Useful Ways to Solve Crime

The thrill of a crime story is the unfolding of “whodunnit,” often against a backdrop of very little evidence. Positively identifying a suspect, even with a photo of her face, is challenging enough. But what if the only evidence available is a grainy image of a suspect’s hand?

Thanks to a group at the University of Dundee in the UK, that’s enough information to positively ID the perp.

The Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHID) can assess vein patterns, scars, nail beds, skin pigmentation and knuckle creases from images of hands to show, with high reliability, that police got the right person in several very serious court cases in the UK. CAHID specializes in the human identification and was also the group that famously reconstructed King Richard III’s face after his body was found in a car park in Leicester in 2012.

In the Dark

The technique was born in 2006 when local police came to the team with a Skype video recorded in the dark, which had been languishing on their desks for some time. The dark recording conditions meant that images were taken in infrared light, and just a shot of a hand and forearm were in view. That was enough for the team to match the superficial vein patterns in both the offender and suspect with high reliability.

“The infrared light interacts with the deoxygenated blood in the veins so you can see them as black lines,” says Professor Dame Sue Black, who led the research. “You are actually seeing the absorption of the infrared light into the deoxygenated blood.” Black is an expert in forensic anthropology who has been crucial in high-profile criminal cases in the UK and headed the British Forensic Team’s exhumation of mass graves in Kosovo in 1999.

Building a Research Basis

Since that first case in 2006, CAHID has used the method in roughly 30 or 40 cases per year, and the team has also applied this procedure to intelligence and counter terrorism work. They have been hard at work trying to establish an academic explanation for their method over the past decade.

“It is important that we are able to say with some degree of reliability that we can exclude a suspect, or say there is a strong likelihood this is the same individual,” says Black.

In order to develop their technique further, CAHID created a database of 500 police officers’ arms and hands, taken in both visible and infrared light.


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