Victims' families' appeal over DNA datbase
Twenty-one years ago, the advent of reliable DNA technology paved the way for criminals to be caught for offences they may otherwise have escaped.
It was Avon and Somerset police who secured the first such conviction at Bristol Crown Court on November 13, 1987, when Robert Melias admitted raping a 42-year-old disabled woman and was locked up for eight years.
Melias had previous convictions, as many other people convicted through DNA evidence have.
But there have also been hundreds of convictions underpinned by fingerprints and DNA samples taken from people who have been released without charge or cleared of a crime.
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The European Court of Human Rights this week ruled that this could breach the "right to respect for private life", which could, in turn force the Government to destroy the details of up to one million people from the current database, as is already done in Scotland.
Human Rights champions are applauding. But it could prove a huge blow for police and, certainly, for the families of victims, such as Robert and Gill Smith, who say it is a huge step backwards in the fight against people literally trying to get away with murder.
Their daughter Louise was killed as she walked home from a Christmas Eve party in Yate, Bristol, 13 years ago.
The 18-year-old's body was found more than a month later, hidden in Barnhill Quarry in Chipping Sodbury. Her killer David Frost was caught from the DNA he left behind and Mrs Smith believes everyone's DNA should be recorded at birth.
I f everyone had their DNA taken at birth then we wouldn't be in this position because everyone would be on the database," said Mrs Smith, of Chipping Sodbury. "I can see the point of view of someone who is innocent. But my opinion is that if they are innocent, then they've got nothing to fear from having their DNA on a database.
"What harm can it do? Many crimes have been solved by DNA evidence. Surely we have to think of the greater good here?
"Without that database, Louise's killer may never have been found. She didn't know him and he wasn't a suspect.
"I'm very grateful for what DNA did in Louise's case. DNA is a very effective tool for solving crimes and to destroy any of the current database would be a big step backwards."
Mr and Mrs Smith received MBEs in 2003 for their database campaign, which led to procedures that came into force in 2004 for DNA to be collected on arrest from a cheek swab.
It is estimated any destruction of 'innocent' samples on the national database, set up in 1995, would lose about 87,000 persons' details in the West.
There are about 18,500 samples from the Avon and Somerset police area, 9,000 from Dorset, almost 8,000 from Gloucestershire and nearly 8,900 from Wiltshire.
In February 2003, the major crime review team was set up by Avon and Somerset police to revisit historical crimes.
Since then, the team has brought more than 10 offenders to justice and is one of the leading units in the country.
B ut, for now at least, the force is not sticking its head above the parapet by explicitly criticising the European ruling, instead towing the line of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), which said it could have a "profound impact" on policing.
Chris Sims, ACPO spokesman on forensics, said: "We will study this judgment carefully and consider in detail implications which could have a profound impact on the way in which the police service makes use of DNA technology to protect the public and tackle crime."
He said from 200,000 samples taken from people not convicted between 2001 and 2005, 8,500 profiles have been linked with crime scene profiles involving nearly 14,000 offences, including 114 murders, 55 attempted murders, 116 rapes, 68 sexual offences, 119 aggravated burglaries and 127 concerning the supply of controlled drugs.
He added: "Policing in this country is by public consent, and in making use of powers to take and retain DNA the police service must continue to be balanced and proportionate to the general rights and freedoms of individuals.
"However, serious public concern must attach to developments which risk diminishing our ability to protect the public and prevent crime.
"It is important to stress that the existing law on the taking and retention of DNA and fingerprints remains in place. Police will continue to take DNA from those people arrested for crimes.
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said: "I strongly believe DNA and fingerprints play an invaluable role in fighting crime and bringing people to justice. The existing law will remain in place while we carefully consider the judgment."