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Release Of Report Into DNA Evidence

Media Statement By
Tony Ryall
Minister of Justice

26 June 1999

Release Of Report Into DNA Evidence

Justice Minister, Tony Ryall, today announced he has directed the Ministry of Justice to report on ESR's reporting protocols in cases where DNA results are unclear.

Mr Ryall's announcement follows a report by the Ministry of Justice on the reporting of DNA results in a 1996 rape of a teenager which was allegedly committed by convicted murderer, Peter Howse.

In 1996, Peter Howse was acquitted of all charges relating to the alleged rape of the teenager following evidence given by an ESR analyst at the trial that Howse could not have been the source of semen found on the girl's underpants. However, retesting conducted earlier this year indicates that Howse was the most likely source of that seminal material.

A Ministerial Inquiry is currently being conducted by former Chief Justice, Sir Thomas Eichelbaum and Royal Society President, Professor Sir John Scott, into a separate incident involving DNA evidence.

"This Ministerial Inquiry deals with a conceptually quite different issue. It concerns the factual basis for apparent contamination of DNA samples in a particular case.

"The Howse case, on the other hand, does not involve any factual problems and is more about improvements in DNA profiling technology and the protocols applied by ESR to interpret unclear DNA results.

"Given that taking up the issues arising from the Howse case would delay the report on the contamination issue, I believe it is more appropriate to work separately on the question of ESR reporting protocols.

"Accordingly, I have asked the Ministry of Justice to report back to me on the appropriateness of ESR protocols within the same timeframe as the Ministerial Inquiry.

"The Ministry's report notes that there are several explanations for the variation in the results. The most significant is the quantum shift in DNA profiling technology meaning that the subsequent tests were conducted using a far more sensitive and discriminating technique.

"The report also notes that recent developments such as the introduction of more advanced semi-automated processes, which reduce the scope for subjectivity in the interpretation of results, mean that it is less likely that the same problems would arise again.

"Further, the report notes that the reporting of the results in the Howse case followed ESR's conservative philosophy that "if the results of a particular test are unclear then the benefit of the doubt is given to the defendant. In hindsight, given the uncertainty, it may have been more appropriate for ESR to have reported the results were "inconclusive""".

"However, there may be a need to establish clearer guidelines for ESR analysts in cases where DNA test results require a 'judgment-call' because the results are unclear.

"This will be the key issue addressed in the further work I have asked the Ministry to conduct", Mr Ryall concluded.


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