Dirk Labudde is sitting in the study of his house in Dresden, on the large pinboard next to him is a letter from the Leipzig public prosecutor’s office with a summons and brief thoughts: “Improving image material” or “Changing the color spectrum”. For some time now, Labudde’s doorbell has been ringing, and the public prosecutor’s office or the presiding judge in a murder trial asks him for an opinion.
Dirk Labudde is a forensic scientist, his specialty is solving criminal offenses using drones, computer programs and 3D models. At the university in Mittweida, Saxony, he heads the course he founded in digital forensics. “It’s always a race between the criminals and the investigators,” says Labudde. “My students and I are always looking for new methods of identifying people.”
Labudde has now written a book about this together with the journalist Heike Vowinkel: “Digitale Forensik”. In it he reports on his cases, which often appear hopeless to the investigators when he gets them on the table. The murder of the Munich entrepreneur Charlotte Böhringer, for example.
Or the abuse and murder of ten-year-old Stephanie from Weimar: a case that Labudde was able to solve 26 years after her disappearance. And finally the most spectacular robbery in recent years. It led to Labudde developing a technique by which a person’s individual skeleton becomes an identifier.
In 2017, the 100-kilogram “Big Maple Leaf”, a Canadian gold coin worth 3.75 million euros, was stolen from the Bode Museum in Berlin. Three young men from a well-known extended family from Lebanon were charged a little later.
Labudde was called in as an expert in court and got the video of the surveillance camera from the Hackescher Markt S-Bahn track on the table.
It was noticeable that one of the suspects bent his right foot outwards while walking. The public prosecutor’s office now wanted to know whether it could be proven that the men in the video and the suspects are the same.
Labude thought about it. Was it possible to change the individual gear?
“I thought about how the gait came about,” says Labudde. “Could a movement analysis based on the skeleton be an identity-creating feature that can be used to clearly convict perpetrators?”
Labudde, who originally studied medical physics, researched, tinkered and discussed with programmers. And found out: The very personal gait comes about through the individual skeleton.
He developed a computer program with which, by entering 14 values such as the length of the upper and lower arm or the width of the pelvis, he can create a digital twin of any skeleton and thus also imitate the gait. So he measured the suspects on a turntable, superimposed their virtual skeleton over the real video, and found the movements were the same.
But the judge doubted that this skeletal analysis can actually be as individual as a fingerprint or a person’s DNA. The method was not yet mature. Three of the suspects in the video were sentenced to between three and four years in prison in 2020 after gold splinters were found on their clothing. The fourth man was acquitted.
“Of course, that was a major setback back then,” admits Labudde today. “But I have learned to draw a kind of basic energy from experiences like this. If I believe in a method, then I kneel down with my team.” Today he knows that only one person in a million people has the same skeleton as another person.
And indeed, a year later, using Labudde’s method, a perpetrator was convicted for the first time using Labudde’s calculations in a process involving a gas station robbery. “First of all, I had to deal with the fact that criminals are now being convicted with my method,” he says. “I’m a scientist and not an investigator.”
And working with investigators is not always easy. At the “Soko Altfallen” in Thuringia, the case of ten-year-old Stephanie Drews, who was found dead under a motorway bridge near Weimar in 1991, had to be reopened.
Labudde reconstructed the Teufelstal Bridge, which has since been rebuilt, using archive footage, created a digital twin of Stephanie and developed a computer program.
After a long, meticulous investigation, he was finally able to prove that Stephanie was pushed off the bridge and could not have fallen. Because without the thrust of the blow, her body would have hit a spot that didn’t match where she was found. Confronted with Labudde’s video, a 65-year-old suspected truck driver confessed, later recanted and was convicted using the simulation and sentenced to life imprisonment.
The video that Labudde used to simulate the course of events was shown in court in 2018. Stephanie’s mother was also in the courtroom. “That was a very difficult moment for me,” says Labudde, “I had to leave the room first.” Because at the request of the investigators, Labudde also gave the dummy Stephanie’s appearance and put on a dress similar to the one she wore that day indeed wore.
“It was very oppressive to let her fall off the bridge like that,” says Labudde. “I kept asking myself, what’s up with the mother?” He hopes that the arrest of the perpetrator could give Stephanie’s parents a little piece of justice.
Labudde is now working on his techniques with his team. 60 percent of all crimes can be solved so far, 90 percent of all murders.
“With the use of digital technology, the detection rate can be further improved,” believes Labudde. But training at the police academy must become more digital. “Even though every state criminal investigation office is now equipped with drones and 3D scanners,” says Labudde, “but every homicide squad also needs this material.”
The professor works with his students on current cases, which the public prosecutor’s office leaves to him after the trial. He has around 250 students every year, many of them prospective investigators who want to specialize in digital approaches.
Labudde is working on techniques that would allow investigators to walk through a pristine crime scene using virtual reality goggles or create an identikit using DNA evidence. “We’ll definitely make a few steps forward there in the coming years,” he says.
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