Torn or cut? – Examining damage to clothing
In some cases, the need to examine damage to clothing may be evident, for example in a stabbing scenario. Here the scientist might examine stab cuts and potentially consider whether they may have been made with a specific weapon for example. However, there are other situations where the examination of damage might be overlooked but may provide useful information. In an alleged sexual offence it is usual to examine underwear and other clothing for the presence of semen (and other relevant body fluids depending on the scenario) and to attempt to obtain a DNA profile of the offender. But even where it is alleged that clothing has been removed forcibly, damage is less often considered.
Damage to a textile item can be examined in detail using standard microscopy to try to gain an insight into how the damage might have been created. The features of cut edges are often quite different to those observed in torn edges of fabrics. In a rape case reviewed by Forensic Context, the complainant alleged that during the incident which occurred in the back seat of a car, her knickers had been ‘ripped’ from her. A pair of knickers had been examined at a laboratory and damage to the front of the knickers had been noted; but the laboratory examinations focused on the detection of semen in the crotch of the knickers and the attribution of that semen to the suspect. In fact, the suspect had been in a relationship with the complainant’s mother and alternatives for how his semen had been transferred to the knickers were put forward which could not be discounted.
The extensive damage to the front of the knickers was examined in more detail by Forensic Context’s expert. In general, when items of clothing are torn, the tears follow the path of least resistance and usually do not cross seams which are generally stronger and often reinforced with additional stitching. The knickers were made from a lacy type fabric which did not appear to be very strong and might be expected to tear fairly readily. However, there was a seam down the front of the knickers and the observed tearing appeared to extend across this seam which was unexpected. Further examination under a microscope, in particular of the ends of the stitching threads forming the seam, showed that these did not show features as might be expected if they had been torn. Although damaged, the knickers would still have had to have been removed in the normal way and could also not have been ‘ripped off’ as described by the complainant. This further information was put before the court and the jury ultimately found the defendant not guilty.