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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 January 2008, 20:55 GMT
Forensics receive 1m injection
Vincent Kearney
By Vincent Kearney
Home Affairs Correspondent

More than 1m is being spent to track the movement of forensic evidence used in court cases in Northern Ireland.

The Forensic Science Agency is reviewing all procedures after being heavily criticised at the Omagh bomb trial.

The forensics laboratory is to receive a 1m boost

The trial ended last month when Sean Hoey was acquitted of 58 charges, including the murder of 29 people.

A relatively new forensic technique was central to the trial.

Low copy number DNA can be used to test samples of skin cells 1,000 times smaller than a grain of salt.

Because it is so sensitive strict procedures have to be followed to prevent items becoming contaminated.

That did not happen in the Omagh case.

In his judgement at Belfast Crown Court last month Mr Justice Weir said it was clear that possible examination for DNA was not in their minds at all as the police were collecting, storing, transmitting and dealing with these items during the initial investigation into the bombing in 1998.

When a second police investigation was launched four years later, those items were sent to Birmingham for low copy number testing - even though the strict measures needed to prevent contamination had not been followed.

The judge said he found it extraordinary that this was done knowing that these items had not been collected or preserved using methods designed to ensure the high degree of integrity needed not merely for DNA examination but for the more exacting requirements of low copy number DNA.

Stan Brown, the chief executive of Forensic Science Northern Ireland, defended that decision.

"The second wave of investigation was conducted between the police and FSS in England who were looking for evidence that was not possible to be gleaned by the first investigation," he said.

"They would have been aware that the evidence wasn't originally handled to LCN standards because LCN hadn't been invented then.

Stan Brown
Stan Brown said items were sent to Birmingham for testing

"So, by definition, they would have been aware of that, however, that doesn't mean the evidence has no value because you can look in locations on the evidence and the exhibits that would not have been prone to accident contamination."

Mr Justice Weir also questioned the credibility of low copy number DNA testing, stating that it was not a validated scientific technique - and it's now the subject of a review by the Forensic Regulator.

The judge's concerns are shared by Sean Hoey's defence lawyer, Kevin Winters.

"As it presently stands, it isn't a proper credible form of evidence and indeed, in terms of its practical implementation and the manner in which it was presented to the court as a piece of evidence in the Hoey case leaves an awful lot to be desired," he said.

However, the criticism of low copy number DNA is rejected by the those who developed the technique.

Paul Hackett of the Forensic Science Service said: "I think our confidence has been dented but we're extremely proud of the technique that we pioneered in 1999 and we're extremely confident in its robustness and reliability.

"It's been used now for nearly 10 years by the Forensic Science Service in over 20,000 cases, so we're extremely confident in the results that we provide to courts."

Police forces throughout the United Kingdom imposed a ban on the use of low copy number DNA testing after the Omagh judgement.

Forces in England and Wales lifted the ban earlier this month - but it's still in place in Northern Ireland. The PSNI says the situation here remains under review.

See a report on the move

Flanagan apology to bomb families
23 Jan 08 |  Northern Ireland
Verdict raises DNA evidence doubt
20 Dec 07 |  Northern Ireland
Murder case on hold over DNA test
07 Jan 08 |  Northern Ireland

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