PSNI apologise to families for storing human tissue of their relatives
POLICE have apologised for failing relatives after they stored human body parts from people who died under suspicious circumstances.
Sixty-four crime victims had tissue retained and around a third were Troubles-related deaths in Northern Ireland. Most were murdered, police said.
Investigators kept human tissue and body parts as evidence from 1960 to 2005, with some held for substantial periods and without any need to secure the consent of families.
Police Service of Northern Ireland assistant chief constable George Hamilton said: "The systemic failure that allowed this to happen pre-2006 now cannot happen.
"That is not to say that an individual somewhere may not make a mistake.
"The system and processes that did not exist are now in place as part of the audit."
He added that police had not broken the law but conceded: "There is a huge difference between being legal and doing the right thing in ethical and moral terms.
"Some of these families have been in a bad way because of lack of information. On behalf of the police service and the chief constable, we apologise for the upset that may have been caused."
Most samples were kept in the state pathologist's laboratory but 11 were retained by police.
Police said they planned to speak to families of the victims before the launch of the audit on Monday.
The process has taken 18 months and had to be managed at a UK-level.
In 2010, the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) issued a direction asking all mortuaries holding post-mortem tissue samples to undertake an audit and report back to the Authority and all chief constables in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were asked to conduct a review.
Mr Hamilton said the body parts would be handed back or dealt with as the families wish if no longer needed for investigations.
Sometimes a murder weapon or other piece of evidence is found years later and the injured tissue can be re-examined by pathologists to establish a link.
Mr Hamilton said the retention of body parts happened over a lengthy period.
"This was a different time, a different place. None of that is an excuse for the upset and the anguish that has been caused to families."
He added: "There were not the systems and the processes in place to ensure that the human tissue was reviewed and decisions made about how that would be dealt with."
Of the 64 cases, 23 were linked to the conflict.
The human tissue was retained for police purposes on the advice of the pathology service.
State pathologist for Northern Ireland Professor Jack Crane said the material was not forgotten about but there was no review mechanism in place.
Prof Crane said: "It had not been forgotten about, we were aware that it was there and we were able to retrieve that, there was not the mechanism in place for us to review that material and decide whether it needed to be kept."