Warnakulasuriya, Senior Forensic Scientist from the UK was in Sri
Lanka to look into setting up a DNA laboratory
On a DNA trail.....
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi
A woman is raped and murdered in
Newcastle, northeast England and the police come up with no suspect.
The search is on and there is a "hit" -- a vagrant is
arrested three counties away, tried, convicted and jailed. Justice
has been meted out.
after the crime is committed, a person in protective clothing, with
mask, mop cap, gloves and overshoes is at the scene, meticulously
picking up special clues, which prove to be the vital evidence that
leads the police to the murderer.
of a team of forensic scientists who are into the latest cutting-edge
technology of DNA profiling or typing, for Sri Lankan born Samantha
Warnakulasuriya it is routine work.
conviction of the rapist-murderer shows the power of DNA profiling,"
says 37-year-old Ms. Warnakulasuriya, Senior Forensic Scientist
working for the Forensic Science Service (FSS) in the United Kingdom.
last week she was in her motherland to explore the possibility of
helping the government to set up a national laboratory for this
revolutionary technology in the aftermath of the tsunami.
profiling has a high level of accuracy. Ten areas plus a gender
test are checked out in a DNA profile and it is a powerful tool
in the identification of bodies, in criminal work and also ascertaining
paternity," she emphasizes. "A billion to one is the chance
of two unrelated persons having the same DNA profile."
FSS, for which Ms. Warnakulasuriya works, is an executive agency
of the British Home Office. "It is the market leader in the
provision of forensic services and considered the best," she
smiles, explaining that the FSS works closely with 43 police forces
in England and Wales and has supported 35 countries.
the war in Kuwait, the FSS helped that country to identify the thousands
of people who had died in the conflict, through DNA technology.
"It takes a long time to get the process moving, because specialized
conditions, machinery and techniques are needed. In Kuwait, it took
about five years. But once it is established, it is there and can
be expanded into other fields," says Ms. Warnakulasuriya.
on the sophisticated system already in place in the UK, she says
that the FSS has seven labs across the country, in London, Birmingham,
Chepstow, Wetherby, Chorley, Manchester and Huntingdon, for the
police to have easy access to the facilities. "Time is of essence,
especially in crime detecting work and the FSS has an automated
DNA system based on robotics, handling about 45,000 references each
month," she says.
a forensic biologist, she deals with crimes against people such
as violent assaults, armed robbery, murder and rape. When on duty,
she is on call day and night. Soon after a crime, she sits down
with the police for a briefing on the circumstances that led to
the incident and along with a pathologist agrees on a strategy to
be followed and how best to approach the work. Thereafter it is
a visit to the scene, after the scene-of-crime officers have videoed
and photographed the area.
starts her job of picking up those all important "DNA clues"
that come in the form of bloodstains and other body fluids or secretions,
hair, nails or even fibres from other sources.
carry out crime scene examinations and interpret the blood patterns
at the scene to reconstruct the crime. Every little detail is examined
including the distribution of blood on a suspect's clothes. Does
the blood pattern indicate that the victim was kicked? Was the victim
dragged around the house? Then through a computer-aided design package,
detailed graphics can be drawn to be produced in court so that judges
or jurors do not have to look closely at graphic photographs of
the scene of the crime," says Ms. Warnakulasuriya.
the setting up of the National DNA Databases both in England and
Scotland, she says, the long arm of the law can be stretched even
further, not only to other areas like Scotland but also into the
past. Crime stains can lead to arrests long after the crime has
been committed. For, it is the law in Britain that a DNA sample
can be taken from anyone suspected of an arrestable offence, such
as even erratic driving or jumping a red light, and loaded on the
what Operation Phoenix of the Northumbria Police in the northeast
of UK is all about -- retrospective justice. Crime, particularly
rape from as far back as 20 years ago, considered "cold cases",
is being investigated again and 11 convictions have already taken
place through DNA profiling, helping the victims to put the trauma
behind them and move on.
cases are numerous. Ms. Warnakulasuriya cites the abduction and
murder of a 15-year-old in Leeds, West Yorkshire. The teenager's
body had been found in a wooded area nine months after her abduction.
No DNA profile was available because of the state of decomposition
of her body.
the profile the FSS had come up with from the hairs and fibres collected
from the scene had been amazing. The kidnapper and murderer was
a white man who had dogs. The FSS had not only figured out what
kind of furniture he had but, working with a pollen specialist,
even determined the varieties of flowers he grew in his garden.
Checking back, the police had found him to be involved in two rapes
-- within half a mile of his residence and the location from which
the teenager was abducted -- 20 years before.
techniques are also advancing - those days they were unable to separate
male and female cells. But things have changed now. Ms. Warnakulasuriya
cites a case of violent rape, where the woman was followed home,
hit on the head and raped. When the perpetrator was disturbed in
the act he did not ejaculate. The police identified a suspect. Though
there were certain fibre transfers from the victim's clothing to
his, the suspect was adamant that he did not rape her but was only
in close physical contact with her. There was no seminal fluid to
from fluids taken from body orifices, you cannot distinguish the
male cells from female cells. For the first time, the FSS, working
with the North Yorkshire Police, used a specialist DNA technique
(Y-STR - connected to the paternal line) to identify the male cells
from the 'intimate swabs' taken from the victim and he was jailed
for eight and a half years.”
the technology has advanced in leaps and bounds and a DNA profile
can be obtained from objects that have been touched under the specialist
technique called Low Copy Number DNA, says this forensic scientist.
Ms. Warnakulasuriya, the most poignant are the memories of Scotland's
Dunblane primary school shooting incident in 1996 where gunman Thomas
Hamilton killed 15 children and a teacher, wounded ten others and
killed himself. Working for the Police Forensic Science Laboratory
in Dundee at that time, she had the task of doing the blood pattern
did she get into this line of work and does it traumatise her?
Ms. Warnakulasuriya's answer lies in her childhood. She was five
when she accompanied her parents to England and it was there that
she met her doctor-father's friend Dr. Haris Ranasinghe. She recalls
how she listened wide-eyed to the experiences of this Sri Lankan
pathologist of repute. That was the catalyst for a career most other
people would consider strange.
in Wetherby, Yorkshire with her two dogs and two horses, she concedes
there is some trauma in her job but colleagues provide moral support.
"We can seek counselling from within the FSS if we feel the
need," she says, adding, "This is the best job in the
world". Fifteen years in the field prove her point.
Genetic laboratory in Sri Lanka?
A genetic laboratory has been a long felt need for Sri
Lanka and a pre-requisite for the state sector to develop forensic
services. Although plans were in the pipeline two years ago for
such a lab, with the Forum for Research and Development and the
Sri Lanka Twin Registry securing full funding for the project, it
never saw the light of day, The Sunday Times learns.
in the aftermath of the tsunami, the importance of such a lab has
been underscored once again. "Forensic services are multi-sectoral
with different stakeholders such as the police, the Attorney General's
Department and the Justice Ministry. The grant is from the Wellcome
Research Trust and it is to be a collaborative project among the
Sri Lanka Twin Registry, King's College, University of London and
the Human Genetics Programme of the WHO. With the tsunami leaving
in its wake thousands of unidentified bodies, the need for such
a lab has been sorely felt," says Dr. Athula Sumathipala who
was the coordinator of the psychosocial desk after the tsunami.
uses of genetic or DNA profiling are wide and varied - disaster-victim
identification, crime busting, detections in firearms crimes and
establishment of paternity to name a few.
time has come to develop genetic capacity within the state sector
and we are now in the process of raising awareness among all the
key players," says Dr. Sumathipala adding, "If we had
the capability, it would have helped the relatives of tsunami victims
to identify the dead, carry out the burial rites and begin to heal
DNA profiling that Germany and the United Kingdom helped us with,
we would have been able to do ourselves, he says, explaining that
a medical team is hoping to carry out a demonstration on a small
scale on some genetic (DNA) material preserved after the tsunami
by Dr. Clifford Perera of the Galle Medical Faculty.
the need for a genetic lab coming into focus again, Sri Lanka had
sought the assistance of the Forensic Science Service (FSS) in the
UK and that's how Senior Forensic Scientist Samantha Warnakulasuriya
came in with her expertise on February 14 to provide technical advice.
Warnakulasuriya has had a series of meetings with top officials
including doctors and those in the Attorney General's Department
and the Government Analyst's Department. She wound up her visit
as the keynote speaker at a symposium on 'Forensic genetic services:
From pre-tsunami luxury to post-tsunami necessity' at the Sri Lanka
Medical Association yesterday.
Kuwait and the Netherlands are setting up national DNA databases
with support from the FSS. America is thinking about it. If Sri
Lanka sets up a DNA database it will be the first one in Southeast
Asia," says Ms. Warnakulasuriya.