The extraordinary career of Professor Wesley Vernon

A Career Series in podiatryWesley Vernon

Professor Wesley Vernon explains how he first came across forensic podiatry, a discipline and subspecialty emerging in UK podiatry. Everyone has heard of the US programme ‘C.S.I’ and the UK series ‘Silent Witness’.  While the external veneer appears exciting and fulfilling, ask any Scene of Crime Officer (SOCO) and you will be informed that the TV programmes are far from the real world.

Early days

At school, Wes confessed that he had wanted to be a forensic pathologist. “I wasn’t the easiest pupil in the world, I was completely off the rails, so I never had a hope in hell of getting into any medical school.” The local pathologist found out and arranged for him to have a holiday job in the local mortuary This was a 17-year-old, who was given hands-on work! He tuts a little remarking that it wouldn’t be allowed nowadays.

Mike Nirenberg was a podiatry student in the USA and felt that podiatry could help forensic human identification and actually broke the precedent when he submitted a paper with the help of one of his lectures. Wesley was unaware of the opportunities that podiatry could lend to forensics.  Mike Nirenberg’s paper (1989) had a large file on the aspects of podiatry that could be useful to forensic identification.

Wesley started podiatry at Northern College now a Salford University course and viewed opportunities as a student to file away how forensic work operated while working at the mortuary. Those embers of passion for pathology retained their warmth and would slowly grow to a steady flame. An opportunity came with the degree conversion course. The older diploma in Chiropody morphed into a degree in Podiatry. Taking on his  student project, he thought, “Can we use our records to help identify dead people?” And that led him to get in touch with all the schools who then found out what he was trying to do. Norman Gunn was a name Wes was given as he had just visited the UK. Wes met up with Dr Gunn who helped him join associations relevant to forensic human identification. That led to talks, research, and then to casework as people found out what was going on. “So that’s how it started properly in the UK,” he adds.

The common theme to all professional success, and certainly those professionals who achieve/ advance their career is the influence from those willing to mentor or support growth. While Wes was influenced by North Americans, he also found Dr Owen Facey of the forensic science service over here in the UK. Owen was a senior forensic scientist in London at this time. Wes visited Owen each quarter and would catch up with Norm twice a year taking holidays together over in the States and Canada, and staying at each other’s homes. I would pick his brains and he’d pass things along and sit there and go through all these case files with me.

The cooperation was blistering yet there was opposition in the US where podiatrists were seen as wanting to take over from the traditional forensic footwear examiners. A good story has opposition and podiatry has had its fair share. Opposition often comes from different attitudes to the way a profession develops. In the UK, the best example is how podiatric surgeons established their own practice against opposition from orthopaedic surgeons. This is a normal process, a sort of osmosis where different concentrations change direction through a filter until a status quo occurs.

Wes is a self-confessed man with a lack of confidence who does not have a large ego, but he has bucket loads of enthusiasm. Armed with determination and his passion for forensics he rose above the resistance and arguments that he saw in the US and decided he would start to do what he could in the UK, as yet an untapped source. He concentrated on getting forensic podiatry recognised more from the perspective of  ‘Right, I think there’s some knowledge that podiatrists have that could be of use here. What do you think and can you help guide it in the right direction?’

Much was centred on the International Association for Identification and what happened there but the British Association for Human Identification (BAHId) also contributed to Wes’s development.  It turned out that the Board of the IAI in the US accepted his application. The IAI is the largest and first ever professional association for people involved in human identification anywhere.

Wes kept in touch with Norm but still went to their conferences. In effect, Wes was a British podiatrist functioning within an organisation within the US who had quite an important position and found that he was directing the development of forensic podiatry.

Wes comes over as big on having a governance framework and this is what he wanted to see in the UK.  His approach was more humble and not declaring that he knew everything.  “I think that was part of what led to the trust. I was obviously not going to try and take their world over. I was just anxious to help and fit in, and that’s what they liked  – because there are overlap areas.”

Influencers from North America

Wes explained the North American link which should not surprise the reader. US podiatry influenced the former profession of chiropody back in the seventies and promoted a name change in the nineties.

“Dr Norman Gunn was over in Canada and is reputed to be the first podiatrist anywhere to be involved in forensic casework. Norm was minding his own business; he knew a lot of people and he knew the equivalent of Chief Medical Examiner or maybe coroner for Western Ontario. He approached Norm and just said, ‘Well, we’ve got this problem. You understand the foot and lower limb, can you help us? It was a limb washed up on the shores of one of the Great Lakes and Norm was able to help identify who that limb belonged to. The success of the case led to Norm doing more casework and helping to write a book for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, Dr John DiMaggio, was both a podiatrist and part-time US Police Officer. He connected the two together through the Police work that he did in his spare time and began to think, ‘Hang on. Podiatrists have got something to offer forensic human identification.’ This development seemed to be very encouraging until factions disagreed as we shall see.

The case of wrongful conviction

The lessons he learned in the US back in 2001 formed the ‘footprint’ for UK podiatric forensics and integration. In one story he explains some unregistered forensic practitioner made a hash of a case and Wes was brought in 24 hours before a court in the case of a drug killing between two rival gangs. 

“I  was so appalled. And actually, the evidence presented by this guy was just thrown out. The judge instructed the jury not to listen to any of it and said, ‘Look, clearly on the basis of  Professor Vernon’s (now) work there is no evidence whatsoever against this woman’. Lots of people had been brought in and I remember thinking if they hadn’t have found me, the evidence presented up till that point against this woman who was accused of assisting with this, and footwear was quite key. She would have gone to prison. She had a gaggle of kids, and this is absolutely wrong. Something needs doing over here to tighten this down.”

Gory details

The woman had been accused of being part of the process of the killing, rather than the actual killing itself; part of the clear up, because it was a very messy killing. A lot of clearing up was required and so she was accused of clearing the mess up, destroying the heavily blood-stained clothing and what were believed to be her husband’s shoes came into this, a case of possible multiple ownership, and there had been multiple owners, but they definitely weren’t her husband’s shoes. The shoes obviously belonged to a third-party unknown, and it definitely wasn’t her husband and couldn’t possibly have been by any stretch of the imagination.”

After this case and clearly unhappy that poor forensic analysis could arise, Wes started to work on governance arrangements here. He contacted The British Association for Human Identification (BAHID) and was welcomed by (now) Dame Sue Black who recognised the value of Wes’s discipline. The Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners (CRFP) was set up. They came to one of the BAHID conferences. Fellow podiatrist  Haydn Kelly turned up and camped on CRFP’s doorstep and refused to go until they listened. Both Wesley and Haydn went to see them and worked on the scheme for the registration of forensic podiatrists.

The Forensic Science regulator, a government-funded post over the years has tried to iron out some inconsistencies in forensic standards and practice over years since 2007. Together with the first Regulator, Andrew Rennison and the Forensic Science Society (later to become the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences) a voluntary scheme was put together where podiatrists could prove they were a fit and proper person with experience. Casework was reviewed and an examination was set in each of the three main branches of the discipline. Bypassing all those stages, accreditation was awarded as a forensic practitioner in any of the sub-specialities.

Courtesy of The West Australian. Corryn Rayney’s murder 2007

Lloyd Rainey Trial – a high profile case

A documentary was made about this Australian case in the public domain. A man in Western Australia was accused of killing and burying his estranged wife one evening. The case reached a high profile because the accused was a senior prosecuting barrister in Western Australia.

The defence team brought Wes in and asked if he could examine the prosecuting footwear evidence and provide a defence report. There were three main areas of evidence that the police were using. The buried woman was found 17 miles from home, buried in a park. Pollen evidence picked up from her hair came from some plants at the same time that was growing in her garden. Brick dust on her boots was found to come to her driveway, and lastly, wear features of the footwear were considered.

Footwear damage

Using someone with experience with biomechanics expertise,  an Australian working in a Hong Kong University, the Cuban heeled cowboy boot had an arrangement of scratch marks and proposed –

‘Because there were scratch and scrape marks on the upper leather and around the sides of the heel of these boots, the only realistic way this could have happened is for someone to be dragged wearing these boots, because we walk… We’re upright all the time. These surfaces of the boots never contact anything. All we expect is outsole wear, and because you’ve got wear on these particular points, it means the feet had fallen to one side while the body has been dragged out of the house into the car’. 

The first thing that Wes did was to get his collection of worn footwear out from the cupboard. “I pulled out half a dozen pairs of similar boots, which all had – you won’t be surprised by this – scratch and scrape marks in the same areas as the questioned boots.”

Wes put a put whole series of slides together showing how these boots are prone to damage in exactly the same area. He also pointed out, not least through observing his wife coming down steps that she would turn her feet rather than walk down straight. With higher heels, this preferred position of gait is more stable. The contralateral sides of the footwear can be prone to damage. The expert who provided the prosecution footwear evidence at the judge-only trial was deemed to be less credible as his particular expertise was in biomechanics. Wes on the other hand gained his PhD with a thesis that considered wear of footwear which was at the heart of the matter. In his summing up, Wes received due praise from the judge and considering all of the expert witness perspectives Lloyd Rayney was found not guilty. In a twist some years later Rayney was struck off the register in 2020, but his wife’s killer was not found.

CCTV, quality, printing and evidence

The quality of CCTV varies considerably. One of the worst Wes reported he had seen was on a poor-quality camera, with a frame rate of one frame every 25 seconds. High quality and high frame rate are required. Many CCTV cameras in the country aren’t fit for purpose, he points out. They either aren’t in the right place, are not capturing at the right frame rate and/or the resolution is poor. He had a real issue with a lot of them. Some of the clearest images I have seen have been from private cameras on private premises, such as the ones I’ve got here. They tend to be a lot higher quality than the publicly facing cameras. So typical frame rate is eight frames a second. Twenty-five frames a second or higher are ideal.

“Anything less than eight frames a second, we can’t actually do much with, and what the research showed, you can do things with surprisingly low frame rates. It’s just much less than you thought you could do.”

The podiatrist’s role in gait comes down to assessing a comparison of the CCTV footage at the scene of the crime and reference footage captured covertly. Using police stations to replicate the conditions as closely as possible makes comparison easier. The vast majority of the work is comparing the questioned footage first with the known footage later in order to reduce the potential for confirmation bias. Occasionally, Wes says that he is asked to look at the footprint and say anything about this that will guide us into what we’re looking for. For bare or socked footprint analysis, mostly comes down to a bloody stained footprint which shows the imprint of the foot shape which can be compared to the suspect’s footprint. It’s a bit like taking a fingerprint of the suspected criminal but without the ridge detail.

 In a defence solicitor’s office or on police premises, he often takes an imprint using inkless paper. This is formed from an impregnated pad that they tread on leaving a clear reference print for comparison. The pad comes as 100 sheets, of special paper. The sheet is torn off and taped down onto the floor. A yellow impregnated pad is used and the pad picks up the harmless chemical substrate and transfers it onto the paper, which is also impregnated. When the two chemicals get together, it brings out a perfect print.

Force plates to measure pressures have also been used

One man was examined in a prison. After an hour and a half, with him trying every trick in the book to elude the technique, his concentration lapsed and Wes was rewarded with one footprint.  “Most people are usually very cooperative,”

Wes says. “They might try and scrunch their feet up or make a partial print, but what we do is have at the very least two observers and occasionally more, we’ll set up floor level video recordings so we can record how that footprint was left. So, if there are any anomalies, if the observers haven’t picked it up – and the observers would have a look at each print as it’s left and instantly mark whether they agree that was an okay footprint or not. And then you look at the footage afterwards to capture the micro detail, what really happened, anything I might have missed.

Planning for a career in forensic podiatry

Forensic podiatry is slowly gathering momentum. But for anybody who’s interested in it and wishes to do it as a specialty that they recognise, they won’t be practising this every single day of their lives. It is a very fascinating aspect of professional life. The important thing to understand is that there are two different levels of evidence: identification level characteristics and class level characteristics. An identification level characteristic is that which you can say, looking at these features, these are absolutely unique and without any doubt whatsoever, we can say, ‘this person has to be the only person on the entire planet who could have left these features on this floor, this table, or the murder weapon or whatever.’

Class level characteristics are features that are compatible but aren’t actually unique. They can however be used in combination, which makes them a lot stronger and some of these class-level characteristics can be unusual. Podiatrists are going to act as add-ons in the world of forensics like the forensic odontologists and part of all the other experts brought in as and when required. It’s certainly rewarding but highly responsible work.

The route to forensic podiatry remains only chartered by the markers set up through the external register. The potential for development is ever-present and depends upon individuals prepared to widen their scope. Expert witness work in the civil arena offers greater earning capacity than the forensic podiatry arena, and that’s because this uses an entirely different route. Civil and criminal work are very different. Expert witness work again differs from the work of the forensic scientist but is still work for the courts. Forensic scientists are salaried and work in laboratories. Externally, fees would have to be negotiated.

The system today

Wes ended up not becoming the Chair of Quality Standards. The Chartered Society of Forensic Scientists’ scheme was set up the system but of course, he could not appeal person to himself. The scheme had rolled out to 17 different forensic disciplines. Some podiatrists felt the system was a bit of an overkill and so there was some resistance. While the two principle organisations, the IOCP and the RCS promote smaller internal courses, specialist groups emerge but do not always have a wider organised body. Having an approved external process is important but this does not reach out to forensics, dermatology, sports podiatry or even diabetes in a formal sense of qualification. 

Wes points out to date that there is a special advisory group within the Royal College of Podiatry. His view is that “forensic stuff is too far outside what podiatrists are initially trained to do. Yes, there are things we do that we expect, but this is forensics. Everybody was happy to pass that over to the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences to manage the registration scheme and recognise if there was a problem, and the forensic regulator to recognise if there was a problem and deal with that accordingly.”

In the national podiatry scene, conferences and meetings provide some activity but are not always delivered as a stand-alone feature.

“The Royal College of Podiatry has a track on forensic podiatry at every annual conference they have.  I mean, I say ‘track,’ it’s either a day or half a day, no more. The IAI over in America, have a forensic podiatry day or half-day depending on how many submissions they receive. The forensic regulator helped us hold a couple of conferences, and the Chartered Society – they’re not massive, but they’re a very prestigious organisation, so they will have things within their conference that the forensic podiatrists, the forensic gait analysts submit and present there. But they’re too small to break up into plenary things.”

Defining the role and scope of practice of forensic podiatry through the International Association for Identification (IAI), indicated what someone would need to practice forensic podiatry. They would provide knowledge and experience of forensic podiatry as the baseline but also show knowledge of how to work as an expert witness and knowledge around the theoretical and the practical experience of forensics. Portfolios can be created to show that learning outcomes have been achieved, but the only course presently covering forensic podiatry specifically is a 30-hour credit master’s module in forensic podiatry at The University of Huddersfield.

For most people, forensic podiatry is not a full-time career so at other times they will be working in their own particular sphere of practice with maybe half a dozen cases a year. Wes said he spent anything from a low 45 minutes to 105 hours on cases. Most created around 20 hours of work which is not that different to expert witness work. Forensic data analysis is labour intensive, scrutinising small details of shoes and video clips.

By the time Wesley (Wes) retired he had notched up 800 cases which he considers unusually large.

“Most people don’t do that amount of casework. I was supported by the organisation. They allowed me to develop as a specialist and released me for as much as it took.” The downside was that Wes was working between 80 and 100 hours a week. Today his replacement uses other people to help spread the workout.

Doubtless, Professor Wesley Vernon has taken the field of forensic podiatry to an exciting stage, one just waiting for younger podiatrists to come along and build on his formidable success. The development of podiatry continues to expand but relies on those able to see the greater potential in new fields. We are reminded constantly that if there is no blueprint then why not establish one.


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Thanks for reading ‘The Emergence of Podiatric Forensics’ taken from an interview with Professor Wesley Vernon

Published by Busypencilcase Communications Est. 2015 for ConsultingFootPain