Yorkshire’s Forensic Science Service was dismantled earlier this year for failing to make money. Sarah Freeman finds out what the experts did next.
Drive past the rabbit warren of 1970s laboratories, once home to a team of forensic scientists who together helped solve some of the country’s most high-profile crimes, and it’s a depressing picture.
Located on a Wetherby industrial estate, it never was the most glamorous of places, but since the experts moved out in March, the site has become overgrown and the buildings look even more dilapidated than they did just a few months ago.
When the Government first announced plans to wind down the Forensic Science Service (FSS), which across seven sites nationally employed 1,600 people, no one in Wetherby believed it would happen.
According to the Crime Reduction Minister James Brokenshire, there was no other option. The service, he said, was losing about £2m a month, but even as they waited for more details to emerge the lead scientists at Wetherby thought their base might just escape the cuts; the laboratory was, after all, the only one of its kind in the north of England.
As it turned out, geography didn’t matter, the decision came down to money. With the FSS losing lots of it, the entire organisation was put on notice of closure and in March the last of the staff at Wetherby left. Some moved to Wakefield where a private firm is now responsible for much of the forensic work required by police, but for the FSS’s lead scientists redundancy seemed the only option.
When the closure came, many, warned that the loss of such expertise would leave the UK, for years at the forefront of new forensic techniques, at risk of only being able to carry out the most routine analysis.
Those concerns were shared by many within the service itself, but now just round the corner from the original Wetherby lab it seems a new forensic science service is taking shape with 14 of the country’s service’s lead scientists, who specialise in everything from DNA to blood pattern analysis, now going it alone.
“As the most experienced scientists, we knew we were just too expensive to find work with one of the new providers, but we all have a real passion for forensics and it just seemed ridiculous that all our years of experience should go to waste,” says Jonathan Whitaker, DNA specialist and along with 10 other founding members, co-director of Principal Forensic Services (PFS). “When Wetherby finally closed, it was a really sad day, but we still felt we had a lot to give.”
Looking back at some of the notable cases Jonathan has worked on, it’s easy to see why he felt he had more to give to forensics.
In 2002, after the body of James Hanratty, the last man in England to be hanged, was exhumed following a long campaign by his family who believed he had been the victim of a miscarriage of justice it was Jonathan who was called to give evidence at the Royal Courts of Justice. DNA samples taken from the body matched those from the original crime scene and it was, according to the judge, proof beyond reasonable doubt that Hanratty had shot Michael Gregston dead as he sat in his car parked in a layby on the A6.
Over the years, Jonathan has also worked on the case against Mijailo Mijaolovic, successfully prosecuted for the murder of Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh in 2003 and two years later presented key evidence at the trial of Bradley Murdoch who was found guilty of the murder of Huddersfield backpacker Peter Falconio in the Australian outback. In the 22 years Jonathan worked for the FSS, he also built up an unrivalled knowledge of the full history of DNA profiling.
“Forensic techniques have changed dramatically since I first started and often cold case evidence has been subjected to two or three tests over the space of many years before a suspect is found,” he says. “The problem now is that there aren’t that many people with the knowledge to interpret results which may date back 10, 20 or even 30 years and often that’s vital in helping build up a complete picture of a crime.”
It’s estimated that upwards of 75 per cent of those who worked at Wetherby are either still unemployed or have changed career and amid further cuts across the public sector the days when money was lavished on forensic testing are long gone.
According to the National Police Improvement Agency, police budgets for forensic services shrank from £175m in 2008-09 to £138m in 2010-11 and estimates suggest that last year the figure stood at just £80m.
As everyone struggles to balance their books while ensuring justice continues to be done, those behind PFS hope that their knowledge might just plug the gap.
“It was pretty horrific when we heard Wetherby was closing, there was a lot of tears that day,” says Gillian Leak, who started her career in forensics in 1978 and is now one of the world’s leading blood pattern analysts.
It was her work which helped secure a conviction against Robert Black, who murdered three schoolgirls, including Morley’s Sarah Harper, and her expertise has also proved vital in bringing criminals to justice abroad, working on cases everywhere from Iceland to Italy. “Once you fragment a team like that, it’s impossible not to lose really important expertise.
“If the 30 odd years I spent working at the FSS taught me anything it’s that there’s strength as a group. Individually, the 14 of us have very specific skills, whether it be DNA profiling or blood pattern analysis, but together that’s a pretty formidable pool of knowledge.”
Those behind PFS include authorities on everything from gunshot residue and firearms to bodily fluids and handwriting and they are now offering their expertise to defence and prosecution lawyers in this country and abroad.
“The beauty of it is if I pick up a case that involved blood pattern analysis, but also has say footwear marks as evidence I know that there is someone I trust on the other end of the phone that I can call,” says Gillian. “More often than not forensics is about piecing together different elements of evidence and we have all that expertise right here.”
On a recent visit to the Cayman Islands where she gave a keynote conference speech, Gillian was asked to stay on to help with a cold case investigation and her job, along with all the other PFS directors, is now making more people, both home and abroad, aware not only of their past work, but of their new project.
Aside from saving money, one of the Government’s aims in dismantling the FSS was to increase competition. Not everyone is convinced that has been achieved, but the one thing the experts at PFS do know is that if forensics are to continue to be a central pillar in many court cases the quality of that evidence has to be preserved.
“We’re here to give a bit more clout, but it’s also about ensuring quality of results,” says DNA expert Mike Barber, who in 2005 was part of an international delegation which advised on victim identification following the Boxing Day tsunami in Thailand. “At the FSS we were constantly looking at ways we could improve forensic techniques, we really were at the forefront of the industry.
“The labs in Wetherby may have gone, but our aim remains the same – we want to ensure standards of evidential integrity and that forensics in the UK remain the envy of the world.”
Spotlight on UK’s Forensic Services
The Forensic Science Service pioneered the use of DNA profiling and in 1995 set up the DNA database.
It became a Government-owned company in 2005 and four years later injected £50m into the business.
However, the increased use of competitive tendering by police forces had a big impact on the FSS, which operated seven sites across the country.
It was announced three labs were to close in 2009 and the following year the Government announced the entire service was to be wound down.
However, the FSS archives were retained so police forces can still review cold cases.
To find out more about Principal Forensic Services go to www.principalforensicservices.com