Police: DNA database ready as early as next year

dnadatabaseb.jpgBy Elizabeth Roberts |

Bermuda could have its own DNA database within a couple of years, to aid the Police in cracking more crimes. Radical reforms through the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) mean more DNA samples, fingerprints and photographs will be collected when people are taken into custody from August this year.

Eventually, the DNA samples will form part of a national database. According to Mark Crampton, a former UK Chief Inspector implementing the reforms: “We’re being given the tools to bring the Bermuda Police Service into the 21st century world of technology in forensic crime detection techniques.”

Currently, fingerprints, photographs and DNA mouth swabs can only be taken with the consent of the person in Police custody – and this is generally only done when the Police are going to charge them, he explained.

From this summer, they can legally be collected from all persons taken into custody for “recordable offences” – those for which they could get a term of imprisonment if convicted – whether they consent or not. This does not include those arrested on warrant, which accounts for around 40 percent of detainees.

The Police will also be entitled to take these samples from persons after they are convicted of a recordable offence, if not taken already.

Mr. Crampton said: “Bermuda does not have a DNA database in place yet, but we’re working with the Department of Health to look at bringing in a database within the foreseeable future. The Police would be looking to at least take the samples and store them, pending the arrival of a database next year or the year after.”

DNA evidence is already used in Bermuda’s courts for serious crimes – but experts have to fly in from overseas at great expense. Their evidence is typically along the lines that databases for the black/white population for Canada/the US show that only X number of persons in X number of billion would have such a DNA profile.

This type of evidence has been challenged by defence lawyers, who have said overseas statistics are irrelevant because closer family ties in Bermuda mean DNA could be more closely matched.

Mr. Crampton acknowledged that Bermuda has its own unique genetic infrastructure. While it will be an expensive and complicated process to set up a DNA database, which will need hundreds of local samples before useful statistics on profiling can be gleaned, he has no doubt that it will be rewarding.

Having the Island’s own database would mean such evidence would be less open to challenge. It would also make it easier for DNA profiling to be used in everyday crimes rather than reserved for matters such as rape and murder, he said.

“DNA in my view is the best evidence to link someone to a crime. It puts them at a certain place, in contact with some property or a person that’s almost unquestionable. We’re trying to move Bermuda into that forensic capability to help solve crime. Our detection rate will improve, that’s what we’re aiming for.”

Reacting to the news, defence lawyer and Shadow Attorney General Mark Pettingill said: “It’s a potentially useful tool. For defendants that are innocent too – it can set you free.”

However, he cautioned: “DNA is circumstantial evidence that may tie a person in with a crime, but you’ve still got to have other evidence. There’s no doubt that DNA has changed the face of things but it’s also been a huge detriment to prosecutions. Jurors have all watched CSI and these days they want to know ‘where’s the hair fibres?’ If you don’t have it, they almost think you don’t have a case.

“It has to be looked at in a very narrow light. It’s not a panacea to solving crimes or getting conviction, but it’s a useful scientific tool to support a case in a circumstantial way. If we create a DNA database here we’ll still have to go through the same processes in the court for admissibility (of evidence). It’s not about the DNA, it’s about the gathering of the evidence and we’ve had times here where the evidence has been gathered appallingly.”