The head of forensics at Staffordshire Police has lifted the lid on the crucial role of DNA in fighting crime in the 21st century - and bringing sex monsters and other dangerous criminals to justice.
John Beckwith has told the Burton Mail of the importance of forensics in seeing justice done, why cuts are threatening all areas of policing, and why cash funding for the future is becoming more focused on technology.
And the police expert has highlighted how forensics helped trap evil sex monster Arnold Baxter 15 years after he kidnapped and sexually assaulted a six-year-old girl in Barton under Needwood.
When John Beckwith started his career in forensics more than 30 years ago, the system relied heavily on blood groups and a blood sample, which would have to be the size of a 50 pence piece, to obtain DNA.
Thankfully the process has grown rapidly since then and is responsible for taking many of the world’s most serious killers, rapists and paedophiles off the streets.
With forensics playing such a vital part in ensuring justice is done for victims, John has revealed his fears over funding cuts and what the face of forensics will look like in the future.
The father-of-two, whose department specialises in crime scene investigation, fingerprints, forensic and digital services, said: "When I joined in 1987, the DNA database that we rely on now wasn’t even built. In those early days it was pre-DNA so we were not doing DNA-profiling, we weren’t using biology in volume crimes such as burglaries and vehicle crimes but instead we were relying on samples of blood groups to catch the criminals.
"When DNA came along it was recognised with significant funding and the Home Office made significant investment to get it up and running. They put £200 million into DNA expansion which allowed us to build a database to the level of our existing database instead of one which only featured fingerprints.
"That funding paid for people as well as profiling so forces were able to recruit in the forensics department."
John said funding cuts were now rife throughout policing and that forces faced with austerity measures had to look at their resources, after an official watchdog sparked fears that cuts would heighten the risk of miscarriages of justice.
Last month, Dr Gillian Tully, the Forensics Science Regulator, flagged up the potential for wrongful convictions or evidence being missed when she raised the alarm over ongoing financial reductions.
She said: "A year ago I warned that funding was too tight, and now even more money has been taken out of the system. We cannot continue on this path.
"My concern is there was no fat in the system as it was. The more pressure you put on people, the less time they have to spend on their actual work, the more you raise the risk of errors.
"The worst case is that there are miscarriages of justice, either through the wrong person being convicted or through justice being denied to somebody because, for example, the evidence wasn’t found when it should have been."
She added: "While it is understandable that senior police leaders have a wide range of priorities, if quality of forensic science provision is of insufficient priority to enable risks to be managed effectively and quality standards to be achieved, the logical result is that it will become unsustainable for any forensic services to be managed within some police forces."
John said the face of crime had changed and with it, the way forensics now work.
He said: "Clearly there have been significant cuts. My team is now the same size as it was when I came here in 2008, but when faced with austerity measures and cutbacks we have to look at resources and in Staffordshire we are looking to increase the investment in forensics.
"At the same time criminality is changing. There is far less burglary than there was and digital is becoming more of a part of investigations so the vast majority of forces across the country are investing in digital forensics."
John said that while there are challenges in digital forensics, the "vast majority of investigations leave a digital footprint."
He said: "The challenge with digital forensics is we don’t know what is on devices so we can never anticipate what we might or might not find. Phones look small in your hands but hold an enormous amount of data. I observed a mobile phone examination last week and a report from that phone which was fairly straightforward produced a 3,430 page report.
"The scale of digital inquiries these days is far beyond what most people appreciate so we have to invest in technology to make sure it is fit for purpose.
"We are seeing technology right across the way we lead our lives and in the vast majority of investigations there is a digital footprint whether it be through social media, vehicles or mobile phones.
"When I started out £3.1 million a year was spent on outsourced forensic science and that expenditure has reduced by 50 per cent so we have already made significant savings. We have to think - do we want officers trawling through data or working with communities and that is the challenge.
"Innovation is really important and we need to be able to innovate. Without that those people who are involved in organised criminality such as cyber crime and targeting the elderly and vulnerable will get away with it. Therefore we need to not only be able to invest in technology but to understand it so we can exploit the opportunities and evidence in a positive way; if we don’t we will find ourselves in decline."
John, of Stafford, said forensics still fascinated him and he loves his job because "it can make a real difference."
He said the speed and development of police forensics could also aid victims of crime and had "transformed the face of policing" in reviewing historic cases.
He said: "DNA profiling has in no way stood still. Not only does it improve the quality and consistency of results but it also has much broader benefits than identification. It can also provide value to witnesses and victims which saves them having to go to court and do statements if we can secure a successful prosecution beforehand.
"It will not prolong the process and will minimise the effect on victims which is a great success for us. Getting the DNA early and finding a match can also help us to safeguard the community as we can recognise suspects who may be vulnerable as well as finding early evidence."
Mr Beckwith said the "rapid development" of DNA over the past three decades also allowed for them to "revitalize" historic cases.
He said: "DNA has come so far and now we have the ability to analyse DNA from the touch of a surface, which we would never had been able to do 10 years ago. It has really developed and allows us to go back and look at old cases. We have looked at material previously that was not suitable and we could not get anything more but we have had a number of successful cases recently revitalized because of DNA and fingerprints."
Mr Beckwith said "there is no question" that DNA had triggered successful investigations into crimes linked to the Burton area. He highlighted the case of kidnapper and child sex monster Arnold Baxter who was linked to an appalling attack in Barton under Needwood 15 years ago after he was arrested for drink-driving by police in September 2016. A sample of the 72-year-old's DNA was taken by officers which subsequently linked him to the Barton case.
The attack shocked the area at the time after a six-year-old girl playing outside her home was snatched by pervert Baxter and later sexually assaulted before being dumped over the border in Walton-on-Trent, in Derbyshire.
Baxter had his DNA and fingerprints checked against a national database on unsolved crimes and his DNA matched forensic material recovered from the girl's clothing in 2001. At the time the hunt for the kidnapper was featured on the BBC Crimewatch TV programme after the youngster was able to provide some significant details.
Detectives said at the time that the man they were hunting was a paedophile who used false registration plates on vehicles and took steps to conceal his identity or alter his appearance, with facial hair, glasses and clothing. Baxter, from Rugby, has now been jailed for nine years.
John, based at Staffordshire Police HQ, currently leads his team and is keen to ensure it maintains "state of the art practice." He said: "The job is so important and it is really satisfying when you catch someone who has been harming vulnerable people.
"You can hear the success stories down the corridor but it is our job to see that justice is done and do our best for the victims of crime to pull everything together. I do it because forensics can make a real difference, it is very exciting and is changing all the time."
John highlighted the local case of convicted murderer John Bainbridge as an example of how developments over DNA had enabled forensics to bring evil criminals to justice.
How the power of DNA snared murderer for historic rape crime
Bainbridge, a convicted murderer who was living in Burton, was sentenced to life imprisonment for raping a woman in front of her children more than 30 years ago thanks to advances in DNA testing.
Bainbridge, who lived in Bulwell at the time of the attack in Nottingham in 1986 but was more recently living in Beckett Close, Burton, pleaded guilty to raping the woman in her home in Basford on May 15, 1986.
Armed with a knife, the 54-year-old waited until the victim's husband had left the house before hiding in her bedroom. He then attacked her with the knife, cut off her underwear and raped her in front of her children.
He was not caught at the time despite a lengthy investigation but following recent advances in DNA science, was arrested and charged in June 2016.
Bainbridge had previously been convicted of the murder of a woman in a similar attack in October 1986. He was sentenced to life in prison with a minimum term of 20 years, but was arrested for harassing a woman in Derbyshire when he was released on licence. His DNA was taken and provided a match with samples taken from the scene of the crime more than three decades ago.
Appearing before Nottingham Crown Court in December 2016, Bainbridge was jailed for life with a minimum of eight years to be served before he can be released, and will be placed on the Sex Offenders' Register for life.
Lawrence English, head of the Crown Prosecution Service East Midlands Rape and Serious Sexual Offences Team, said: "This case shows just how valuable a thorough investigation and preserving all evidence in a case can be. Advances in technology now mean that we can match DNA to a suspect, regardless of how long ago the samples were taken.
"This evidence can be used to prove where sexual contact has taken place. In this case the DNA evidence, coupled with evidence of how he had attacked both victims, was so strong that Bainbridge had no means of defence, so pleaded guilty to this crime. There is no doubt that this conviction was made possible by the decisions by the police to keep and preserve the samples, despite not knowing how DNA technology would develop."
So what is DNA and how does the DNA process work?
DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid, a self-replicating material which is present in nearly all living organisms as the main constituent of chromosomes, which simply means it is the carrier of genetic information.
"The power and beauty of DNA is that it can be used to eliminate individuals as well as prosecuting individuals."
John said: "The law allows us to take DNA when people come into custody. It can then be held proportionately in accordance to the crime. We use mouth swabs and fingerprints to gain recognition and the first stage is usually fingerprints, which can present us with a new record.
"It is not uncommon for people to come in and give us aliases or the wrong name so DNA in this circumstance allows us to draw a clear line in the sand. Fingerprints underpin the whole identification system.
"We can hold mouth swabs for a maximum of six months unless we apply for further time. We also have the ability to process these swabs for a DNA profile which allows us to retain the DNA further. Although we can’t just keep everybody's fingerprints forever in the hope of taking speculative searches, we can retain any DNA from a scene, unless it is a low-level offence that has not occurred for a substantial period of time.
"When it comes to serious offences, we can retain it for at least 30 years. Cases will then be built using that DNA evidence.
"The power and beauty of DNA is that it can be used to eliminate individuals as well as prosecuting individuals. It only conclusively eliminates and cannot conclusively identify.
"When we get positive results it can be tremendously satisfying but we must also be cautious and even the strongest evidence requires further investigation.
"DNA may support us in charging the person and remanding them in custody but if the individual had legitimate access to the scene or can provide an explanation as to why it might be there, the DNA will allow us to rebut that claim.
"If DNA is of good quality it can be very compelling but we must always be balanced and consider every piece of evidence. Complying with legislation is at the heart of what we do and DNA evidence must hold its integrity.
"However, in our experience, as long as the context is checked it is not uncommon for people to admit the offence once presented with the DNA evidence. If convicted we will retain that DNA and if they are not convicted of the said crime, the DNA will be removed in due course. This happens very quickly and reflects a very transparent system."