Forensic Evidence

During the course of a sexual assault, trace materials, such as skin, body fluids, hairs, fibers, and soil, can collect under the fingernails of both the complainant and the assailant. The latter deserve particular attention because digital vaginal penetration is alleged to have occurred in nearly one in five (18%) of the sexual assault cases submitted for analysis to the Forensic Science Service (FSS); frequently, this is a precursor to another penetrative act (Newton, M., personal communication, 2003). A study undertaken by Neville in a forensic laboratory found that 38% of individuals have DNA from someone other than themselves under their fingernails and several cases submitted to the FSS have produced a DNA match between the complainant and the assailant from the material recovered from the fingernails (Moore, E., and Harris, E., personal communication, 1998; Neville, S., personal communication, 2002).

Therefore, fingernail samples should be obtained from the complainant if the circumstances of the offense suggest that trace material may be present; for example, if there has been a struggle or if the details of the assault are uncertain and the forensic practitioner, in observing the complainant's hands, notices material of interest under or on the surface of the nails. They should also be considered if a fingernail broke during the offense and the broken section may be recovered from the scene. Samples should be obtained from the suspect if it is alleged that his or her hands had direct contact with the female genitalia or if he or she scratched the complainant.

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