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New and Old Forensic Techniques Bring Rapist to Justice after 30 Years

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Microscope SlideMicroscope slide from case
Original microscope slides

New and Old Forensic Techniques Bring Rapist to Justice after 30 Years.

A combination of the very latest cutting-edge forensic DNA techniques and one of the very earliest DNA techniques, dating back to the 80s, has resulted in the conviction of a rapist for an offence committed 30 years ago.

At the age of 16, Benjamin Whitehead now aged 46, cornered and raped a young woman at knifepoint in her Nottinghamshire home. He fled the scene with her handbag and a jewellery box.

Detectives carried out extensive enquiries at the time and even had a DNA profile of the suspect – but the profile did not match any of the persons of interest and with DNA profiling still in its infancy, there was no national DNA database to cross-check against.

The case remained undetected but never closed and in 2013 the East Midlands Special Operations Unit (EMSOU) Regional Review Unit re-opened the investigation in what is known as a ‘Cold Case Review’. The Review Unit, together with specialist cold case scientists at Eurofins Forensic Services, retrieved archived forensic evidence collected at the time of the attack and began the painstaking process of reviewing the case for new opportunities using more sophisticated DNA profiling techniques.

There were two microscope slides retained from the original forensic examination; Eurofins’ scientists therefore had to meticulously plan and execute their examinations in order to maximise the forensic potential in this case. During the early review process, and using more up-to-date DNA technology, Benjamin Whitehead was identified as a potential suspect for the first time.

When the EMSOU Review Unit investigated Whitehead they discovered that he was a Nottingham man – who in 1988 lived just around the corner from where the attack happened, and matched the physical description of the attacker. Enquiries also revealed that Whitehead had been convicted of a number of burglaries in the late 1980s, which led to his DNA being present on the National DNA Database.®

However, despite this, further scientific work was required to progress the investigation. A ‘two-pronged’ approach was adopted: Eurofins’ scientists advised retaining the remains of the microscope slides pending even more advanced DNA techniques which were in the process of being researched at Eurofins. In the meantime, steps were made to investigate the possibility of resurrecting the very first DNA profiling technique in order to re-visit the original 1988 DNA results.

As the 1988 DNA profiling technique, known as Multi Locus Probe (MLP), was first pioneered at the University of Leicester by Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, it was therefore logical to approach the University for assistance. In conjunction with the EMSOU Review Unit and Eurofins, scientists at the University of Leicester then painstakingly re-pieced the original process, vigourously testing and validating the historic technique; this also included locating the original scientist whose samples had been used as an internal control, to ensure reproducibility of the results.

By the time the University of Leicester had completed their testing of the newly resurrected historic MLP process, Eurofins too, were ready to use their latest DNA technology (which included LiRa - their specialist statistical tool, and Y-STR analysis) on the previously retained microscope slides.

In 2017 officers from Nottinghamshire Police contacted the victim, who by now was living in Florida, USA, and flew over to update her on the case, take a new statement from her, provide support and care, and take new blood and DNA samples.

Whitehead was arrested on 16 June 2017 and consented to blood and DNA samples being taken but denied the offence.

The final sets of forensic tests were subsequently undertaken by scientists and both Eurofins Forensic Services and the University of Leicester, the results of which provided further scientific evidence.

Whitehead was rearrested on 27 February 2018 and despite being presented with the DNA results he continued to deny the rape. However in a final twist, on the first day of his trial on 26 November 2018 he finally admitted the charges of rape and aggravated burglary. He was sentenced to nine years and ten months in prison for the rape and eight years for the aggravated burglary, to run concurrently.

This is a truly unique case where, over a period of nearly five years, a collaborative team comprising the EMSOU Regional Review Unit, Nottinghamshire Police, Eurofins Forensic Services, and the University of Leicester , turned the forensic clock back more than thirty years in order to maximise every possible chance of obtaining meaningful and compelling scientific evidence. That strategy paid off and a dangerous criminal is now off the streets.