Page last updated at 11:05 GMT, Wednesday, 18 March 2009

DNA doubt cast over other murders

By Andy McFarlane
BBC News

Teresa De Simone
Teresa De Simone was strangled and partially clothed

The quashing of Sean Hodgson's conviction for murdering a woman in a pub car park - after DNA examination of evidence revealed he was not the killer three decades on - could force prosecutors to look again at hundreds of cases.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) has asked for similar convictions, secured before DNA tests were available, to be reviewed.

Mr Hodgson's solicitor Julian Young said it was impossible to say how many of those potentially eligible for review would be likely to get recommended for appeal.

But he added: "Anybody who thinks they have grounds for appeal should consult a lawyer immediately."

According to the CCRC, cases that could come under the spotlight could include a number of murders, sexual offences and serious robberies. All these cases are based on evidence from before 1988 when DNA testing became widely used.

Mr Hodgson, 57, was sentenced to life in prison for the December 1979 killing of 22-year-old gas board worker Teresa De Simone.

Flaws in police notes allowed the "Guildford Four" to wrongly serve 15 years for a series of bombings in the Surrey town which left five dead and more than 100 people injured.
After serving 16 years for IRA bombings which killed 21 people in two pubs, the "Birmingham Six" were released in 1991. Tests showed police changed statements
Stefan Kiszko was acquitted in 1992 having served 16 years for the murder of Lesley Molseed, 11, in Greater Manchester. Witnesses admitted lying, while it emerged evidence proving his innocence had not been presented at his trial
In 1997, convictions of three men for killing Carl Bridgewater, 13, in Staffordshire, were quashed after 18 years, when it emerged police had forged a confession
Stephen Downing spent 27 years behind bars for killing typist Wendy Sewell, 34, in Derbyshire. In 2002, judges ruled his confessions were unreliable

Miss De Simone's partially-clothed body had been found in the back of her Ford Escort in the car park of the Southampton pub where she worked part-time.

She had been strangled with her own gold chain.

Mr Hodgson, who had been in the area at the time, confessed to the murder but later pleaded not guilty on the grounds he was a pathological liar. The jury rejected his argument.

A key element of the prosecution case was that material recovered at the scene belonged to a man of blood group A or AB.

Mr Hodgson fell into that category - along with roughly one-third of the male population.

Only after almost 30 years, when DNA from semen found at the scene was tested using modern techniques, was his involvement ruled out.

"DNA testing is a million miles away from ABO blood-typing," said Dr Eleanor Graham, of the University of Leicester's forensic pathology unit.

"There are only really four types of blood groups whereas, with the DNA techniques used today, a conservative match estimate is one in one billion."

Historic evidence

Once Mr Hodgson's case was brought to the CCRC, it was referred it to the Court of Appeal within two days.

The body also asked Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer QC to consider a review to identify other cases "where testable forensic evidence still survives which could confirm or cast doubt on the safety of a conviction".

He has yet to consider the request.

Dr Graham said samples or exhibits stored by the national Forensic Science Service (FSS) would be in good condition and individual police forces may also have material stored in evidence lockers.

Angela Cannings
The case of Angela Cannings sparked a review of child death convictions

"Biological evidence would have to be stored and preserved in a state in which DNA has survived," she said.

An FSS spokesman said the organisation kept material dating back 30 years in the form of swabs, slides or samples and fibre tapings - adhesive tape which picks up forensic matter from the surface of exhibits.

Occasionally whole exhibits are preserved, such as in the case of a 1949 murder of a schoolgirl, where testable genetic evidence has been recovered from a coat discovered in police stores.

CCRC chairman Richard Foster told the BBC in January that DNA evidence was playing a more crucial role in cases.

"There is a lot of new scientific evidence. It can as easily establish innocence as guilt," he said.

Sources at the commission believe any review could mirror the one launched in 2004 when Salisbury woman Angela Cannings was cleared on appeal of smothering her two baby sons during the 1990s. She had spent 20 months in prison before her case was re-examined.

Every person has a DNA "fingerprint" - a chemical code held in every cell of the body
This fact was established in the mid-1980s by Sir Alec Jeffreys, while at the University of Leicester
Leicestershire Police were the first to use DNA tests in 1986, during a double rape and murder case
Local youth Richard Buckland had made admissions but police had no evidence to back this up
DNA from semen found on the victims' bodies proved both girls were killed by the same man - but not by Mr Buckland
Local baker Colin Pitchfork was eventually convicted
DNA swabs are taken from everyone arrested for a recordable offence in England, Wales and Northern Ireland
Profiles of about 4.5m people are stored on the UK's DNA database - one in five of those whose DNA is stored has no criminal record

The then-attorney general Lord Goldsmith looked into 298 cases.

He identified 28 in which parents convicted of killing their children may have had grounds for appeal on the basis that prosecutors had relied on flawed evidence from an expert witness.

The CCRC referred several of them on to appeal judges.

If the Director of Public Prosecutions agrees to a review, it is likely that the Crown Prosecution Service and attorney general's office will decide which types of case come under the microscope.

They could then either be referred to the police to investigate or to the CCRC, which currently receives up to 1,000 referrals per year to review convictions and sentences.

About 40 - involving a "real possibility" of the sentence being reduced - are usually passed on to the appeal courts.

Mr Hodgson's is not the first conviction to be quashed thanks to DNA evidence which was unavailable to the jury.

In 2003, sailor Michael Shirley was released from prison after 16 years when the court of appeal was told that DNA evidence proved he did not rape and kill Portsmouth barmaid Linda Cook in 1986.

Mr Shirley, from Leamington Spa in Warwickshire, had always protested his innocence.

Any future appeals are likely to involve people who remain in jail after similarly long durations, because prisoners are only usually given parole after accepting responsibility for the crime.

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