Cold Case Unit

I am driven to understand miscarriages of justice

Dr Cheryl Allsop established the University of South Wales Cold Case Unit in 2019, leading a team of students and community volunteers and experts reviewing unsolved missing people cases, on behalf of the families, in conjunction with Locate Internationala charity set up to work with the families of long-term missing people.

Her current research is focused on missing people investigations, especially vulnerable missing people, no-body murders and unidentified found remains. 

Cheryl is on the board of Locate International, and is a member of the BSC Vulnerability Research Network and the lead for its vulnerable victims theme.

My interest in cold case investigations began after I had finished my psychology degree and was thinking about the effectiveness of different forms of expertise in major crime investigations. I already had a law degree and was interested in the cross over between the two disciplines, in particular the use of psychological expertise in legal settings. 

I had been interested in the use of psychological expertise in murder investigations after reading about the investigation into the murder of Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common in 1992. Rachel had been murdered in broad daylight while out walking with her young son and the family dog. 

At the time there was very poignant footage of Rachel enjoying life and it seemed so at odds with how she died. Psychologist Paul Brittain was brought in to help the investigation by providing a profile of the type of person who might have committed the offence. 

Dr Cheryl Allsop.jpg

This later became a ‘sting’ operation when an undercover officer was tasked with befriending a suspect in the case in order to get him to confess to the crime. The suspect was charged and remanded, but the trial judge threw out the case as it was blatant entrapment.  This sparked my interest in miscarriages of justice. The suspect could so easily have been convicted of a crime he did not commit.  

I am still interested in researching more about how miscarriages of justice occur and what can be done to prevent them. There are many overlaps between miscarriages of justice and cold cases.  Many years later in 2008 Robert Napper was convicted of Rachel’s murder after new forensic science techniques enabled a DNA profile to be developed from biological material found at the crime scene that ultimately identified Napper as the killer. 

My PhD then explored how the police seek to solve long-term unsolved major crimes and the expertise drawn on, years after the crime was committed. I was also interested in why the police service started reviewing cold cases; why at that point in time and why, when there are so many current crimes to be investigated, choose to resource cold cases. Spending many months with a major crime review team and interviewing experts and practitioners involved in cold case reviews it became clear that they were (and still are) a necessary and important aspect of police work. 

The passage of time presents new opportunities to progress cold cases, for example advances in forensic science techniques and technologies that enable previously unknown offenders to be identified, and because over time people fall out, so witnesses who didn’t come forward at the time may do so years later. This means that with focused attention cold cases can be solved. This is vital for the families and victims of these crimes who need to know what happened to their loved ones and want to see justice done. Victim Impact Statements are a powerful reminder of the pain and fear these crimes cause. You also have to think that someone has got away with serious offending and so it is important to find them, to stop them from offending again. 

I was doing my PhD when Claudia Lawrence, a chef who worked at York University went missing and I became interested in how people can simply vanish never to be seen or heard from again. It resonated with the disappearance of Suzy Lamplugh, who went missing in 1986, seemingly on her way to view a house with a potential purchaser. To this day her body has never been found. For their families you can only imagine how painful it must be in not knowing what has happened to their loved one. 

Developing these original ideas more recently my research has focused on cold case missing people investigations. People can go missing for many reasons, it can be their own choice to disappear, or they may have come to harm. For the police service it is not always apparent what has happened to the missing person and, even if they suspect the missing person has come to harm, if a body has not been found it can be difficult to progress an investigation. Consequently, I want to understand more about how these cold cases are investigated and how they can be detected years later, despite not having a body and, therefore, potentially having far fewer investigative avenues to progress. Aligned to this, there are a number of unidentified found remains cold cases and I am interested in how these found remains are identified, especially as it could be that once identified two cold cases could be detected, when the unidentified person, once identified, turns out to be our missing person. 

For the families of the missing, it is an enduring agony of not knowing what has happened to their loved one. Being on the board of Locate International, a charity dedicated to helping families find out what has happened to their missing loved one and working alongside experts and students on missing people cases and unsolved murders, I have seen first-hand the difficulties families encounter trying to get the answers that they need. 

Working on these cases, provides a real opportunity to make a practical difference for the families and also brings into sharp focus the importance of the research to improve these investigations, to find more missing people and to help prevent cases going cold in the first place.  

Similarly, I am working with our students on potential miscarriage of justice cases and researching the causes of them.  In both cases bringing theory into practice and helping to find solutions to these seemingly intractable problems. 

Having set up the cold case unit, my students are also conducting their own research on cold cases and miscarriages of justice, and so building the knowledge base of these important topics.