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Scientists get a grip on ear prints

Criminals are used to trying to avoid leaving fingerprints at a crime scene. But now British scientists have developed a computerised system that allows them to identify ear prints just as easily.

Criminals often wear gloves but are less likely to cover their ears and before would-be burglars touch a doorknob or try to pry open a window they might press their ear against the glass to hear if anyone is home.

Ear prints had been used to identify individuals and criminals long before fingerprints became popular in the early 20th century. They came back into use in the 1990s but unlike fingerprints they were never organised in a computerised system.

"Basically we have brought it up to speed and modernised things considerably. We've produced a computerised system for identifying ear prints along the lines of the fingerprint system," said Professor Guy Rutty, head of the forensic pathology unit at the University of Leeds in England.

Instead of manually sorting through ear prints and images, Rutty's system allows investigators to systematically search an ear print database.

"To our knowledge, this is the first computerised system that exists anywhere for ear prints and ear images," he explained.

Ear prints are taken from about 15 per cent of crime scenes in Britain and have already been used to capture culprits in the Netherlands and Switzerland.

A ear print can easily be lifted from the window and may help to identify the culprit even if no fingerprints were left behind. Ear prints also leave behind DNA.

A special plastic material rolled from the bottom of the ear to the top also produces an ear impression from a individual and is developed just like a fingerprint.

"Our system allows data sharing and rapid communication between (police) forces," said Rutty.

"We can now open up the examination of both ear images and ear prints on a computerised system that can be centrally stored and searched by anybody, anywhere in the world."

March 9, 2004

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