3D Printing for Crime Solving & Convictions
Written by John Hornick   

3D printing (a.k.a. additive manufacturing) has the potential to transform the world by simplifying manufacturing, shortening supply and distribution chains, democratizing production, creating and repatriating jobs, and customizing products to our needs. But 3D printing can also be used for both causing crimes—as well as solving them. I learned during my recent speech at the Social Media the Internet and Law Enforcement (SMILE) conference that the risks and benefits of 3D printing are largely unknown to the law enforcement community. Here’s some of what’s happening.

Originally published: Fall 2017 Issue (Volume 15, Number 3)
View the Digital Edition here

Photo: iStock.com/mailfor

The Dark Side

Texas law student Cody Wilson made headlines in 2013 by 3D printing a plastic gun and posting the blueprints on the Internet. The gun was primitive but it worked, successfully firing multiple live rounds. The blueprints for Wilson’s gun were downloaded one hundred thousand times before the United States government forced their removal from the server.

Since then, 3D printing of guns has flourished. In 2015, police in Chiloquin, Oregon, made arrests for the illegal possession of an AR-15 assault rifle. Its lower receiver—the key to what makes it a weapon—was believed to have been 3D printed.

In early 2016, a gun and 3D printing enthusiast called Derwood 3D printed the “Shuty” semi-automatic handgun. Ninety-five percent of the plastic weapon was 3D printed on a machine that cost less than $5000. It fired at least 800 rounds and Derwood later announced an improved version.

In August 2016, the TSA found a 3D printed revolver in carry-on luggage at the Reno-Tahoe Airport. The gun was detected because it was loaded with live rounds.

In March 2017, the US Army announced its 3D printed grenade launcher, which it nicknamed “RAMBO” (Rapidly Additively Manufactured Ballistic Ordnance). The weapon was 100% 3D printed, except for the springs and fasteners, and fires 3D printed grenades.

Although the law prohibits the sale of guns to convicted felons, 3D printing allows felons to get guns without anyone knowing about it. In separate raids in Brisbane, Australia and its nearby Gold Coast, police found 3D printed gun parts and a fully functioning, loaded 3D printed gun. According to Queensland Police Detective Inspector Scott Knowles, “we can identify most if not all of the major components of a weapon. To us it appears that they are complete weapons just requiring assembly.”

The Bright Side

3D printing is also being used to help law enforcement agencies, by recreating detailed models of crime scenes and car accidents, footprints, and fingerprints, and for making architectural models for planning raids and for courtroom use. A Florida company, 3D Printed Evidence, offers such services to the law enforcement community, converting data from MRIs, CT scans, and 3D scanners into physical models.

Bringing Crime Scenes to Life

The Hong Kong Police Briefing Support Unit is using its own 3D printers to make crime scene models, which help them understand the crime and present cases in court. The unit also uses 3D printed models of buildings and streetscapes for counter-terrorism planning. Like many law enforcement agencies, the Hong Kong police have made such models for many years, but 3D printers do it faster, with much more accurate detail.

3D printed crime scene models can also be used to help gather additional evidence. In 2013, a 3D printed model of a crime scene helped Japanese police gather thousands of possible case-related clues from local citizens.

Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

In the case of the 2013 death of six-year old Ellie Butler in Sutton, England, forensic pathologists supported the homicide prosecution of her parents by presenting detailed replicas of Butler’s severely damaged skull, which were 3D printed from CT scans of her remains.

In May 2015, detectives and prosecutors in Birmingham, England used a combination of 3D scanning and 3D printing to obtain a conviction in the notorious “suitcase killing,” in which Lorenzo Simon was accused of murdering his tenant, Michael Spalding, dismembering the body with a saw and partially burning it, and sinking the parts in weighted suitcases in the Birmingham canal. Using this technology, the West Midlands Police (with the help of the University of Warwick’s Manufacturing Group) were able to show that a piece of burned broken bone found in the suspect’s backyard was an exact match for a piece of broken bone found in the suitcases. Using high-resolution scans of nine pieces of damaged bone, the team was able to display the pieces on a large screen for investigators to study, which protected the actual evidence from handling and potential damage or loss. The scans were then used to 3D print courtroom replicas of the bones in such detail that saw marks from the saw used to cut up the body were visible and the pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Simon got life in prison.

Thawing Out Cold Cases

In late 2016, the Greene County Ohio Sheriff’s Office partnered with Ohio State University to try to identify the remains of a woman found in the woods near Dayton. After all attempts to identify the victim from the badly decomposed remains had failed, the police turned to 3D printing. After CT scanning and 3D printing a model of the victim’s skull, the model was fleshed out with clay. Images of the model were then released to the public, which quickly led to the victim being positively identified. The police investigation then shifted into high gear, resulting in suspects being identified, arrested, and charged a short time later.

3D Printers as Forensic and Teaching Tools

Students attending the Richmond County School in North Carolina are learning forensic pathology with 3D scanners and printers.

Similarly, University of South Florida students and researchers, and local police, are using 3D printing to help identify the victims in nine Florida cold cases, some of which are decades old. Joe Mullins, a well-known forensic imaging expert, teamed up with twelve students from the University of South Florida’s Institute for Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science. After 3D printing replicas of the victims’ skulls from 3D scans, the students rebuilt the faces with clay, then sculpted the lips and inserted fake eyeballs. The finished replicas were then displayed at a USF event called “The Art of Forensics: Solving Florida’s Cold Cases,” and published in the media, in hopes that viewers would identify the victims.

As digital tools for 3D modeling faces from 3D scans of skulls improve, forensic researchers should eventually be able to create a digital model of the face, which can then be 3D printed. Clay modeling will be unnecessary.

The Central Identification Laboratory of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command uses a similar technique to attempt to identify the remains of American soldiers killed in combat. The Center 3D prints skull replicas from CT scans or photogrammetry of remains, photographs the skulls from multiple angles, then superimposes photos of combat victims, looking for matches with the skulls.

Recently, New York State Police teamed with the State University of New York New Palz’s Hudson Valley Advanced Manufacturing Center to solve a 47-year old Jane Doe murder case. After the SUNY team 3D printed a replica of the victim’s skull, it was handed off to a forensic artist to recreate the victim’s face. Before this step was completed, the victim was identified by other means.

Going Inside the Evidence

If CT scans, which are noninvasive, can be made before remains and clothing are disturbed by forensic pathology procedures, such 3D data can be used to 3D print models that allow investigators to examine bone and bullet fragments outside wounds, and even to go inside wounds to inspect and measure bullet or knife tracks and trajectories in relation to entry points and surrounding tissue. Such models could be 3D printed life-sized, or in larger-than-life-size for easier examination. As well stated by Eugene Liscio, President of the International Association of Forensic and Security Metrology:

“There is a special need for techniques that allow pathologies to be presented clearly in the courtroom. For medical laymen such as judges, lawyers, and especially relatives of murder victims, the presentation of autopsy photographs can be disturbing, making findings difficult to present this way. From a juror’s perspective, being able to see such an object which is much more familiar than trying to interpret radiographs allows for a better spatial appreciation and understanding of injuries. Unlike volume renderings, 3D printed models offer real three-dimensionality as well as a haptic component, which make it easier for medical laymen to understand.”

Digitally Printed Digits

3D printers can also reproduce fingerprints and palmprints, for several applications. In addition to printing life-sized or larger-than-life models for comparing fingerprints and palm prints in the lab or the courtroom, in 2016 Michigan State University Police worked with researchers at the university to 3D print fingerprints, to attempt to unlock an otherwise uncrackable Samsung Galaxy 6S smartphone. Using fingerprints taken in life from the smartphone owner, a homicide victim, the researchers 3D printed replicas of the owner’s fingertips and coated them with metallic particles to conduct the slight electrical current the phone needs to respond to the fingerprint. Ultimately, this attempt failed, but only because the fingerprints from which the replicas were 3D printed lacked sufficient detail. With better fingerprints, this is a promising technique for unlocking smartphones.

In later research, the same Michigan State team found that they could 3D print hands capable of bypassing fingerprint and hand scanners. Although the intended use of the 3D printed hands was to calibrate such scanners, the researchers soon realized that 3D printed hand replicas could be used to defeat such security devices. Printed from flexible material that simulates the texture and feel of human skin and coated with metallic particles, the 3D printed replicas can be worn like a glove to fool slap readers and contactless readers.

Do It Yourself or Farm It Out

Some law enforcement agencies, such as the UK’s West Yorkshire Police, are installing their own 3D printers to help solve crimes and to prosecute offenders. As the agency’s Crime Scene Surveying Supervisor Daniel Sharp said, the 3D printer enables “the judge and jury to hold the crime scene in their hands.”

Law enforcement agencies lacking the budget or the personnel to 3D print replicas of evidence can farm out the work to one of thousands of independent 3D printing fabricators (often called “service bureaus”), which operate like local machine shops. As described in this article regarding solving cold cases, several law enforcement agencies have also turned to local university 3D printing facilities to print the replicas and models they need. Online fabricators like Shapeways will also 3D print models from your 3D data. If your agency lacks a 3D scanner, independent scanning businesses can digitize them for you. In the long term, law enforcement agencies will probably operate their own 3D printers and scanners.

Don’t Blame the Technology

As with many technologies, 3D printing can be misused, but not because the technology is inherently flawed. People are flawed. Although illegal use of 3D printing could be substantial, this disruptive technology can also help to solve crimes and convict the perpetrators. Governments, law enforcement agencies, and homeland security must learn the risks of 3D printing, plan accordingly, and use the technology to help prevent or solve crimes.

About the Author

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it , author of the award-winning book, 3D Printing Will Rock the World, offers educational programs to the law enforcement community on the dark side of 3D printing, and on how 3D printing can be used to aid law enforcement.

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