Thursday 23 November 2017

CSI Baile Atha Cliath: Inside Ireland's first DNA database

Though it's just 18 months old, Ireland's new DNA database is already helping investigators identify perpetrators and solve crimes. Our reporter meets the team behind it

Swab team: A technician at Forensic Science Ireland examines a crime scene sample; and inset, Dr Geraldine O'Donnell, director of DNA at FSI. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Swab team: A technician at Forensic Science Ireland examines a crime scene sample; and inset, Dr Geraldine O'Donnell, director of DNA at FSI. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Dr Geraldine O'Donnell, director of DNA at Forensic Science Ireland, at their offices in the Phoenix Park. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Some 99.9pc of our DNA is identical to other humans
Jason O'Brien

Jason O'Brien

'There are some cases that stay with you," says forensic scientist Dr Geraldine O'Donnell.

One is that of Faisal Ellahi, who raped a young woman with Down syndrome after she got separated from her mother on a Dublin street.

Dr.Sheila Willis Director General of Forensic Science Ireland at their offices in the Phoenix Park. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Dr.Sheila Willis Director General of Forensic Science Ireland at their offices in the Phoenix Park. Photo: Kyran O'Brien

"I feel so scared at all times since he did that to me," the young victim's mother told the Central Criminal Court last year, reading from a statement prepared by her daughter, who is in her 20s and has a mild intellectual disability.

Ellahi (34), originally from Pakistan, had pleaded not guilty to rape and sexual assault, and had initially denied bringing the young woman - with a mental age under 11 - back to his apartment.

But he was convicted, and jailed for 13 years, and Dr O'Donnell's team played a significant role in that.

"It is an important case as it shows how different types of forensic evidence come together," says O'Connell, the director of DNA at Forensic Science Ireland (FSI).

Hugh Coyle Drugs Team Manager at Forensic Science Ireland in their offices in the Phoenix Park.
Hugh Coyle Drugs Team Manager at Forensic Science Ireland in their offices in the Phoenix Park.

"DNA swabs taken from her meant we were able to get a semen link to him, but there was a lot of debate about where it happened, and there were different versions of the story.

"And in order to solve that aspect of it, it required fibre evidence. And fibre evidence from the young woman's clothing was linked back to his apartment so it tied in very nicely," she adds.

A long-overdue development

Dr O'Donnell is sitting in a meeting room at the FSI in Garda Headquarters in Phoenix Park, Dublin.

The forensics laboratory as a whole is, at best, grey and cramped, with a staff of 100 battling space restrictions, poor layout and outdated facilities to carry out their exacting investigative tasks. FSI director Dr Sheila Willis has previously described the lab as unsuitable for modern science practices.

The good news is that work is due to start later this year on a new €60m facility in Kildare to bring DNA analysis here in line with international best practice.

The bad news is that staff will have been waiting for a purpose-built facility for over a decade by then.

But forensic scientists are used to waiting.

As a convicted sex offender, Ellahi's DNA profile was added to the national DNA database, which was finally established in November 2015, a much-anticipated new avenue for forensics and garda investigation in Ireland.

Profiles - taken from convicted criminals, former offenders and serious crime suspects - are checked against DNA profiles in the database taken from crime scenes (crime stain samples) by the Garda Technical Bureau. The crime stain samples are also searched against profiles from other crime scenes to check for possible links between crimes. Any matches found by forensic scientists are admissible in evidence in criminal trials. But while DNA forensic evidence has long been vital in major criminal cases here - from the murder of Imelda Riney and her son in the mid 90s to the Graham Dwyer trial, for example - the DNA database has not yet featured in a high-profile criminal prosecution.

"It's too early for the database," Dr O'Donnell explains. "Even though there have been five sexual assaults that have been linked to persons on the database in the last year, they haven't gone through the judicial process and are purely in the investigative stage."

'We're not early adopters'

And that's because the database only came into law 18 months ago. The DNA database in the UK, in comparison, has been up and running since 1995.

"One of the reasons why we were slower into the game may be that Irish society is not great at embracing science," Dr Willis says.

Read more: Almost 400 people linked to crimes - including murders, sexual assaults - since the new DNA database went live

As well as pertinent concerns over privacy, data security and fairness, there was plenty of misinformation, she says, such as the suggestion "that people would know from looking at a DNA profile the tendency for disease or other private things. But the DNA that is used in crime investigation is just a set of numbers."

Dr Willis, a highly-experienced forensic scientist who helped convict the bomber that killed Lord Louis Mountbatten in 1979, added that "we have a tendency to be a bit suspicious of [science]. We're not usually in the first wave, we're not early adopters, we tend to generally sit on the fence and see how it will travel. I think that's one of the things we did with this."

That caution already seems misplaced.

In its first year of operation, the database linked more than 530 crimes to particular individuals, including the five sexual assaults mentioned earlier, and a further eight assault cases.

As anticipated, however, the majority of the 'hits' relate to 'volume' crimes such as burglary and theft. Scientists also found 25 'clusters' where an individual has been linked to several crimes. These include one individual linked to 13 burglaries.

"It was quite interesting looking at the span of those 13," Dr O'Donnell says.

"They started back in 2013 and then there was a gap, and you could tell when he was active again in 2015, 2016. The gaps we subsequently learned were due to him being in prison. He is in prison now."

The matches reinforce the view of gardaí that 25pc of burglars are responsible for 75pc of burglaries.

Crime-solving capacity: 23pc

"The database is working very well - the crime-solving capacity is around 23pc," Dr O'Donnell says.

"What that means is that one in every five crime stain scene samples that you're adding is being matched back to an individual.

"So even though it's taken a while to come in to Ireland, the uptake has been very fast and to be up at 23pc after one year is very good. To be honest, we expected single figures."

In the UK, the chance of a crime scene profile matching a subject on its database was an impressive-looking 63.2pc in 2015. But the UK has five million individual profiles - or 9pc of its adult population - on its database, and half a million crime scenes. In comparison, in Ireland, DNA samples from approximately 11,000 people have been taken, and they are being added at a rate of approximately 1,000 per month.

But the future expansion possibilities are significant. "The database allows us to use different information in a better way, because prior to that, it was just sitting in files and we couldn't compare different cases to each other," Dr Willis explains. "The difference between this and previous is that up to now, the gardaí had to nominate a suspect and we'd confirm or not. Now we can give them a lead. We are giving them investigative intelligence which we wouldn't have had before."

A whiff of Big Brother

However, as a society, it would appear we remain uncomfortable with the science.

"I think it's fair to say there is still a small level of suspicion about 'what is this DNA?' and 'what are people keeping?'" Dr Willis acknowledges.

"There's a faint whiff of Big Brother about the perception of it. I think in the operation of it there are a high number of safeguards built in, I think its uses are very much bona fided for fixed functions which are outlined. But if you tend to be someone who is a bit suspicious of the State…"

Or perhaps that discomfort comes from ignorance?

"I think it's a point well-made," Dr O'Donnell says. "People's eyes glaze over within five minutes of starting a discussion."

Either way, as a new initiative, the DNA database remains a relatively-small aspect of the forensic work undertaken by FSI - an offshoot of the DNA/biology department that works alongside the chemistry and drugs sections. Indeed, drugs alone make up two thirds all cases here, with the laboratory tasked with testing all the narcotics seized by the State for active ingredients and purity levels. The value of these drugs would generally total in the hundreds of millions of euro each year. And yet, it's difficult to look beyond the 'glamour' of DNA when talking forensics, a possible reaction to watching television shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation or Line of Duty.

"We've talked about DNA as if match/no match is the absolute, and once you get the DNA, you've got him bang to rights, a bit like the TV programmes," Dr Willis points out.

"The reality is, like every other type of evidence, there is a requirement to evaluate how it got there. So the DNA is the 'who?', but the traditional questions in forensic science - the how and what and when - are not addressed well by DNA.

"I think very often this is skipped over. So while the technology that they use on TV is quite realistic, although simplified and speeded up, and glamorised by having one super person who can do everything - that's not real life. But DNA is a hugely-powerful tool."

And, of course, unlike TV, real life is real people, meaning some of the cases stay with you.

"I suppose the one that stands out for me would be the Sophie Toscan du Plantier case," Dr O'Donnell says.

"I was in on that from the start, and it's one I would have liked to have seen solved but that's obviously not the case. Every time you hear of it on the radio, I think about examining her clothes and that's the human part of it," she adds quietly.

"It's been a difficult case."

DNA: What it's used for


Gardaí recently searched a north Dublin park for a missing person, James Nolan.

Nolan, a sex offender and burglar from north Dublin, went missing after he was released from jail in November 2010.

His murder first came to public prominence when a severed arm washed up on Dollymount Strand in 2011. At that point Ireland did not have a DNA database.

However, Nolan had been arrested in Holyhead in 2004 when he was found using a forged driving licence, and his DNA was added to the UK database. Interpol subsequently identified the arm as Nolan's.

Now that Ireland has a DNA database, it has an identification division which contains a missing persons index, holding samples relating to missing persons and relatives. It has a 'rapid' DNA machine which can generate a profile "within two or three hours", which is specifically used for body identification in extremely fraught situations, forensic scientist Brian Gibson said.

It is also likely to be used if and when the bodies of missing Rescue 116 crew members Paul Ormsby and Ciaran Smith are recovered from the sea.

"My family knows that when those bodies are found, they're brought in here," Dr Geraldine O'Donnell said. "It's a terribly sad case."


Eamonn Lillis was jailed for just under seven years in January 2010 for the manslaughter of his wife Celine Cawley in Howth, Dublin. Lillis had told gardaí that a burglar had attacked his wife and fled through the back garden of his home, but DNA evidence would be key to proving he had killed Celine after they got involved in a violent struggle outside their home.

Among the crucial developments was the discovery by gardaí of a black suitcase in the attic which contained Lillis' bloodstained clothes in a refuse bag, including a pair of gloves.

All the items tested positive for Celine Cawley's DNA at Forensic Science Ireland.

No third-party DNA was found.

Lillis was charged with murder but after a controversial trial, he was convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter.

DNA forensics were also to the fore when Gerald Barry was convicted of the murder of Manuela Riedo on October 8, 2007.

Barry had pleaded not guilty to the sexual assault and murder of the young Swiss student in Galway, but FSI scientists examined the scene and found semen matching Barry and DNA matching Manuela.

Controversially, it later emerged that Barry was the main suspect for the rape of another foreign student when he attacked Manuela - ensuring he was swiftly arrested after killing Manuela.

There was no DNA database at the time.

Barry was jailed for life, and also subsequently received a sentence for raping the French student.

Jason O'Brien

DNA: How it  all works

Some 99.9pc of our DNA is identical to other humans

What exactly is DNA?

The same DNA sequence is present in most cells in our body, is unique to each of us and we leave a trace wherever we go. Some 99.9pc of our DNA is identical to others humans - so it's the remaining 0.1pc that makes us individual, and is of use to forensic scientists.

Traces invisible to the naked eye are enough for modern science.

How is DNA identified?

Scientists generally focus on short, highly variable regions of repetitive DNA called short tandem repeats - genetic markers at 16 locations plus a sex marker, typically.

Each location has two STRs (one from our mother, one from our father) and means that a person's genetic profile can be represented as a series of digits - such as 13/15, 9/9, 5,8, akin to a lottery number.

Once a profile has been generated from a crime scene, it can be compared to other profiles. This can give full or partial matches, and scientists can calculate the strength of evidence of identification. The probability that two full DNA profiles match by chance using 16 locations is 1 in 100 million billion.

Crucially, the presence of DNA doesn't necessarily tell us when or how it got there.

Are there legal restrictions on DNA sampling?

In Ireland, DNA samples can be taken from most suspects detained by gardaí in connection with serious offences subject to a sentence of five years or more.

People on the sex offenders register and some former offenders who are no longer subject to sentence have also been included in the database.

Children under 14 and people with a mental or physical disability impeding their ability to give consent are exempt from giving samples.

A committee oversees the management and operation of the database, to ensure integrity and security. There is a civil liberties and a data protection representative.

Forensic Science Ireland act as custodians of the database. All the information they see is relayed as barcode - there are no identifiers.

Indo Review

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