Monday 20 February 2017

The high-tech laboratory putting killers behind bars

In a murder, forensic scientists are the ones 'speaking for the victim', writes Conor Feehan

Published 04/01/2016 | 02:30

Conor Feehan takes a DNA swab.
Conor Feehan takes a DNA swab.
Dr. Sheila Willis.
A machine at Garda HQ for extracting DNA
An episcope in the laboratory
Graham Dwyer

This is the high-tech equipment that forensic experts use to put killers like Graham Dwyer behind bars.

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Sophisticated robots that can extract DNA from tiny samples of evidence are now at the forefront of the fight to convict murderers and rapists, as well as identifying prolific burglars and putting them in prison.

They are essential tools in the laboratories of Forensic Science Ireland (FSI) at the Garda Headquarters in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, and are now also feeding precious information to the newly launched DNA database.

Dr Sheila Willis, the director-general of FSI, has been working in the forensics field since 1979. She says advances in DNA gathering and recording have been by far the biggest advancements in recent years.

"In the early days, we could only get information like blood type - such as A, B or O, or certain enzymes - from a sample. Even in the 1990s, we would have needed a sample the size of a coin to get a DNA profile.

"But DNA profiling has revolutionised forensic science. Now the sample size can be microscopic and come from saliva or skin cells from a cigarette butt or a drink can, as well as blood, sweat and semen."

Physical evidence samples are now routinely collected at crime scenes and brought to the FSI for analysis. Often, the first step in the process of extracting DNA involves the sad task of processing the clothing or personal belongings of crime victims.

"In a murder, you know you are the one speaking for the victim when you are gathering evidence. They can't tell you where to look, so you are acting on their behalf," said Dr Dyan Daly, the DNA database manager of the FSI who examined the scene where Rachel O'Reilly was bludgeoned to death in north Dublin in 2004.

"Sometimes, the samples are obvious stains. Sometimes we have to use an episcope to closely examine fibres and use different solutions to highlight certain stains to make them more visible. It can be challenging work but is very rewarding," she said.

Different aspects of collecting information have all undergone advances thanks to changes in technology. The FSI both contributes to and avails of the facilities of the European Network of Forensic Science Institutes, where new developments are shared.

"There is a misconception that forensics only become involved in big cases, but we work on everything from road-traffic accidents and burglaries to murders and sex assaults," said Dr Willis.

One of the biggest developments in forensics in Ireland in recent times was the launch last month of the DNA database. Samples of material from crime scenes and suspects can be processed to extract DNA profiles which are then stored on computer. These can be compared so that suspects can be linked to crime scenes.

The popularity of the hit US crime series 'CSI' has given the work of forensic scientists an exciting image, but according to Dr Willis, that is a double-edged sword.

"It gives our work exposure, which is good, but now there is also a raised false expectation of what we do or the time we can do it in," she explained.

"'CSI' always get their man and the evidence is presented in a very dramatic way, but it's not always as simple as that."

Dr Willis was the scientist who matched paint samples from the remains of Lord Louis Mountbatten's boat with paint stains found on the clothing of the man later convicted for planting the bomb that killed him and others in 1979.

She also worked on the case in 1994 of the murder of Imelda Riney, her toddler son Liam and local priest Fr Joseph Walsh in Co Clare. Dr Willis found fibres from killer Brendan O'Donnell's clothes on Imelda's clothes.

"The fibres were still on her clothing because he buried her body in a shallow grave and they could not blow away. He buried the evidence with her," she said.

The work of a forensic scientist is very clinical and precise and the FSI team has to stick to facts, figures and evidence.

But they are exposed to the news like everyone else and when they hear of a serious crime, such as a murder, they know they can expect samples from a scene, a victim or a suspect to arrive in their labs within hours.

"You do listen to the news and then you do see the evidence and you relate to it on a human level as well as a scientific one," said Dr Willis.

"In a way, you are used to it but different things hit you at different times - like if you have children and you are dealing with a case involving a child."

When it comes to court cases, FSI staff are often called to give evidence or be cross-examined on the results of their work.

Natural curiosity will mean that they often passively follow a case through the media when their work is being presented as evidence.

"When you hear a verdict, you pay attention and if your work was part of the case and turned out to be central to the verdict, you do get a professional satisfaction, but you don't 'celebrate a victory' as people might say. You are already working on other cases and you focus on them," said Dr Daly.

While the equipment the FSI use is state of the art, Dr Willis is critical of the space they work in on the third floor of the Garda Technical Bureau.

"It was designed as office space and we had to knock walls through to make some space, but what we really need is a dedicated and purpose-built laboratory."

Irish Independent

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