DNA, and who is Kevin Reynolds?
Kevin Reynolds was arrested early in the investigation of the murder of Sally Anne Bowman because the police trawled the National DNA Database and his profile matched DNA at the scene. [There appears to be some confusion over this order of events, which I have discovered since writing this article – see David Mery’s comments below.]
He had been arrested some time before for something trivial (I forget what) and cleared being drunk and disorderly, later acquitted, but of course his DNA profile wasn’t deleted.
They put him on two identity parades, both of which he ‘passed’ one where the witness identified someone else, the other where the witness refused to identify anyone, so police were slowed down. But of course they had kept him in a cell for 36 hours, interrogated him, and searched his father’s house for two days to the extent of ripping up floorboards.
Months later the police found Mark Dixie, again as a result of his DNA being on the database, and he was subsequently convicted of murder.
Now, the only news media that mentions Kevin Reynolds, as far as I can tell, is this week’s issue of Private Eye, 1205, and I mention him here because I think it’s bizarre that in a ‘national debate’ about enrolling everyone on a National DNA Database there is no discussion of false positives, like Mr Reynolds.
Perhaps even more bizarre is someone like Detective Superintendent Stuart Cundy saying, “If there was a DNA register we would have known who killed Sally Anne that day”, because there was a DNA register and his team arrested the wrong man as a result!
S was 11 years old when arrested in 2001 and charged with attempted robbery. After a trial he was found not guilty. Also in 2001 Michael Marpur was arrested and charged with harassment of his partner. Thereafter his partner decided not to press charges. In each case DNA samples and fingerprints were taken. In each case the police refused to destroy the material, relying on a power conferred by Parliament to retain it for use in the detection of crime. …
The applicants complain that the retention of their fingerprints and DNA samples breaches their rights under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights which protects private life, read with Article 14 that prohibits arbitrary discrimination. In 2004 the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords dismissed their case. All five judges took the view that any interference with private life was plainly justified by the ability of DNA evidence to identify the guilty and exonerate the innocent. Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood said that the benefits of a larger database were “manifest” and the objections to it “threadbare”. Indeed, Lord Steyn, for the majority, took the view that Article 8 was not even engaged. Only Baroness Hale of Richmond took the more realistic view that the retention of DNA samples needed to be justified.
But the case for the Government nevertheless deserves to succeed. The applicants do not dispute that there was justification for the taking of their samples when they were suspected of crime. To retain the samples is a very limited interference with their private life, involving no practical detriment, especially when there are strong safeguards against any use of the material other than to check for a match to a crime scene.
But again, what happens when there is a false positive, as with Mr Reynolds? Suppose, as he wondered, someone did pick him out at an identity parade? Presumably he could very well be in jail now instead of Mark Dixie.
Do not misunderstand – I’m not sure where I sit here, I appreciate that some ‘balance’ must be struck between the duty of the state to prevent crime, and the rights of the individual, I appreciate that the DNA database has helped police put people behind bars (Dr Bramley’s statistics, provided in the Lords’ judgement, may be of interest).
But I find it frankly horrifying that there is not even an acknowledgement that there might be a false match, and therefore no discussion of the consequences of that (the same applies to the biometric mechanisms used by the National Identity Register).
I also find it odd that this wasn’t raised by the applicants.
Given the carefully defined and limited use to which the DNA database is permitted to be put—essentially the detection and prosecution of crime—I find it difficult to understand why anyone should object to the retention of their profile (and sample) on the database once it has lawfully been placed there.
Because it could lead to the lives of innocent people, like Kevin Reynolds, being interfered with!
The DNA database is not a perfect weapon. Last year 1,500 administrative mistakes were discovered and at least 100 inaccuracies pertaining to individuals. That means there is a real possibility of people being convicted of crimes they did not commit. Given the chaotic state of government databases, it must be obvious even to [Martin] Salter and [Philip] Davies that administrative errors would be vastly increased if the database were to be expanded by a factor of about 13, from 4.5m to 60m.
Why do we pretend these systems are perfect?
And, as Henry Porter asks, why is there no statutory basis for the DNA database? Why have its principles never been put to the vote?
Sarah Teather, Liberal Democrat MP, in a recent ‘debate’ she managed to secure in the Commons:
The Government are fond of repeating that the innocent should have nothing to fear from the retention of these data. I cannot accept that argument, because it places no intrinsic value on privacy or liberty. Moreover, it fundamentally fails to appreciate the distress and discomfort that can arise from a police investigation in which one may later be exonerated. If someone’s details, along with those of several others, match those of a partial profile gained from a rape, and they are investigated, the stigma and damage may last long after the police have excluded them from their inquiries.
Needless to say, this point wasn’t satisfactorily addressed by Meg Hillier. She also mentioned Mark Dixie:
Let us take this down to real-life crimes. I shall not go into too much detail, but let us take the recent example of Mark Dixie, who has been convicted of murder and was arrested following a punch-up in the pub where he worked. The incident was, in itself, fairly minor and no further action was taken, but because his DNA was on the database, a match to the murderer was produced. Within five hours, he was under arrest.
But not five hours of the crime being committed! Some nine months, in fact.
And again no mention of Kevin Reynolds.
Another false match:
In April 1999, Raymond Easton was visited by Swindon police and asked to give a blood sample to help with the investigation of a burglary over 200 km away. Mr Easton was unconcerned because he knew that several family members would confirm that on the night in question he had been at home caring for his sick daughter. He was also suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease and could not drive, dress himself or walk more than 10 metres unaided. However, he was unaware that his DNA profile, obtained from a sample he had given four years earlier during a domestic dispute, had matched a DNA profile found at the scene of the crime. Mr Easton was subsequently arrested for the burglary, purely on the basis of the DNA evidence. He was taken to a police cell where he was kept for several hours before beinggranted bail. It finally came to light that Mr Easton had been a victim of ‘an adventitious cold hit’ a false match that occurred by chance – but it still took three months for the charges against him to be dropped. Changes to the DNA profiling process since this incident have reduced the chances of similar false matches but this does not mean the chances have been reduced to zero. – National DNA Database, Genewatch (438 Kb PDF)
I forgot to add that there are a few cases where the DNA analyst has deliberately misrepresented his findings in order to obtain a conviction. I will try to find a reference.
So we not only have problems with the technology, in terms of inherent error rates, we also have human error (mixing up samples etc), and lying about the results.
That is not to say that these things happen most of the time – I would guess that they happen relatively rarely. But my point is that these systems aren’t perfect.