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The Use of DNA in Criminal Investigations in the UK

by | Jul 5, 2024 | Articles, Crime

In the modern landscape of criminal investigations, DNA evidence has become a cornerstone for law enforcement agencies in the United Kingdom. The advent of DNA profiling has revolutionised the way crimes are solved, offering unparalleled accuracy in identifying perpetrators and exonerating the innocent. This blog delves into the critical role DNA plays in criminal investigations within the UK, outlining its historical development, current applications, legal framework, and the challenges associated with the use of DNA evidence.

Historical Development of DNA Profiling

The journey of DNA profiling in criminal investigations began in the mid-1980s. The landmark case that marked the advent of DNA evidence in the UK was the conviction of Colin Pitchfork in 1988 for the rape and murder of two schoolgirls. This case was the first in the world to use DNA profiling to catch a killer and set a precedent for its application in criminal investigations.

What is DNA Profiling?

DNA profiling, also known as genetic fingerprinting, involves analysing an individual’s unique genetic makeup. Every person (except identical twins) has a distinct DNA sequence, making it possible to identify individuals with high precision. In criminal investigations, DNA can be extracted from various biological samples, such as blood, saliva, hair, skin cells, and other bodily fluids found at crime scenes.

Current Applications of DNA in Criminal Investigations

  1. Crime Scene Investigation

DNA evidence is routinely collected from crime scenes. Investigators gather samples from various sources, including bloodstains, hair follicles, skin cells, and other bodily fluids. These samples are then analysed to create a DNA profile that can be compared with profiles stored in the National DNA Database (NDNAD) or with samples taken from potential suspects.

  1. Identification of Unknown Victims and Perpetrators

In cases involving unidentified human remains, DNA profiling can potentially help establish the identity of the deceased. Similarly, DNA can be used to identify potential suspects when there are no eyewitnesses or when the suspect’s identity is unknown.

  1. Linking Serial Offenses

DNA evidence is instrumental in linking serial crimes. When DNA from multiple crime scenes matches, investigators can ascertain that the same individual is connected to the crimes and potentially responsible, which helps in building a case against serial offenders.

  1. Cold Case Investigations

Advances in DNA technology have breathed new life into cold cases. Historical evidence can be re-examined using modern DNA analysis techniques, leading to the resolution of cases that have remained unsolved for years or even decades.

Legal Framework Governing DNA Evidence

  1. Collection and Storage

The collection and storage of DNA evidence is governed by stringent legal provisions to ensure the integrity and privacy of individuals. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) outlines the procedures for collecting DNA samples from suspects and crime scenes.

  1. National DNA Database (NDNAD)

The UK established the National DNA Database (NDNAD) in 1995, which has since become one of the largest and most comprehensive databases in the world. The NDNAD stores DNA profiles from individuals arrested for recordable offences and from crime scene evidence. Access to the database is strictly controlled, and its use is monitored to prevent misuse.

  1. Admissibility in Court

For DNA evidence to be admissible in court, it must be collected, handled, and analysed according to established protocols. The Criminal Procedure Rules and the Criminal Practice Directions provide guidelines on the presentation of forensic evidence in Court, ensuring that it meets the standards of reliability and relevance.

Challenges and Controversies

Despite its undeniable utility, the use of DNA in criminal investigations is not without challenges and controversies.

  1. Contamination and Degradation

One of the primary concerns is the risk of contamination and degradation of DNA samples. Even minute amounts of contaminant DNA can lead to erroneous results. Therefore, strict protocols are necessary to minimise the risk of contamination during the collection, storage, and analysis of DNA samples.

  1. Privacy Concerns

The retention of DNA profiles raises significant privacy issues. While the NDNAD is a powerful tool for law enforcement, it also holds sensitive genetic information. Balancing the needs of public safety with the right to privacy is a delicate task. The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 addresses some of these concerns by mandating the deletion of DNA profiles in certain circumstances.

  1. Misinterpretation of Results

The interpretation of DNA evidence requires a high level of expertise. Misinterpretation or overstating the conclusiveness of DNA evidence can lead to wrongful convictions. It is crucial for legal professionals to understand the limitations and probabilities associated with DNA matches.

  1. Ethical Considerations

The use of familial DNA searching, where relatives of a suspect are identified through partial matches, raises ethical questions. While this method can be effective in identifying suspects, it also intrudes into the genetic privacy of individuals who have not committed any crime.

Case Studies

  1. The Stephen Lawrence Case

The murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 and the subsequent investigations highlight the impact of DNA evidence in achieving justice. In 2012, Gary Dobson and David Norris were convicted for Lawrence’s murder, largely based on new DNA evidence that was not available during the initial investigation. The case underscored the potential of DNA analysis to solve long-standing cases.

  1. The Omagh Bombing

The Omagh bombing in 1998 was one of the deadliest attacks in Northern Ireland. The subsequent investigation relied heavily on DNA evidence to identify the perpetrators. Advances in DNA technology allowed for the re-examination of evidence, leading to significant breakthroughs in the case.

Future of DNA in Criminal Investigations

The field of DNA analysis is continuously evolving, with new technologies and methodologies enhancing its effectiveness.

  1. Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS)

Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) allows for more detailed analysis of genetic material, providing deeper insights into genetic variations. This technology has the potential to improve the accuracy of DNA profiling and expand its applications in forensic science.

  1. Rapid DNA Analysis

Rapid DNA analysis enables the quick processing of DNA samples, often within hours. This technology is particularly useful in situations where immediate results are needed, such as identifying disaster victims or verifying the identity of individuals at border controls.

  1. Epigenetic Markers

Research into epigenetic markers, which can provide information about an individual’s age, lifestyle, and environmental exposures, is advancing. These markers could offer additional context in criminal investigations, helping to narrow down suspects based on lifestyle and age-related characteristics.

  1. Integration with Other Forensic Evidence

The integration of DNA evidence with other forensic evidence, such as digital footprints, biometrics, and traditional forensic methods, is becoming more prevalent. This holistic approach enhances the overall effectiveness of criminal investigations.

In Conclusion

DNA evidence has undoubtedly transformed the landscape of criminal investigations in the UK, offering a powerful tool for law enforcement agencies to identify perpetrators, exonerate the innocent, and solve complex cases. However, the use of DNA evidence must be governed by stringent legal frameworks and ethical considerations to ensure its accuracy, reliability, and respect for individual privacy. As technology continues to advance, the role of DNA in criminal investigations will undoubtedly expand, bringing both new opportunities and challenges. Legal professionals must stay abreast of these developments to effectively navigate the evolving landscape of forensic science.

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