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West Virginia University Forensic Scientists Provide a Benchmark for Analyzing Duct Tape Fracture Edges

by Jo Ellen Nott

A common household item is being analyzed by forensic scientists as the newest tool in crime scene investigations. Researchers at West Virginia University are establishing the standard for the trace evidence left by everyone’s favorite fix-it friend—duct tape.

Duct tape is used to restrain, gag, strangle, or wrap the body of victims and is “cheap, convenient, and exceptionally strong in terms of tensile strength which makes it a crowd favorite for criminals,” according to Sierra Whiskey Co., a company that donates a portion of its profits to combat human trafficking. One of duct tape’s main features is its weakness in shear strength, making it easy to tear. The ease with which duct tape rips gives forensic scientists an enormous amount of “fracture edges” to measure and compare.

Technical consultant emeritus for the Pressure Sensitive Tape Council John Johnston has stated that the “only true way to know that an evidence tape originated from a suspect’s tape is by matching the torn edges.”

The problem with using duct tape to tell who was at a crime scene or who tore the tape is that there were no standardized protocols or industry accepted guidelines for the analysis of duct tape before Tatiana Trejos and Meghan Prusinowski began their work of comparing pieces of trace evidence.

The two researchers are on a mission to establish protocols and guidelines. Their ground-breaking research has developed a unique method to compare pieces of duct tape that appear to be from the same source. After tearing apart thousands of pieces of duct tape and evaluating the fracture edges, they have developed a method to qualify and quantify features and characteristics observed during physical fit examinations.

Examiners can then follow these points of reference to arrive at a score of how similar the tape edges are, estimate probabilities, and use an Excel template to document the points of the physical fit. When Trejos and Prusinowski tested the method, they found the error rate was extraordinarily low in duct tape physical fit examinations.

Next steps for Trejos and her team after sharing the scientific foundation their lab has established is to teach forensic examiners their method. Trejos says her team’s work will provide them “all the resources they need to present evidence in court.”  


Sources: Forensic, Adhesive Magazine, Sierra Whiskey Co.

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