Page last updated at 12:22 GMT, Wednesday, 2 April 2008 13:22 UK

Body parts hunt 'like jigsaw puzzle'

By Stuart Nicolson
BBC Scotland news website

Forensic science has captured the public imagination, thanks largely to fictional television shows like CSI and Law and Order.

Forensic officers in Arbroath
Forensics officers at the beach where the head was found
But a forensic expert has warned that despite some amazing advances, the appliance of science is often no match for old-fashioned detective work.

Dr Adrian Linacre, a senior lecturer in forensics at Strathclyde University, worked on the team which helped convict Limbs in the Loch killer William Beggs.

He told the BBC Scotland news website that identifying the body parts found on a beach in Arbroath would be a painstaking process that would depend as much on traditional police work as it would on modern DNA profiling.

Two young sisters found a woman's head while playing on the beach on Tuesday.

Police investigations at the area have also led to the discovery of two hands.

Dr Linacre said: "Body parts do degrade quickly, especially if they have been in the sea - during the Asian Tsunami, for example, bodies were almost completely unrecognisable after just 12 hours in the water.

"The first thing you would do in a case like the one in Arbroath would be to take a DNA profile from any soft tissue that remains to establish that the head and arms belong to the same person.

"If that is the case you would also hopefully be able to take fingerprints. You can also tell quite a lot just from the skull itself, for example sex and age, and from hair if there is any still attached to the head."

The police would begin by comparing the DNA evidence with people known to be missing from the local area, then widen the search to encompass missing people in other areas.

Adrian linacre
People have this magical view of forensic science, but it is usually based on the fiction of shows like CSI
Dr Adrian Linacre

That process could be made even more complicated if the remains have been carried a long distance by sea tides, perhaps even from abroad, or if the person is not known to be missing.

Evidence like personal items found on or near the body, like rings on fingers, would also be used to build up a picture to help police identify the remains.

"It can be like solving a jigsaw puzzle. People have this magical view of forensic science, but it is usually based on the fiction of shows like CSI rather than the reality. We don't solve crimes in an hour, unfortunately," Dr Linacre admitted.

"The biggest problem with forensic science is that you need to be able to compare the material you have collected with something.

"If there are teeth still in place they can be compared to dental records, but there is no national database so you would need to find out where the dental work was done.

"The same is true of fingerprints and DNA samples. How many people have their fingerprints or DNA on file anywhere?

"The DNA register is getting bigger all the time, but it still covers a relatively small percentage of the population."

Dr Linacre said the fact that Tayside Police were able to establish so quickly that the remains belonged to a female suggested that the skull was in a relatively good condition.

He added: "If that is the case I would have thought the skull would have come from somewhere local, but there is no way for me to know without seeing it."

Police find second hand on beach
02 Apr 08 |  Tayside and Central
Children find human head on beach
01 Apr 08 |  Tayside and Central

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