The State’s forensic science laboratory is seeing a “continuous upward trend” of sexual assault cases, with a 30% rise so far this year.
Forensic Science Ireland (FSI) said it is working with regional sexual assault treatment units (SATU), rape crisis centres, and the Department of Justice to understand what is causing the surge in cases.
Speaking at the launch of the FSI annual report 2018, the agency’s director general Chris Enright said there has been significant growth in sexual assault submissions.
“That has increased pretty significantly over the year and what we are seeing in 2019 is an increase of 30% year over year,” he said.
The findings confirm trends in successive crime data reports by the CSO, most recently last March. Reported sexual offences increased by 60% between 2014 and 2018, including a 10% rise in 2018. This included a 21% rise in rapes, a 10% rise in defilement (of an underage person), and an 83% hike in aggravated sexual assaults.
Mr Enright said evidence they examine includes intimate swabs from SATU kits as well as items of clothing. This process can take a couple of weeks. In consultation with gardaí, they prioritise cases for further examination.
Asked whether the agency’s caseload increase is due to a rise in incidents, or a rise in reporting, he said the relevant agencies and advocacy groups are investigating that, but suggested it could be a combination of both factors.
FSI has also introduced advanced screening technology to analyse toxicology samples from victims, to determine the presence of alcohol, drugs, and other toxins — but no unique substances linked to ‘spiking’ have been detected in recent years.
The report shows the DNA database assisted in almost 870 garda investigations last year, including: 427 burglaries; 111 robberies/thefts; 21 sexual assaults; 19 assaults; and 11 murders/attempted murders.
A further 11,000 DNA profiles of suspected/convicted offenders were uploaded to the database last year.
Overall, there was a 10% rise in cases submitted for forensic examination, including a 15% increase in DNA cases.
Mr Enright also said there has been a “significant rise” in fake benzodiazepines (tranquillisers), posing unknown risks to users.
He said there had been four large seizures of counterfeit benzodiazepines in recent months, including one of 40,000 tablets.
DNA database assists in 870 cases
The DNA database assisted in almost 870 criminal investigations last year and more than 2,000 cases since it was set up at the end of 2015.
These included 21 sexual assault investigations in 2018, and 11 cases of murder or attempted murder.
The Forensic Science Ireland (FSI) annual report for 2018 shows that these 867 investigations included 755 cases where a person was matched to a crime, and 112 cases where a DNA sample from one crime scene was matched to DNA from another scene.
“The database is consistently proving to be a very valuable crime intelligence tool,” said FSI director general Chris Enright.
The database contains two sections, or indexes — one of DNA profiles of suspected offenders and convicted offenders, the second a crime scene index, of unidentified DNA samples from crime scenes. These can be cross-checked with each other.
The 755 cases where a person’s profile was matched to a crime include 367 cases involving burglary; 98 of robbery/theft; 19 assaults; 19 sexual assaults; 17 drug cases, and nine murders or attempted murders.
There were 112 ‘investigative links’ where samples from one crime scene were connected to samples from other crime scenes. These include: 60 burglaries; 13 thefts; 2 sexual assault; two murders and one explosives case.
The report shows that 26,649 DNA profiles of people have been added to the database since it began, including more than 11,000 in 2018.
Last year, almost 7,000 profiles, of people who are no longer suspects, were have been removed from the database.
Mr Enright said there are just under 19,000 profiles on the database. He said case submissions rose 10% overall in 2018, including a 15% jump in DNA cases, and a 9% ries in complex drug cases.
The report shows that around 60% of drug reports last year were “complex” cases (large hauls or clandestine drug labs that required DNA work), compared to 47% in 2017. Cannabis accounted for 47% of cases, powder, usually cocaine (26%), tablets, usually MDMA (16%), and heroin (11%).
Mr Enright said that, within an increase in cases involving benzodiazepine (tranquilliser) tablets there was a “significant rise” in counterfeit or fake versions. He said there had been four large seizures (most recently of 40,000 tablets) of counterfeit benzodiazepines in recent months.
Mr Enright said that instead of the active ingredient that should be in them, they were finding “a range of different drugs” posing risks to unsuspecting users.
The report also shows there were 50 cases involving firearm residue and explosives in 2018. Mr Enright said they added 10 staff to the 100 staff they had at the start of 2018, with a further 27 staff joining this year.
He said the €10m rescheduling of Government funding for the new forensic science laboratory would not affect the timetable.
He added that progress was being made in transferring three existing laboratory disciplines (fingerprints, ballistics, and documents and handwriting) from the Garda Technical Bureau to FSI.
He declined to comment on media reports that up to 2,000 DNA samples were not transmitted by gardaí.
Forensic Science Ireland’s ‘cracked’ cases
The conviction of Kinahan hitman Jonathan Keogh for the murder of Gareth Hutch in Dublin’s north inner city in May 2016 was a major success for the gardaí. FSI was able to match a profile of Keogh with DNA found on a balaclava, a biker’s neck warmer, and a baseball cap seized from a BMW car found at the scene of the shooting and on latex gloves taken from a dressing gown. A forensic scientist from the DNA section gave evidence at the murder trial in the Special Criminal Court. Keogh was found guilty of murder in November 2018.
Baby Joshua died while in the care of his father, John Tighe, at his home in Mayo in June 2013. Mr Tighe had told emergency services he was changing the baby’s nappy when he went to the toilet. On his return, the child was choking and had gone blue. FSI scientists examined a wad of tissue taken from Joshua’s throat during the autopsy, which consisted of two different types of tissue crumpled together. These matched two different tissue boxes, rather than from a baby wipe. Blood samples/stains on Mr Tighe’s pyjama bottoms, a babygrow, and a baby vest also matched Joshua’s blood, as did samples taken from stains found on the floor of the sitting room and a wall. The father was found guilty of murder.
The conviction of Kinahan lieutenant Freddie Thompson for the murder of Mr Douglas was another major success for gardaí, secured by CCTV footage and forensic evidence found in cars used in the murder. The trial heard that while Thompson didn’t pull the trigger, he was found to have been directly involved. An FSI scientist from the DNA section told the court that DNA matching the defendant’s DNA was found on an inhaler in a car. DNA matching Thompson was also found on an air freshener and on a hand sanitiser found in a car.
The discovery of body parts in the Grand Canal in November 2018 were identified by FSI as those of Kenneth O’Brien. Paul Wells Sr admitted shooting him but claimed it was self-defence and that he dismembered the body in panic. He pleaded not guilty to murder. A scientist from FSI’s DNA section gave evidence that DNA extracted from blood found in Mr Wells’ shed and car, and tissue on part of a chainsaw found in the canal, matched Mr O’Brien. DNA found on the chainsaw’s starter rope also matched Mr Wells. The defendant was found guilty of murder.