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Monday, June 15, 2009

'Innocent people are branded as criminals'

Ministers' decision to keep the profiles of more than 800,000 innocent people on the national DNA database for the next six to 12 years threatens the use of genetic fingerprinting to solve serious crimes, Sir Alec Jeffreys warned last week.

The inventor of DNA fingerprinting, which has transformed forensic investigations, told the Observer that police retention of profiles - even those belonging to people never charged with any crime - had created intense grievance.

"I am getting lots of emails from innocent people whose profiles are kept on the database. I have also met many of them," said Jeffreys. "There is real upset out there. Some people are seriously distressed. They feel they are being branded as criminals when they are innocent."

In the past, Jeffreys said, people had been willing to give samples to help hunt down rapists and murderers. These included the 4,000 men who volunteered blood in 1987 as part of a police search that led to the conviction of Colin Pitchfork - the first person to be convicted of murder based on DNA evidence.

Today many potential volunteers would refuse to co-operate, Jeffreys said, because it was likely their DNA profiles would be kept by police for years to come. "This is compromising the use of DNA profiles," added Jeffreys. "Certainly, if I was asked now to give a blood sample to help solve a crime, I would have serious doubts about supplying it."

The national DNA database contains the profiles of more than 5 million individuals, the largest in the world per head of population. But last December the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg condemned England, Wales and Northern Ireland for the "blanket and indiscriminate" inclusion of 857,000 innocent citizens' profiles. As a result, the Home Office announced in April that it would remove these profiles, a move that was welcomed by civil liberties groups - until it emerged the government would not start the procedure for another six to 12 years. This revelation outraged many organisations and individuals, including Jeffreys.

"The government - having invested all this money putting 800,000-plus innocent people on the database - seems determined to keep that information for as long as they possibly can, rather than putting their hands up and admitting this is morally wrong," he said. "DNA profiles carry familial information. They reveal a person's biological relationship with others. Storing that data, from innocent people, is a straight violation of their rights to have private family lives."

The police in England, Wales and Northern Ireland - but not Scotland, which has a less draconian system for retaining profiles - say individuals can apply to have their DNA taken off the database. But Jeffreys ridiculed this idea: "You can write to your chief constable, but you will get a standard letter back saying your circumstances are not exceptional or appropriate. You try telling that to a kid who has just been busted for nicking 50p worth of Smarties."

However, Jeffreys stressed his criticisms were directed mainly at politicians, not at the police. "The police have got this fantastic tool and they will do whatever the legislation allows. Politicians are the ones to blame. However, I have spoken to several senior policemen over the past few years, and I get the feeling they are starting to get uneasy about having innocent people on the database - that the blanket approach of grabbing just about anybody off the streets and putting them on the database may not lead to the greatest sympathy from the public."


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