Poor lab facilities are ‘big risk’ to evidence and successful convictions says forensic chief

Ireland’s forensic science chief has warned the Government that the State faces the risk of “very large expense and untold reputational damage” from the collapse of a court case due to contamination of DNA samples caused by poor laboratory conditions.

Poor lab facilities are ‘big risk’ to evidence and successful convictions says forensic chief

Sheila Willis also told the authorities that the new DNA database, which was eventually launched last November, “will be ineffective” because of the limited capacity of the laboratory to take enough DNA samples.

In correspondence released under the Freedom of Information Act, she said this was “ironic” in light of the initiative by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald to target burglaries, given that DNA databases are most effective in investigating such crimes.

In a written warning to Justice Department secretary general Noel Waters and the minister, the director general of Forensic Science Ireland (FSI) said the risk of DNA contamination presented “unthinkable” consequences in the courts.

“It is my greatest fear and the main concern I have in relation to standing over the work,” Dr Willis told them, citing the “key role” DNA evidence played in criminal trials.

She said modern laboratories, with “positive pressure”, are the norm to prevent contamination, but that this is “not an option” in their “1970s-style office block”.

She said she has to devote “more and more staff” to conduct checks and double checks to ensure DNA contamination was caught.

In a series of frank correspondence, released in partially redacted form to the Irish Examiner, Dr Willis:

  • Expressed “again” her “extreme concern” that the long-promised new FSI facility will not become available “until 2022 at the earliest”, saying it is “not tenable” to wait this long;
  • Said the Office of Public Works recently informed them that the facilities are a “fire hazard”;
  • Said an OPW architect told them the conditions in the laboratory are worse than any he had seen in the State.

FSI, formerly known as the Forensic Science Laboratory, has been housed in an office in Garda Headquarters since 1979.

Various plans to replace the laboratory with a modern facility in different locations have failed to come to pass, most recently a 2009 project to move the FSI to Backweston, Co Kildare.

Under the Capital Expenditure Programme, announced last September, funding for the new FSI facility will become available in 2019, with a three-year construction process.

In a reply to Dr Willis, Mr Waters said the department is “seized of the difficulties” she was facing.

He recognised the facility was “vital”, particularly with the new DNA database.

“We have continuously and strongly argued for the provision without delay of such a facility,” he said, and said that if an opportunity arose to bring forward the start date “it will be taken”.

In her letters, Dr Willis also highlighted the “dramatic impact” of staff losses.

Dr Willis said, as of July 2015, there was a backlog of 4,500 drug cases, a 16-week wait time to examine DNA samples and a “large number” of cases in the chemistry department that “will not be examined”.

In Budget 2016, Ms Fitzgerald announced additional funding to FSI of €1.3m, which would allow for the recruitment of 25 staff.

READ MORE: The State can’t claim ignorance of DNA disaster risk

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