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Controversial DNA profiling technique approved

GeneWatch: Fundamental problems remain

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Updated An independent review of the science underpinning DNA forensics done on tiny samples has today declared the controversial technique sound for use in investigations.

The report highlights poor handling of samples by the police and forensics officers, and recommends new training to reduce the risk of contamination.

The probe into "low copy number" (LCN) analysis has been led by Professor Brian Caddy, a leading forensics academic. He said: "I found that the technique, as developed by all the forensic suppliers, is scientifically robust and appropriate for use in police investigations."

Campaigner warned that miscarriages of justice are more likely if LCN is poorly used.

If the review team had found fundamental problems with LCN DNA, it could have meant dozens of convictions going back to 1999 would have to be reexamined.

The government commissioned Caddy in the wake of last year's collapse of the prosecution of a man accused of the Omagh bombing, which killed 29 people in 1998. The trial judge voiced concerns over the veracity of LCN DNA evidence when it wrongly linked a sample obtained from a car bomb in Northern Ireland to a Nottingham teenager.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) suspended use of the technique by the Forensic Science Service in December. A separate review of past convictions by the Crown Prosecution Service found no problems, however, and the technique was reinstated in January this year.

Today, Chris Sims, chief constable of Staffordshire Police and ACPO's forensic science chief said: "DNA techniques offer the police service an invaluable tool in identifying and eliminating suspects in crime investigations.

"Professor Caddy's review of the science of low template DNA profiling provides a helpful explanation of the science and a basis for improving the contribution of DNA profiling to crime investigations."

Dr Helen Wallace, of public interest genetics lobby GeneWatch said the report is a step in the right direction, but that fundamental issues still remain. "The report does highlight some genuinely concerning issues, paricularly around the fact that juries have not been warned about issues associated with low copy number DNA. "

"The more sensitive these techniques become, and the more people on the National DNA Database, the higher the risk of false matches."

In approving LCN DNA, Caddy has also made a series of recommendations for improving how police and forensics officers work with samples. He recommends setting up national standards for training, equipment, and analytical procedures. Juries should be given special guidance by a new independent expert body on how to interpret LCN eveidence, he said.

GeneWatch's Wallace replied: "We're happy that there a regulator will now exist. Too much focus has been put on reassuring the public, however."

The government is now in discussions with police and agencies on how to implement the recommendations.

LCN techniques allow the gentic material from a few cells left at a crime scene - for example by touching a glass - to be amplified enough for DNA profiling and database searches. It has been used in several high profile investigations worldwide, including the murder in Australia of backpacker Peter Falconio. ®

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