Monday, 31 October 2016

Forensic Science Service closes, leaving a legacy of mass failures.

Some time ago I read an article in The Guardian, dated 22nd February 2007. The article in question related to a huge number of failures from the Forensic Science Service (FSS); the Government run UK lab who, along with many others, dealt with forensics from the McCann case.

It is important to note that whilst this article predated the disappearance of Madeleine McCann by 10 weeks, the revelations dealt a devastating blow to the reputation of the FSS, and could well be part of the problems that led to the incomplete, and with regards to some samples that were tested, a total lack of DNA found.

The discovery that an estimated 2,500 samples taken from serious crime scenes, including murder, rape, and sexual assault, had been botched by the FSS, only came to light during the review into the murder of Rachel Nickell. Rachel was murdered, and sexually assaulted on Wimbledon common on 15th July 1992. The only witness to the crime was Rachel's two year old son; Alexander Nickell. Tragically, the toddler was found holding onto his mother's blood soaked body by a passer by. Alexander had even placed pieces of paper over the lifeless Rachel's wounds after she had been brutally stabbed to death in front of him.

The investigation into finding Rachel Nickell's killer was confounded by controversy. Without any real leads, and a complete lack of identifiable DNA from the FSS, police focused their investigation on a local man, Colin Stagg, who often walked his dog on the common. At this point police enlisted the services of criminal psychologist, Paul Britton, who, upon their request, created a profile of the killer; the profile, according to police, matched that of Stagg, and a plan to trap the suspect began.

With Britton's assistance, the Met briefed one of their undercover female officers. Adopting the name 'Lizzie James', the officer from SO10 began to form a staged relationship with the unsuspecting Colin Stagg. During the 5 month operation, 'James' attempted to gain information from Stagg, by discussing sexual fantasies, either by letter, through telephone conversations, or face to face. Discussions, instigated by 'James', progressed to those of a more violent nature, Stagg became worried that his new 'love' would end the 'relationship', going as far to say 'Please explain, as I live a quiet life. If I have disappointed you, please don't dump me. Nothing like this has happened to me before.'

As the pressure grew upon Stagg to fulfil the expectations of his fake lover's fantasies, he made a stupid confession. The suspect claimed he had murdered a woman in New Forest. Like the relationship though, this 'confession' was totally false. Frustrated the undercover officer 'Lizzie James' was instructed to go for broke:

'LJ' - "If only you had done the Wimbledon Common murder, if only you had killed her, it would be all right"

CS - "I'm terribly sorry, but I haven't."

Despite no forensic evidence, no confession, and no formal identification, the CPS agreed with the police, and on the 17th August 1993 arrested, and charged Colin Stagg.

The trial collapsed, and for good reason. The defence claimed the 'evidence' of Paul Britton was speculative, but worse for the police, their covert operation was slammed by the judge. Justice Ognall ruled that the 'honey trap' had been 'a blatant attempt to incriminate a suspect by positive and deceptive conduct of the grossest kind'. The prosecution admitted defeat, and on 14th September 1994 Colin Stagg was acquitted of murder.

As a side note, the acquittal sparked a massive debate as to whether judges could, or should, be relied upon to decide whether 'entrapment' had taken place. The reason for this was that by definition, entrapment is the act of inducing a person to commit an offence, that otherwise they would have had no intention to commit. Due to the fact the murder of Rachel Nickell had already happened, then it could have been argued that entrapment didn't take place, and therefore under another judge, the actions of the police could well have been deemed perfectly sound.

True to form however, I digress.

During a second inquiry of the case in 2002, the FSS retested items found at the murder scene. Once again the lab failed to identify tiny amounts of DNA taken from the body, and underwear of Rachel Nickell. The lab used a technique known as Low Copy Number DNA analysis; the very same technique they used to test a great number of the samples sent from Portugal during the McCann investigation.

As briefly as I can:

LCN testing is a form of LTDNA (low template DNA), testing, and was first introduced by the FSS in 1999.

The benefit of LCN testing, when done correctly, is that DNA can be identified from samples deemed to be too microscopic for previous testing methods (SGM+), to yield results.

The way this is done is to increase the number of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) cycles.

Whereas standard testing used 28 cycles, LCN testing used 34.

The short video below explains PCR cycles, and how they copy DNA:

With that in mind, the disadvantages of LCN testing are:

Because the samples are being reproduced more, they are more prone to contamination, as well as the risk of mixed profiles being produced (ring any bells?).

Back to the Rachel Nickell inquiry now, and as I stated earlier, the tests carried out by the FSS failed to find tiny amounts of DNA. Had a DNA match been found, it would surely have snared Rachel's killer. The case may still have been unsolved to this day, had it not been for Scotland Yard sending the samples to a private lab. The change of lab proved pivotal; as well as Rachel Nickell's DNA a male sample belonging to Robert Napper was found. The match probability of this result, was approximately 1 in 12 million. At the time of the discovery, Napper, a paranoid schizophrenic, was being held in Broadmoor for the murder of Samantha Bisset, as well as the murder and sexual assault of Bisset's 4 year old daughter. Tragically, the attack on the young mother and daughter took place 16 months after the murder of Rachel Nickell. Had the police been looking at the right man, instead of following a wild goose chase, Samantha Bisset and her daughter may have still be alive today.

In 2005 Tony Lake, chief constable of Lincolnshire police and the Association of Chief Police Officers' spokesman on forensic issues, was given the task of reviewing exactly what went wrong, why the FSS failed the victims of Napper. When Lake made the shocking discovery that the FSS had made a mess of over 2,500 samples, he, and many other police forces were furious. Lake had this to say:

"This is about not getting results when it might be expected that there was DNA, rather than getting a result that was wrong. This type of DNA analysis of tiny amounts of DNA is carried out normally in the most serious crimes. We were not best pleased. We were not impressed. We rely on our forensic providers to have the highest standards."

Lake contacted every chief constable in the country, asking that all forces check their files between the years 2000 and 2005; in particular the forces were to report back any negative results from samples sent to the FSS, where a positive result had been expected. Tony Blair's government and the police kept the massive faillings secret for as long as they could, prompting David Davis, the shadow Home secretary to accuse Blair and his government of a cover up. This was strenuously denied of course; Blair never was a man to admit his lies.

Despite the findings, the FSS continued to handle forensic evidence, and in 2007, were used to test all samples from the McCann case. We all know how that went:

DNA NOT found from samples it was expected to have been found in.

Mixed samples.

Incomplete samples.

With the form the FSS had, is it possible the lab made a pigs ear of the testing again?

To further add to the FSS' problems, in December 2007 LCN testing was suspended, after Justice Weir expressed concerns the FSS had botched samples from the 'real IRA' bombing in Omagh.

Not exactly covering themselves in glory were they.

In December 2010, the government announced that they were to close the FSS down; the reason for this was said to be purely financial. In light of the lab's dreadful track record, could it be that money wasn't the only reason, (if it was a reason at all), for it's closure. Or could it be that the staggering amount of failures, had brought the government to a position where the FSS was fast reaching an untenable position.

According to the article o the link below, the estimated cost of the FSS closure, was between £300 - £350 million. That's not pocket change, and given the laboratory's multiple failures, the question has to be asked...

What was the real reason for the closure of the FSS?

Some useful reading:

National Police Improvement Agency; homicide and major incident investigation:

Offender Profiling in the Courtroom: The Use and Abuse of Expert Witness; by Norbert Ebisike


  1. Brilliant! Clarity at last! Thank you so much.

  2. Also, Blair's role in this. Don't forget the EU DNA database - a project that no doubt is being developed.
    There is a clip somewhere of Blair inspecting a lab. I believe not long before he resigned.
    I thought all along that the FSS were obeying directions from 'above', whilst you've made it clear that the DNA job was given to known bodgers - such elegant simplicity, worthy of only the best spin doctors such as Mandelson?

  3. An excellent round up of past events, concerning the FSS. Most ardent followers of the case, like myself are aware of the implications of the outcomes from the FSS, particularly when there was high speculation of results. What might be of interest to readers of blog to append to this summary, a further précis of the results provided by the FSS specific to M's case.
    Since it really wasn't a case of finding the DNA from a positive perpetrator, but that of Madeleine and her subsequent whereabouts, i.e. the car well.
    From memory, there was the high expectation of an outcome that had been given verbally from the FSS to the PJ (or via LP, UK), then it all failed to materialise - something that never really got further explained in all the general level of obfuscation at the time.
    My memory of the closure, as I saw it (reading between the lines) of FSS was it FAILED and was closed.