The Forensic Science Regulator is drafting new guidance on the collection of intimate samples in rape cases, the Gazette has learned, amid allegations that doctors have been put under pressure to work in ways that could increase the risk of contamination.
A Lincolnshire police doctor has told the Gazette that he was asked on two occasions last year to take DNA samples from both the suspect and victim in the same case. The regulator says such a practice represents ‘a high residual risk’.
Dr Steven Hopkins says that the requests, which he refused, were made by a call centre working for G4S Medical Services, which provides evidence-based clinical services to the NHS and the police.
In a statement, Dr Tony Knight, clinical director for G4S Policing Support and Health Services, said: ‘While this has never been G4S practice, following new guidance from the Forensic Science Regulator last year, we reviewed our protocols to ensure that no forensic practitioner is able to attend both the complainant and suspect in the same case.
‘Further to this, we modified our procedures to ensure that no practitioner is allowed to perform a forensic examination on more than one suspect in the same case.’
Hopkins alleges that the call centre advised him that going home, taking a shower and changing clothes between taking the samples was regarded as being safe. However he told the Gazette: ‘It only takes 80 cells to get a hit and you’ve got someone’s DNA. [The new] DNA 17 sampling technique is so sensitive, the risk of picking up a contaminated result is very high.’
Hopkins says he is ‘desperately concerned’ that ‘there may well be some innocent person in prison who should not be there’ and is urging criminal defence solicitors to revisit evidence in old cases.
Hopkins says he raised concerns with his MP, Stephen Phillips QC, who alerted the Home Office. The matter was passed on to Dr Gillian Tully, the Forensic Science Regulator.
In a letter dated 30 July 2015, Tully told Hopkins that the regulator’s forensics specialist group was drafting guidance on sampling in sexual assault cases. While she had not published specific requirements in relation to Hopkins’ concerns, she said ‘there is a wide body of evidence supporting the contention that DNA contamination can occur even [when] the greatest levels of care are employed’.
Tully added that changing clothes was ‘likely to reduce’ the potential for ‘carry-over’, but ‘the fact that the forensic medical examiner will be travelling in the same car and using the same medical bag in my view represents a high residual risk of contamination’.
In a statement to the Gazette, Tully said: ‘The Forensic Science Regulator is currently developing new standards for collection of forensic evidence at sexual assault referral centres. The draft standards have undergone extensive technical review and will be published for public consultation by April 2016.’
In 2011 an innocent man was held in custody for weeks following cross-contamination in a forensic science testing centre. A report by the Forensic Science Regulator stated that the man was the ‘innocent victim of avoidable contamination from an unrelated case that did contain his DNA’.
David Bentley QC, a specialist criminal defence advocate at Doughty Street Chambers, said that DNA 17 was a ‘hugely sensitive’ new technique able to pick up profiles or partial profiles from ‘very, very small amounts’ of DNA.
Bentley said: ‘The problem with these very small amounts of DNA is they can be innocently transferred, for example by a third party, therefore extreme care has to be taken to ensure that this, as far as possible, does not happen.’