Just imagine. You get caught up in the general fracas as millions queue to watch Barnsley play football at the weekend. You are arrested and a DNA sample is taken which is then matched against DNA found at other crime scenes. No match is found and the police take no further action after your arrest.
The Government say that these DNA personal data should be retained for six years; two Parliamentary Committees have just said that there is no evidence for this proposal.
Previously, Home Office Ministers regularly trotted out a number of examples where DNA retention had provided the evidence for a successful conviction for murder or rape. However, the vast majority of these examples related to crimes which were solved following an arrest on an unrelated matter, where the DNA sample taken on arrest had been matched to the DNA found at the scene of the unsolved crime.
However these examples do not cover the Government’s proposals under dispute - where following an arrest, the individual concerned is not prosecuted AND there isn’t any match to any other crime scene.
Gordon Brown in last week’s speech appeared to provide an example. He said “In May 1991, a woman confined to a wheelchair was attacked and raped by a man who tricked his way into her home. A DNA sample was recovered, but no suspect was found. In June 2007, South Yorkshire Police’s ‘cold case team’ reinvestigated the case and the DNA sample was re-analysed using new techniques. A match was made with a profile from a man named Jeremiah Sheridan who had been arrested in 2005 in Cambridgeshire for a public order offence, but not convicted”.
He added “The next time you hear somebody question the value of retaining DNA profiles from those who have been arrested but not convicted, remember Jeremiah Sheridan. And most of all remember the innocent woman he attacked”.
Unfortunately, this example is invalid as can be seen by asking two simple questions:
Q1: Why did it take the police 16 years to reload the sample for an offence committed in 1991? If the DNA sample had been loaded before 2005, then Jeremiah Sheridan would have been caught when he was arrested on the unconnected matter. In other words, this is not a case of someone getting away with a serious crime because the DNA personal data were not retained; it is a consequence of not loading the DNA personal data for over a decade.
Q2: Was the case re-opened because of a spanking new DNA technique becoming available? I think the evidence points to “no” because most of the press commentary (including details made public by the Forensic Science Service – see references) do not mention the primacy of any new DNA technique.
In fact, the general lack of evidence for the Government’s proposals for retention of DNA personal data has irked the Joint Committee of Human Rights. In its Report published yesterday (see references), the Committee noted:
“When asked for further information on statistics relating to individual cases, the Government has been unable to provide it. For example, we asked the Government for more information about the ACPO research which it states illustrates that 36 rape, murder or manslaughter cases during 2008-09 involved matches to innocent persons’ DNA retained on the NDNAD which were of “direct and specific” value to the investigation. Unfortunately, the Government was unable to conduct this analysis within the time that we asked for a response”.
The Committee thus concluded that it was time to put-up or shut-up: “We recommend that the Government publish the details of these cases, if necessary in a suitably redacted format, or it should stop referring to them as support for its proposals”, it reported.
The JCHR also report “that there was a significant number of legitimate concerns about the quality and substance of the research produced by the Government to support its proposals”. This point is reflected in the Home Affairs Committee Report into the DNA database (also published yesterday) which merely states that “It is not known how many crimes are solved with the help of the stored personal profiles of those not previously convicted of a crime” and that this “underlines the need for the Home Office to undertake research specifically on this issue”.
So in conclusion, there is no evidence in favour of the Government proposals for DNA retention of those who are innocent; a conclusion that is valid even for the single case proffered to the public by the Prime Minister.
References: commentary of the Forensic Science Services: http://www.thestar.co.uk/news/Forensic-expert-warns-criminals-.5510282.jp which also refers to the Jeremiah Sheridan case being re-opened in 2006 and not 2007, as reported by Mr Brown. The JCHR report on DNA relates to the Crime and Security Bill: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt200910/jtselect/jtrights/67/67.pdf; Home Affairs report on the National DNA database: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmhaff/222/22202.htm