The year in forensic science – 2012 part 2

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You’ve seen the forensic recap of the early part of the year? Well what about post Olympics? What scientific stories tickled me most then?

Part one found here: Part 1 

The first part of the year took us up to the summer of sport.  As those warm feelings from the Paralympics in August faded into Autumn there was soon plenty to read about.


Drugs (and by extension Prof. David Nutt) were never far from the news in 2012. In September Channel 4 screened a couple of  programmes called ‘Drugs Live’, focussing on the drug methylenedioxymethamphetamine.  This drug is more commonly known as MDMA, ecstasy or E.  It is estimated that half a million young people in the UK are regular users of the drug (Home Office figures).  In the programme MDMA was given to a number of participants who were then followed on screen.

The aim of the programme was to give the facts of MDMA and cut through politics of drugs use. (Although I feel it was perhaps a little heavy on politics and light on science.)  It was proposed that MDMA was a useful treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression amongst others.

Professor Nutt was famously quoted as saying that MDMA use was no more harmful than horse riding.  Whether he proved this or not during the programmes is debatable.  They did succeed in getting the issue of drug classification into the mainstream press and highlight the lack of credible research.  There was also a short interview with the legendary Alexander Shulgin, who many know as the ‘father’ of MDMA.

The programmes are available online here.


In October:

The Forensic Science Regulator issued his report on the DNA mix up at LGC (as mentioned in Part 1).  The story is as follows:

Adam Scott (aged 20) was arrested and held in prison on remand on suspicion of rape.  He ended up spending 5 months in prison.  Why? His DNA profile showed up in a rape case from the Greater Manchester area.  His alibi was that he was at least 200 miles from the scene of the crime at the time.

It turns out that when analysing the sample  from a rape victim the lab had re-used a plastic plate.  The plate had previously been used for analysis of DNA from a completely different case, to which Mr Scott was originally connected.  The tray should have been disposed of after the first use.  Such a simple mix up had such a profound impact on many lives.  This confirmed many peoples worst concerns with regards privatisation of the forensic science market.  Others argued that the Forensic Science Service was also able to make mistakes.

The regulator chastised the lab, also pointing out that the same error had occurred on multiple occasions.  After surveillance visits LGC has been allowed to continue providing DNA analysis services to the Police.


And then also in October:

Lance Armstrong Digital Portrait (read the yellow bracelet)

“I’ll say to the people who don’t believe, the cynics and the sceptics: I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.”

Lance Armstrong, Paris, July 2005


Yes, finally, the Lance File was released.  My summary introduced the scientific evidence in the case.  Since October there has been a whole cascade of fall out.  Lance has lost all of his sponsorships and even his foundation (Livestrong) has left him.  Armstrong has formally been stripped of all his Tour titles, with only days now to appeal before it is finalised.  He was stripped of his BBC overseas sports personality of the year award, but he is still loved in his home state of Texas – being nominated as a finalist for Texan of the Year 2012.



The biggest story in November was Yasser Arafat’s exhumation.  Was this to investigate suspected polonium poisoning?

Eight years after his death there were strong rumours he had been poisoned in the same way as the infamous Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko.  There was no post mortem exam initially, which meant no collection of any bodily samples.  The exhumation was to enable collection of samples to determine whether there was anything foreign present.

No results have been released yet…


In December we learnt of the positive drugs test from jockey Frankie Dettori.  He faces a six month ban for taking an unspecified substance (rumoured to be a social drug) during a race meet in France in September.  Dettori has long been a highlight of race meetings in the UK, so it will be interesting to see if this has an impact on crowds or his popularity on his return.


Whilst we wait for the results of the exhumation of Yasser Arafat are there any other stories of major importance?  These are just some of the stories that caught my attention.


What have I missed out? What was your scientific story of the year?


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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.