Published Date: 04.08.2004
An investigation by the Police Ombudsman's Office following the collapse of a terrorist trial, amid fears that police tried to influence a forensic expert, has found no evidence that police had put improper pressure on the forensic scientist.
However the Police Ombudsman's report, and an earlier internal PSNI report, both show significant failures in the overall police handling of the forensic aspects of the terrorist incident.
In September 2003 a man who faced terrorist charges arising from a gun attack on a polling station at Draperstown during the General Election in 2001, was found 'Not Guilty' at Belfast Crown Court. Two police officers and a young girl were injured.
The PSNI Chief Constable referred the matter to the Police Ombudsman for investigation, following concerns voiced during the trial that police had placed undue pressure on a forensic scientist to compromise her work.
The Police Ombudsman's Report has now been completed and forwarded to the Secretary of State, the Chief Constable and to the Policing Board.
The Police Ombudsman found no evidence that police officers had put improper pressure on the scientist. She found that the police were entitled to request the forensic examination in question. No evidence was found that police have acted inappropriately in their relationship with the Forensic Service Northern Ireland (FSNI).
The scientist confirms that she was not asked to provide false evidence in court regarding the incorrect packaging of items and has never been asked by any officer to do so. The scientist also confirms that that she has never in her time at the FSNI been asked to provide false evidence regarding the packaging of exhibits or her findings.
However, the Police Ombudsman found major failures in the police handling of forensic aspects of the case, and has made a series of recommendations to ensure such failures do not happen again. The PSNI had also identified many of these failures following an internal review of the case. The Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) in charge of the investigation had not completed SIO training when he was called to the scene on 07 June 2001. He has now done so.
Police Ombudsman, Mrs Nuala O'Loan said that while the forensic aspects of the original investigation were most inadequate, the police have already sought to address the issues by reviewing their procedures:
"The terrorist attack was significant by any standards, particularly at a time of relative peace: it involved a shooting at an election polling station during an election. Three people including a little girl were injured. There should have been a professional response to maximise forensic opportunities to catch and convict the perpetrators. This unfortunately, did not happen
The PSNI review and my Report have both identified major failures in the process, practices and training in respect of major crime scene management which prevailed in 2001. The recommendations made will professionalise the approach of the police to major crime scenes. These recommendations must be implemented fully if the public are to have confidence in how police deal with major crime."
The attack on the Polling Station
On Thursday, June 07 2001 at 21:25 hours terrorists mounted an attack on St. Mary's Primary School at Draperstown, which was being used as a polling station during the General Election. Two police officers and a young girl were injured. A Volkswagen Passat car, which is thought to have been used by the terrorists, was later found burnt out about four miles away. Police officers who were called to the scene encountered two men in a Toyota car. Those men were arrested.
At 00:40 hours (June 8) the police Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) arrived at the scene of the attack. He left that scene after only 30 minutes to explore other avenues of the investigation. The Police Ombudsman has established that he did not devise a forensic strategy for the investigation which was to follow, and he did not ensure that the PSNI scientific support staff were properly led to ensure appropriate retrieval and submission of forensic exhibits to the FSNI.
The Scenes of Crime Officers
At 01:25 hours on 08 June a probationary Scenes of Crime Officer (SOCO) 'A' arrived at the scene and conducted only a cursory visual examination. He marked and noted the location of spent bullet fragments, empty case and strike marks and recorded in his notes that they would be lifted later in the morning. He left the scene after 50 minutes, without having undertaken a full forensic examination, taken photographs or secured any evidence.
The Police Ombudsman refers to the 'Golden Hour' Rule, the time after a crime has been committed during which there is maximum potential for recovery of forensic evidence. She notes that in this case evidence was left exposed to the elements overnight and to the possibility of loss of forensic value. She also notes that there was not a full forensic examination of the getaway car which was found burnt out.
At 01:30 hours on 08 June a second Scenes of Crime Officer, SOCO 'B' conducted a forensic examination of one of the arrested suspects. He carried out a swabbing procedure for Cartridge Discharge Residue (CDR). He placed the swabs in a nylon bag, as is normal, for forensic analysis.
However, given that the car believed to have been used in the attack had been set alight, the suspect's clothes should have been submitted to the laboratory in order that an examination could take place for evidence of an 'accelerant'. This did not happen. An examination for glass fragments should also have been requested, as a window had been broken at the scene of the incident. This, also, did not happen until some time later after the original submission.
More significantly, SOCO 'B' then placed the clothing in paper bags which may have been contaminated. When these items were submitted to the FSNI a form was handed by the FSNI to the SOCO who delivered the items, which said, "These items should have been packaged in nylon bags for CDR work. Residue will not be looked for".
The trial Judge described the placing of the clothing in the wrong bags as a “serious mishap” and went on to say,
"As a result the clothing could not be examined for cartridge discharge residue. Two things follow from this mishap. If there were cartridge discharge residues on the clothing there could be no evidence given on behalf of the prosecution to the court. If there were no CDRs the accused was deprived of the opportunity to establish this", he said.
The Police Ombudsman shares this view.
Another SOCO, (SOCO 'C') conducted the same swabbing procedure with the second detained person. This process was correctly carried out and the requested examination took place.
At 17:32 hours that day officers found a blue coat lying on the verge of a road being searched. SOCO 'C' attended the scene and took the coat for submission to FSNI. CDR particles were recovered from coat and fibres from the coat were found on the accused's shirt; it was to be the only evidence that connected the accused and the attack on the polling station.
However a civilian mapper (a person who maps out the geography of the incident) who had earlier in the day been to the scene of the attack and had not worn protective clothing, was also present when the coat was found. He travelled with the officer who found the coat. This meant that there was a possibility of contamination of the coat.
On June 09 at 11:30 hours, a civilian photographer and a SOCO 'D' visited the scene at the school. The SOCO recovered a glass sample from a window which had been broken in the attack.
The Mapper and the Photographer
At 11:17 hours on 08 June, more than 12 hours after the attack, a civilian, 'mapper' and a photographer attended the scene. The photographer took 27 pictures, only 20 of which were developed and provided to Director of Public Prosecutions.
When the remaining seven photos were developed at the request of the defence they confirmed that the 'mapper' had not been wearing protective clothing and at least one other person at the scene had not been wearing gloves. During the trial the Judge said, "I consider it possible that none of those at the scene of the shooting were wearing protective suits."
At 1130 on 09 June the photographer again attended the scene and made a video recording. There was no evidence left, other than the broken window, at that time. The scene had been re-opened at 14.50 the previous day.
The Police Ombudsman stated that to video the scene for the first time more than 36 hours after the attack was of limited use:
"The videoing of a major crime scene before any forensic examination takes place is an important part of any modern investigation. This should take place as soon as possible following the incident in order to preserve the integrity of the scene, be of evidential value and provide the Senior Investigating Officer with an excellent briefing tool."
The Police Ombudsman's Report points also to the failure of the mapper to wear protective clothing and the impact which this had on the subsequent trial, and to the comments by the Judge.
"The result was that this critical forensic evidence could not be relied upon. This fact was central to the Judge's decision to acquit the accused," said Mrs O'Loan.
The Police Ombudsman therefore reports on:
· the failure of the SIO to establish a forensic strategy;
· the failure of SOCO A to conduct a thorough forensic examination;
· the failure of the photographer to have all photographs developed and provided to the DPP;
· the failure of the mapper, and possibly others, to wear protective clothing;
· the failure of SOCO B to package the clothing correctly;
· the failure of SOCO C to request appropriate examinations by FSNI, and the impact this had on the subsequent trial and comments by the Judge.
The Request to the forensic scientist
On 10 June a PSNI Officer, 'D', (who had assumed temporary responsibility for the investigation in the absence of the SIO who had gone on a pre-arranged training course) asked the forensic scientist to examine the accused's clothing for CDR. The scientist refused and said the clothes had been both incorrectly packaged and had been opened outside the CDR suite (a special facility for such work) for other examinations to be conducted. They could therefore have been contaminated. The Forensic scientist was later to tell the court that she was being asked to perform work which she felt she could not comment on.
In his statement to Police Ombudsman investigators, PSNI Officer 'D' said he had been informed that the material had been incorrectly packaged, but he believed that the examination was still required, in order to allow for the possibility of a finding of no CDRs as well as positive evidence of the presence of CDRs.
The scientist confirmed in a statement to the Police Ombudsman her comments to the court. The scientist also expressed concerns about the lack of knowledge shown by PSNI officers with regard to their responsibilities for ensuring that all items are gathered, packaged, transported correctly, and submitted in a timely manner with enough information about the incident to allow FSNI to carry out full examinations.
The scientist's view was that the manner in which some items were submitted might have resulted in a loss of evidence and contamination, and that by requesting examinations that would be of no value at trial in Court, the PSNI officers were wasting FSNI time.
The scientist also said she had not been asked to provide false evidence and has never been asked to. She said her comments in the case had been taken out of context in the media.
The investigation considered three issues:
1. Were inappropriate demands put upon the forensic scientist requiring her to "compromise her science"?
2. Did any PSNI officer neglect their duty in relation to their dealings with the forensic scientist resulting in them committing any criminal offence or breaching any conduct regulations?
3. Did the behaviour of any officer during the investigation of the incident on 07 June 2001 result in them committing any criminal offence or breaching any conduct regulations?
1. Three independent consultants acting for the Police Ombudsman all agree that following appropriate consultation, the Forensic scientist should have agreed to the police request to examine the accused's clothing.
The Police Ombudsman is also of the view of that the scientist should not have decided that the examination she was being asked to undertake would be of no value.
"It was not her decision to make. It is for the prosecutor and ultimately the Court to decide what is of evidential value. The role of the scientist is to provide professional opinion on the examinations they have undertaken and, if need be, the manner in which the items were received. She should have expressed her concerns on the contamination but ultimately conducted the tests requested. A report should then have been prepared on any finding of CDR residue with a caveat that the results could not be relied upon because the clothing may have been contaminated.
The press reaction to the scientist's comments and those of the Trial Judge was extreme, when the actual transcripts are studied. She did not at any stage allege that she was asked to provide false evidence and this investigation has confirmed that no improper conduct took place in respect of the request for the examination of the accused's clothing."
2. The Police Ombudsman is of the view that there clearly were significant failings in the investigation of this shooting incident. However the PSNI policies, instructions and the training which existed in 2001 in relation to dealing with crime scene management, were inadequate. Because of this no police officer was in breach of the police Code of Conduct in relation to these matters.
3. As regards the Senior Investigating Officer, the Police Ombudsman concludes that he did not ensure high standards of crime scene management were met. Mrs O'Loan believes this had major consequences for the investigation.
"The fact that he did not adequately direct the scientific support staff is a clear failing on his part. However since he had not received the relevant Senior Investigating Officer training before the incident, and since such briefing was not a recognised procedure in RUC investigations in 2001, no disciplinary action should be taken against this officer. The officer had already worked an extended twelve hours of duty that day investigating a very serious crime, before he was recalled to duty in Draperstown. He has now undertaken appropriate training."
The Police Ombudsman also believes it would be unfair to criticize SOCO A:
"He was a probationary SOCO, faced with a major crime scene, without the necessary experience. The supervision and direction he was entitled to expect was not present".
The PSNI civilian scientific support staff do not have the power of 'constable' and are outside the remit of the Police Ombudsman's Office. Two police officers involved in the case: SOCO 'B' and SOCO 'C' have since retired.
Following the recommendations from the Police Ombudsman's Office and from the PSNI internal review, a number policies and procedures have been introduced relating to the investigation of major crime. The PSNI have created a new post of Crime Scene Manager and have trained certain officers in the role of Exhibit Officer. All support staff who may attend scenes have received training in forensic issues at major crimes scenes. Training for Senior Investigating Officers now includes the importance of matters such as setting a forensic strategy.
New policies are now also in place to address issues such as the importance of wearing protective clothing at crime scenes, of videoing those scenes, of having all photos developed and made available to the courts, and conducting full forensic examinations of any burnt out vehicles.