Obituary: Robin Keeley

Pioneering forensic scientist who worked on many of UK's highest-profile crimes

Born: 15 August, 1944, in Northern Ireland.

Died: 17 May, 2010 in London, aged 65.

AS A renowned forensic scientist, Robin Keeley was involved in some of the most complex and baffling crimes in Britain in the past 30 years, including the murder of television presenter Jill Dando. His reputation spread across the world, however, and he was regarded as "the founding father of firearms chemistry".

Robert Henry Keeley was born in Northern Ireland in 1944, his father worked in local government. Following a change in employment the family moved to England where Keeley grew up in the West Country. He was educated at Prior Park College in Somerset where his grades earned him a place on a BSc in botany at Kings College London. During this time Keeley learned that he had developed Hodgkins disease for which he was successfully treated, a rare survivor at a time when the disease was little understood.

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In 1971, he joined the forensic team at the Metropolitan Police, where he was encouraged to explore new and inventive analytical methods. Chemical analysis was high on the lab's agenda following the acquisition of a scanning electron microscope.

The potential of the new instrument, which could analyse minute fragments, inspired Keeley, who, along with colleague Peter Nolan, began to develop analysis of firearms crimes. Solving such crimes at the time was tricky and hard to prove conclusively as forensic operators were relying solely on swab tests on the suspect to highlight evidence of lead left by a firearm. However, lead is not uncommon so something more advanced was required.

What Keeley managed to show in 1975 was that chemical particles left on a gunman can be traced to the ignition trigger in the gun, making wrongful convictions significantly less likely.

Keeley's skills were now much sought after and he spent the following ten years working on the development of this analysis to make it suitable for evidence in court. He developed an automated method of analysis in conjunction with Cambridge Scanning.

During this time Scotland Yard was also using Keeley's talents to help solve high-profile cases. In 1978, Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov died after a sudden illness. It turned out Markov had been murdered using a rather elaborate technique; he had been stabbed in the leg using the poisoned tip of an umbrella.

Pathologists discovered a spherical pellet embedded in his leg, just 1.5mm across with two holes drilled at right angles. Keeley tested the pellet, nearly losing it on one occasion, and discovered it to be an alloy called platinum-iridium. The poison had been inserted into the pellet and fired into Markov's leg by way of a sharp jab, but it was Keeley who managed to ascertain that the offending substance was ricin, a popular weapon of east European secret agents.

In St James's Square in 1984, WPC Fletcher was shot dead outside the Libyan People's Bureau. The incident was followed by an 11-day siege on the building after which forensic experts were granted access to the building. A cover-up theory had been concocted with the intention of absolving the Libyans from blame. However, the evidence was damning, with the chemical analysis confirming that there had been two gunmen shooting from inside the embassy and not from an adjacent building as was being claimed.

During Keeley's career, the crime that people will perhaps be most familiar with is the murder of BBC presenter Dando. She was shot outside her home in Fulham on 26 April, 1999. The crime was efficient, fast and brutal and left police floundering, but forensic evidence apparently told a different story.

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Local man Barry George was convicted of the murder after Keeley identified a single particle of "firearms discharge residue" and concluded it could have been linked to the killing. Many believed at the time that George, who had a history of criminal and antisocial behaviour, was simply not calculated enough to have carried out such an act.

In 2007 Keeley, haunted by the case, admitted that the evidence was at best neutral and George had his conviction quashed in 2008. Dando's killer has never been found.

Keeley was an adviser to the Splatt Inquiry in Australia in 1984 and in 1989 he was scientific adviser for the prosecution in the inquiry that led to the release of the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven, after all convictions were deemed unsafe.

Keeley skills were also utilised in advising novelist PD James on forensic techniques and plausible storylines as well as work for the Victoria and Albert museum and as an adviser to the United Nations. His reputation as a forensics pioneer was endorsed when he was awarded the Microscopist of the Year by the McCrone Research Institute in the US. In 1990, he was appointed visiting professor in Applied Chemistry at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

Far from being solely a man of theory and analysis Keeley also dabbled with invention, designing and constructing a piece of equipment for glass analysis, which sat in his laboratory.

His remarkably capable brain was not limited to science. Part of his daily routine was to tackle the Times crossword, rarely taking longer than 20 minutes.

In retirement, Keeley indulged in sailing and was a recognised yacht navigator, having crossed the Channel several times. However, his ambitions to sail further afield were thwarted by a leg injury. He was however, able to continue to enjoy his passion for Somerset Cricket Club.

Robin Keeley died of a heart attack in London on 17 May.