European judges could strip the profiles of more than half a million people from the national DNA database on privacy grounds – undermining its growing value to police as an investigative tool.
As two sex killers caught by the database were jailed for life yesterday and a senior detective joined calls for a universal register, the European Court of Human Rights will hear a case that could mean 560,000 DNA samples being destroyed. Two people charged with offences but never convicted will ask the court next week to remove their records from the database. If they succeed, 13 per cent of the 4.3 million profiles collected since 1995 would have to be destroyed.
The category of DNA profiles facing destruction has yielded vital clues in criminal cases. Official figures seen by The Times indicate that the DNA of 8,500 people never previously charged or convicted has been matched with DNA taken from crime scenes. The cases have involved about 14,000 offences including 114 murders, 55 attempted murders and 116 rapes. Europe will rule on the legality of the database as demands grow for the entire British population to be sampled after its crucial role in catching Steve Wright, the Suffolk Strangler, and Mark Dixie, the killer of Sally Anne Bowman.
Detective Superintendent Stuart Cundy, who led the investigation into Miss Bowman’s murder, said that a universal database would have caught Dixie within 24 hours of the killing. Instead he remained at large for nine months until police took a DNA swab from him after a pub fight. Dixie, 35, was jailed for life at the Old Bailey only hours after Wright, 49, was given a whole-life sentence for the murders of five Ipswich prostitutes.
Wright had been arrested after a DNA sample from one of his victim’s bodies matched the profile loaded on the database after his arrest for a minor theft.
Mr Cundy said: “I am all for a national DNA register, with all the appropriate safeguards. If there had been one at the time of Sally Anne’s murder we would have known who it was that day. It could have protected everybody else out there. For nine months between Sally Anne’s murder and the arrest one of our biggest fears and was that this man could attack again. A national DNA register could solve that.”
Richard Ottaway, Miss Bowman’s local Tory MP, said: “A universal DNA database is necessary to solve these crimes.”
The Home Office has published proposals for extending the existing database by taking samples from people detained for minor, or non-recordable offences, such as not wearing a seatbelt.
Ministers are understood to be awaiting the outcome of the European court case before deciding whether to proceed with the expansion plans.
Human rights lawyers will argue in Strasbourg that a juvenile acquitted of attempted robbery and Michael Marper, who faced charges of harassment that were later dropped, should have their profiles removed from the database. South Yorkshire police, which arrested both, has refused to destroy their records.
Peter Mahy, their solicitor, said: “This is the most important case on the human rights implication of retaining biometric data.”
He said his clients were concerned about the uses to which the samples might be put and the lack of independent oversight of the national database.