‘There is no perfect crime’: inside the real French CSI
Imagine a crime scene. The body of a man in a red sweatshirt and jeans lies dead on the living room floor of an apartment, a revolver near his right hand. There is a blood stain on the blue patterned rug and a bullet hole in the ceiling. On a low table sit an almost empty bottle of whisky and two glasses. The television is off.
If this were an episode of the French TV crime drama Engrenages (Spiral) which ran for eight seasons, or the more recent Netflix hit Lupin, the mystery would have been solved and the killer caught before the screen credits rolled.
“In the TV series it’s always the same police officers who get to the scene, pick up the clues, and stop the criminal within 45 minutes. Real life isn’t like that,” says Erwan, a police expert.
“In reality, it’s the work of many people and even then the police can search for weeks, months, even years and sometimes we don’t find the answers or catch the culprit.”
Before I can expound my theories about what has happened in this mock crime scene, Erwan says: “You can’t come walking into here with any preconceptions or certainties.” He is right. The place is a bloodbath. In the next room, we find a woman lying dead on a bed and another corpse.
Erwan is showing me around the headquarters of the newly formed French Service National de Police Scientifique (SNPS) headquarters at Écully, just outside Lyon.
The police in France have had a hard time of late due to accusations of violence, prompting debates in parliament and comments from President Emmanuel Macron.
In January, the authorities merged two previously separate forensics entities into one. In this utilitarian complex, 1,200 forensics agents are deploying groundbreaking science and technology to keep one step ahead of the criminals. However, the day-to-day work here is the grim and relentless repertoire of inhumanity: murders, rapes, assaults, robberies.
About 500 pieces of evidence arrive here every day in sealed brown Kraft paper bags – not the plastic ziplocks of the TV series in which DNA would rot – but that is as low tech as it gets. Unpacked, registered and barcoded, the evidence travels a few yards down a corridor to the laboratories. Virginie Dhaze, the SNPS spokesperson, describes the SNPS as the police service’s “toolbox”.
Today, scientists are using a new technique called SpermTracker to identify and remove genetic material from sperm stains on a jacket; in another laboratory banks of machines are turning out complex graphs of genetic markers from DNA samples.
“We don’t do the entire genome sequence but a maximum of 23 matches. No scientist will tell you it’s 100% accurate, but it’s as good as, and if it’s not, we run the sample again,” says Catherine Privat, a biological technician. “The only difficulty is with identical twins whose DNA is exactly the same, but in that case we resort to fingerprints.”
She adds: “We currently process 20,000 individuals a month. The advances in DNA have been amazing. I smoke, and before we wouldn’t have been able to get enough DNA from one of my cigarette butts even if I’d chewed all over it, but now we can get a very good sample.”
French civil liberties regulations require strict oversight of the DNA database by an independent authority, the Commission Nationale Informatique & Libertes (CNIL), the public freedom watchdog. CNIL representatives regularly visit the SNPS at Lyon to request that genetic records are deleted, for example when a suspect has been cleared or dies and their profile is erased from the database.
The strict rules on using DNA to profile living people – as opposed to identifying the dead – require the approval of an investigating judge or magistrate. Only with this legal go-ahead can DNA be used to give details of a suspect’s hair, eyes and skin colour – even down to whether they have freckles – to a very high degree of accuracy.
“It used to be that witnesses give a [photofit] portrait, but that depends on the memory and reliability of the witness. Under stress they can give misleading information and it’s subjective: someone may be tall to one person and not to the next,” Dhaze says.
“Today we are developing what is called ‘predictive genetics’. It’s relatively recent and it has to be authorised and only for certain crimes or the identification of a body.”
Insp Gen Éric Angelino, the SNPS director, is confident that within a decade DNA will yield more information, including a person’s physical build and even an accurate picture of their face.
“We are travelling in the direction of genetic photofit and in a few years we will be able to reconstruct the face of a suspect from their DNA as well as their size and the height and other identifying factors,” Angelino says. “DNA has far from given up its last secret.”
In another lab, a variety of drugs in plastic pockets awaits analysis.
“We can give the profile of a drug, so we are able to say where it came from and if it is the same as others on the street. International cooperation on this is also crucial. We have to know if a new psychotropic substance arrives on the market it is available in other countries,” Privat says.
Erwan, the police expert who showed me the training crime scene, does not want his surname used because of the sensitivity of some of his investigations. In 2015 he was on holiday in Paris when he was called in to help identify the 130 victims of the wave of terrorist shootings and bombings in Paris, including at the Bataclan.
“The Bataclan was terrible. There was a large number of dead to identify and some were very badly wounded,” he says. “We were working in 12-hour shifts.
“I didn’t know the names of those I was identifying. I didn’t want to. It would have been like carrying the weight of all those deaths on my shoulders. I did the work scientifically, giving each of them the respect and dignity they deserved, but I didn’t want to know who they were.”
Apart from being able to quickly inform families, the identification work also helped track down others in the terrorist commando group.
Erwan also worked on the Nice terrorist attacks – the first in 2016, when a lorry ploughed into Bastille Day crowds on the Promenade des Anglais killing 86, the second when a man stabbed three people in a church last October. The police scientifique has also been called in to identify victims of the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Last year, it worked on the huge explosion in Beirut and the killings of French NGO staff in Niger.
SNPS investigators work in close cooperation with the International Court of Justice on terrorism, genocide and crimes against humanity cases, as well as with neighbouring police forces, including the UK’s. Angelino does not expect Brexit to change much in the immediate future.
“Brexit hasn’t changed the way we work together. And in terms of security, it’s in nobody’s interest for cooperation to halt. The bad guys don’t stop at the Channel,” he says.
The five scientific labs here handled 350,000 cases last year with a budget of €16.5m, and identified 50,000 individuals. The national DNA database, containing information on 4.8 million individuals, and fingerprint database with 6.9m individual records helped identify more than 50,500 suspects.
Angelino says one of the aims of the new forensic service is to “democratise” the work to better serve the public. This means focusing not just on the biggest cases and high-profile crimes, but also the everyday crimes that poison people’s lives.
“Our main job is to serve the investigators, the police and magistrates conducting inquiries, by bringing them conclusive proof. Afterwards, the aim is to evolve in France. There’s a feeling that we shouldn’t be reserved for exceptional cases but more banal affairs. Being there for the population at large even if it’s a case of a minor infringement so they feel that their cases are being taken into account.”
Angelino says keeping ahead of the criminals is a constant challenge even if science makes it more and more difficult for them to evade detection.
“Today, they can’t leave a fingerprint, DNA, smell, digital trace or be caught on a camera. They have to be invisible. But as police we have to be humble and not believe we are cleverer than the criminals. We have to learn all the time to keep one step ahead.”
He adds: “But what surprises me in this job is the inventiveness of man to harm his fellow man.”
Dhaze laughs when I ask if there is such a thing as a perfect crime. Her look suggests I’ve been watching too many police TV series. “If there is a perfect crime, we don’t know about it,” she says.