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article imageGrisly 1930's murder case re-examined

By Tim Sandle     Feb 1, 2014 in Science
Hardingstone - A forensic team from the University of Leicester (UK) have opened an investigation to try and identify the victim of a gruesome murder case from 1930. This was the same team who, last year, identified the body of King Richard III.
The case involved the murder of a male in a car fire in Hardingstone, Northamptonshire, U.K., on 6 November 1930. Alfred Rouse was convicted, and later hanged, at Bedford Gaol in March 1931, for murdering his victim who to this day, has not been identified. The basis of Rouse’s murder was that he sought to fabricate his own death by picking up a hitch-hiker; knocking him out, and then burning his car with the man inside.
Alfred Rouse  murderer of an unknown victim  hanged in 1931
Alfred Rouse, murderer of an unknown victim, hanged in 1931
Leicester Police
At the time, a post mortem (autopsy) examination was carried out in the garage of the local public house by the Home Office appointed pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury (a somewhat controversial figure). Sir Spilsbury reported that lavender coloured material and light brown hair were found at the scene. It was further documented that the victim's jawbone was removed to assist with possible identification and tissue samples taken for microscopical examination.
Two of these tissue samples are still in existence and archived in The Royal London Hospital Museum: one from the prostate to confirm the sex of the victim, and another from the lung to determine whether or not the victim was already dead before the fire was started. These samples have since proved to be very important.
It was thought, from contemporary new reports, that the victim was a William Briggs. However, Results from DNA analysis have confirmed that Briggs, who disappeared at around the same time that the crime was committed, was not the victim of the 'Blazing Car Murder'.
As part of researching their family tree, the relatives of William Briggs wanted to confirm or deny their earlier generations' belief that their ancestor may have been Rouse's car murder victim. After gaining permission from the local police force and subsequently linking up with the University of Leicester, an analysis of the surviving samples was undertaken together with a cross matching with DNA samples from the descendants. With this the examination was on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is wholly inherited from the maternal line.
The DNA sequence of mtDNA has been determined from a large number of animals as well as people (including some animals that are extinct), and the comparison of those DNA sequences represents the focus of a scientific field called ‘phylogenetics’. Studying mtDNA allows biologists to determine the evolutionary relationships among and between species. It also permits an examination of the relatedness of an individual to a population.
The results, issued in a research note by the University, of DNA analysis confirmed that family members of William Briggs did not have mtDNA consistent with the tissue on the slide. Therefore William Briggs has been excluded as the source of the tissue from the autopsy of the blazing car murder victim.
Although one man has been eliminated from an eighty year-old murder inquiry, the actual victim of this grisly crime remains unknown.
The research group looking into this eighty year-old case was led by Dr John Bond OBE from the Department of Chemistry and Dr Lisa Smith from the Department of Criminology. The research group at the University of Leicester were the team who successfully identified King Richard III when bones were found under a Leicester car park in 2012.
More about Murder, Burning, Arson, Genetic testing, Dna
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