine the physical appearance of a person and to create a test that police could use in their laboratories.

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