Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/06/29/brown_dna_database_innocent_genewatch/

Gordo's DNA database claims branded 'ridiculous'

114 imaginary murderers get off scot free

By Christopher Williams

Posted in Government, 29th June 2008 07:02 GMT

Gordon Brown has been accused of deliberately misleading the public by claiming that not retaining genetic profiles of innocent people on the National DNA Database (NDNAD) would have led to 114 murderers getting away.

The charge was made on Friday by the genetics lobby group GeneWatch UK. It analysed a speech the Prime Minister made on June 17 where he argued for the retention of DNA profiles from thousands of charged suspects, including children, in criminal cases that were later found not guilty or never made it to trial.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said: "I think in this case we'll have to let the Prime Minister's words speak for themselves. The figures he quoted were publicly available from 2006." The Home Office had referred The Register's questions about the speech to Number 10.

The massive expansion of the NDNAD was mandated by the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001. GeneWatch's Dr Helen Wallace accused Brown of knowingly manipulating statistical estimates to spin them as facts in support of storing innocent people's genetic information. In a statement she said: "Gordon Brown has stooped to a new low."

Match making up

In his speech on "Liberty and Security" at the Institute for Public Policy Research, Brown said: "If we had not made this change [retaining innocents' DNA profiles], 8,000 suspects who have been matched with crime scenes since 2001 would in all probability have got away, their DNA having been deleted from the database.

"This includes 114 murders, 55 attempted murders, 116 rapes, 68 other sexual offences, 119 aggravated burglaries, and 127 drugs offences."

The figures Brown cited are drawn from the Home Office's NDNAD annual report. The most recent numbers say that "200,300 or so" profiles have been retained that would have been removed before the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 hit the statute book. That number is estimated from comparing the number of entries in the Police National Computer (PNC) to the number of DNA profiles.

The Home Office then calculates what proportion of the entire NDNAD acquitted and untried suspects represent. This factor is used to estimate that 13,964 offences recorded by the police in 2005/06 were matched to a profile on the database that would not have been retained before 2001. In turn, the number of those supposed matches that would have been murder cases is calculated: 114.

And finally, the Prime Minister informs the public that 114 murderers would "in all probability have got away".

In its analysis, GeneWatch comments: "The figures cited by the Prime Minister are not based on the tracking of actual cases. Rather, they are based on a statistical estimate of the numbers of matches that may have occurred between crime scene DNA profiles and the DNA profiles of persons who were charged but not proceeded against or acquitted.

"Not only is the actual number of retained profiles from innocent people unknown, but it is unclear how the number of matches made with these profiles have been calculated, since the estimate does not correspond to specific individuals."

A match on the database does not guarantee a conviction, GeneWatch points out. Past Home Office estimates have said that half of all matches to the database lead to a detection (i.e. identification of a suspect), and half of all detections lead to a conviction. Even if Brown's 114 murderers database matches existed, based on the contemporary government figures 57 of them "would in all probability have got away" [and, as commenters have pointed out, 27.5 who didn't "get away" would have been found not guilty].

Furthermore, the annual report Brown drew his conclusions from also estimated that in more than a quarter of cases where crime scene DNA matched the database, the police were given a list of potential suspects because the profile was not complete.

Spitin doctoring

Wallace said: "This claim [that 114 murderers would have probably walked away] is both ridiculous and entirely false. DNA matches are not solved crimes - many matches occur with victims and with passers-by, or are false matches. People are not stupid - they know that keeping their children's DNA when they've done nothing wrong is not helping to solve crimes."

GeneWatch does not oppose the existence of the the NDNAD, noting its usefulness for law enforcement. It has lobbied against its rapid expansion under the current government from about two million individuals in 2002/03 to around four million individuals in 2006/07. In that time the proportion of crimes solved by DNA profile evidence has remained around 0.35 per cent.

Gordon Brown's intervention in the debate seems timely, if hamfisted. The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights is expected to rule soon in the case of two Sheffield men who have never been convicted of a crime, but whose DNA profile is stored by the government.

Since the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 the database has been further expanded to included everyone over the age of ten who is arrested. If the unidentified men win their case it could mean that hundreds of thousands of profiles would have to be deleted. The Prime Minister's speech followed soon after a warning by a retiring chief constable in the Sunday Times that "murder, rape and child abuse investigations will be hampered" if the government loses the case.

You can read GeneWatch's full analysis here. ®