On my bookshelves, in the extensive true crime section, sits a series of battered paperbacks, some of them published 50 years ago, examining high profile crimes, the conviction of those who committed them, and, in some cases, the questions raised about the validity of those convictions.
The most famous murder case from post-war Britain relates to 10 Rillington Place, where Timothy Evans, who was innocent, was hanged for some of the eight murders committed by John Reginald Halliday Christie, who lived in the same house. It took many years before those who had believed Timothy Evans was guilty relinquished that belief.
Indeed, some fine minds, examining the evidence, were clearly tainted by their initial imprinting of the Timothy Evans scenario.
Even eminent judges managed to convince themselves that two mass murderers had coincidentally, and without knowledge of each other, lived in the same house at the same time. Even the improbable was preferable to the relinquishing of previously-held certainties.
Nudging 10 Rillington Place as an easily-remembered murder location is the A6, a motorway in Bedfordshire close to a place morbidly called Deadman’s Hill. The key witness - and one of the two victims — was Valerie Storie, who died only last week. In 1961, Storie was a young civil servant having an affair with a married man named Mike Gregston. The two were together in a parked Morris Minor one night when a man holding a gun interrupted them. He shot Gregston, killing him. He repeatedly raped Valerie Storie before shooting her several times, severing her spine. He then disappeared into the darkness.
Storie survived, although she was paralysed from the chest down, and later identified a man named James Hanratty in a police line-up as the murderer. Hanratty was convicted and hanged. But, partly due to the efforts of his family, who believed him innocent, a campaign gradually gathered speed, culminating in a best-selling, tightly-argued book by Paul Foot, which named another man — then dead — as the murderer and provided telling evidence against him.
The consensus among decent right-thinking true crime obsessives was that Hanratty had died an innocent man. Storie, getting on with her greatly diminished life, was regarded as an unreliable if unrelenting eyewitness. I was one of thousands who, for several decades, saw her as responsible for the execution of a man who, although regarded as challenging in behavioural terms from the time he was 10, hadn’t done this particular rape/murder.
Forty years after the execution, however, DNA from Valerie Storie’s underwear and a hanky wrapped around the gun was tested. What emerged from the laboratory was a bombshell: Proof beyond doubt that Hanratty was the rapist/murderer and that Storie had been right all along.
Objective scientific evidence had, for once, buttressed eye- witness evidence. DNA had trumped deep-seated myth. Those old, well-argued paperbacks need to be given their P45s, although they might usefully be kept as the Before bit of the Before and After narrative represented by DNA, if only because they prove that the passionately argued certitudes of the best minds of just a few years ago can’t compete with it.
Ireland is up there on the DNA front, with our new national DNA database, run by Forensic Science Ireland. In November, we joined a long list of EU member states and countries around the world who develop and maintain their own national forensic databases.
The key purpose of the database is to assist An Garda Síochána in the investigation of crime. Because of cases like Valerie Storie and those released from long sentences in the US as a result of the work of the Innocence Project, we tend to associate DNA almost exclusively with murder and rape cases, but it has a major part to play in the detection of break-ins and burglaries, as well as identifying bodies.
According to Forensic Science Ireland, even in the half-year since it became operational, the national DNA database has had a payoff. Cluster crimes which, up to six months ago, would have been assumed to be the work of as many as a dozen criminals, are now clearly the work of a much smaller group.
“In the UK, where the world’s first DNA database was founded in 1995, a search to find a DNA profile match helps identify a suspect in around 60% of cases,” points out Dr Geraldine O’Donnell, director of DNA at Forensic Science Ireland. “It can reasonably be expected that, in time, the Irish DNA database will become as effective as the UK database. In addition to its value as an investigative tool, the Irish database will also contribute towards more effective, targeted policing.
“By enabling officers to eliminate innocent suspects at a faster speed than before, it means that Garda resources can be focused on cases involving clear corroborative evidence, freeing up time within the force and making more efficient use of Garda man-hours.”
The DNA database is like a computer bank containing records of DNA profiles coming from two sources: Crime scene DNA samples and individuals’ DNA samples.
When a new DNA profile is added to the database it is searched against all the other DNA profiles stored on the database. The crime scene profile might match stored DNA profiles from other crime scenes, indicating a link between these crimes; or it might match with an individual’s DNA profile, suggesting they could be a suspect for the crime. Individuals’ DNA samples operate in a similar fashion. When a DNA profile from an individual is added to the database it is searched against all the stored crime scene DNA profiles. Again, a match may indicate the individual may be a suspect for the crime. This ‘speculative searching’ results in reports of matches that can be sent back to the gardaí for further investigation.
“When the first ever DNA profiles were produced by Professor Alec Jeffries back in 1986, his crime scene samples had to be the size of a 20c coin,” says Ms O’Donnell.
“Thanks to improved technologies, a sample today doesn’t even have to be obvious to the naked eye. A cup you drink from, a cigarette you smoke, a spoon you handle, could hold a detectable quantity of material that could produce a DNA profile. In the 30 years since Dr Jeffries’ pioneering work, forensic science crime investigation using DNA technology has developed from a fledgling science to a significant weapon in the toolbox of crime investigators.”
All good, except for two things. DNA technology has effectively swept away a non-fiction genre: Books arguing the innocence of the executed dead. And 30 seconds into a scientific explanation on a DNA sample, laypeople’s eyes glaze over. In entertainment terms, it works only on CSI, and that’s because the scientists can come to a definite conclusion within five minutes. Real science takes a little longer.