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Monday, May 4, 1998 Published at 10:06 GMT 11:06 UK


Jean-etic detection

A decade ago scientists developed a revolutionary new way to identify criminals through their genes. Now, they can identify them through their jeans.

Richard Vorder Bruegge, a forensic scientist with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, has invented a way of analysing closed circuit television (CCTV) pictures which enables the police to match criminals to their trousers.

The process was used for the first time late last year to convict Charles Barbee, the leader of a white separatist gang responsible for two bank robberies in Spokane, Washington, in April 1996.

[ image: The FBI has one of the biggest forensic science laboratories in the world]
The FBI has one of the biggest forensic science laboratories in the world
The masked Barbee thought he had outwitted the cameras in the bank he was robbing. But he made one serious mistake: wearing one of his favourite pair of blue jeans.

The offending articles were found at Barbee's home and, after enlarging a still from the CCTV film, Mr Vorder Bruegge was able to match 25 distinguishing characteristics which proved they were the pair worn in the bank video.

This is not something that happens "only in America". Jeans are the most popular kind of trousers for men throughout the world and it is expected that the technique will spark interest among law enforcement agencies in North America, Europe and Australasia.

Most identifiable type of clothing

Jeans analysis is the latest in a string of new techniques that have given police forces extra ammunition in their fight against crime.

Fingerprinting has been used since the turn of the century. In the 1980s British scientists discovered a means of isolating a suspect's DNA from a sample of blood or semen.

[ image: A database of footprints allows police to link crimes committed by the same person]
A database of footprints allows police to link crimes committed by the same person
In February this year, a south London burglar became the first person convicted on the basis of an earprint. In the West Midlands, police have developed a database of footprints that they have used to match offenders to scenes of crimes.

Mr Vorder Bruegge says that jeans analysis could be huge. Jeans are usually the most identifiable type of clothing worn by a criminal. That's because their owners let them wear down more than any other item of clothing.

Identifying marks do not only include patches and stains. Unique marks on the seams, known as "pucker patterns", also are created when the denim is pushed through the sewing machine during production.

But Chief Inspector Bill Gaskins, who is in charge of a CCTV surveillance scheme in Gloucester, is unimpressed by the FBI discovery.

"There is nothing particularly new in this," he said. "We have often identified suspects by the clothes they were wearing when they were caught on camera.

"A conviction usually depends on a number of factors like failing to have a good alibi."

But for Barbee, the technique's power is real. He is now serving two life sentences.


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