Scotland has the right balance on DNA – but not on investigation

The case for a compulsory database was hurt by the over-zealous search of the Sheridan home.

THEIR young faces look out from pictures taken at a time happiness was still possible. They smile at the camera not to seduce, not to entice, and not to score.

They were model school pupils, beloved daughters and ordinary women. They had outlooks, attitudes, expectations, hopes and habits. But the five victims of Steve Wright got hooked on heroin and crack cocaine and became vulnerable to a man who killed repeatedly and almost got away with it.

No wonder civil libertarians have spent the weekend debating the police case for a compulsory national DNA database. If everyone's genetic fingerprint was on record, the police argue, Steve Wright would have been pinpointed far sooner, and Sally Anne Bowman's killer, Mark Dixie, might have been stopped in his tracks.

But there are snags, one of which is Home Office opposition to compulsion. The DNA of everyone arrested in England is already stored in the database, although in Scotland, only those found guilty of a crime have their DNA profiles kept. Together UK police forces have created the largest DNA database in the world as a proportion of population.

However, as Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats at Westminster, has pointed out, the addition of 1.5 million DNA profiles on the database since 2003 hasn't increased prosecutions. And when Dutch police supplied DNA profiles of 2,000 serious criminal suspects a year ago, the Crown Prosecution Service misplaced the disc and only found it last month.

Recent checks revealed 15 suspects were still in the UK and 11 had committed further crimes – including serious assaults, sexual assaults and burglaries. An excellent argument for keeping and sharing "criminal" DNA across national boundaries – a not-so-good argument for believing information will automatically be acted upon, or even safely stored by British authorities.

The bigger worry about a compulsory DNA register is the fear that access to genetic information might be misused. Once police have gained admission for specific, agreed and legitimate reasons, might they (or others) start "trawling"? If we give the police unfettered access to our DNA – or our homes – what is to stop them acting on behalf of other agencies who would never be granted such intimate access?

The answer in Gail Sheridan's case appears to be – nothing.

The police search of the Sheridan home last week was initiated for the legitimate purpose of gathering evidence for the perjury charges Gail and Tommy Sheridan face. Once inside the house, though, the search appears to have gone beyond that initial purpose to discover miniature bottles of alcohol and perfume – not connected to the perjury case and not in itself a discovery that screamed aloud that a crime had been committed. But Lothian and Borders Police alerted Gail's employer, British Airways. BA suspended her and she was charged with theft last week. She was charged with perjury earlier in the week.

Whether Gail took a few miniatures home, and whether she should face suspension and theft charges if she did, is the talk of the steamie. But can we get an answer to another question: how should police have reacted to this accidental "find"?

Should we expect that long-overdue library books found chez Sheridan were also seized? Did police check the Sheridan TV licence to see if it was up to date?

Lothian and Borders press officers were unavailable this weekend to comment. But without further explanation, the force's behaviour does look like "trawling".

And it comes at the worst moment for the compulsory DNA database campaign. Who can believe police or state won't use access to DNA details to "trawl" for incriminating evidence in the forensic way they appear to have trawled through Gail Sheridan's home?

Will insurance companies be tipped off if someone is believed to have withheld damaging DNA information? Will the Child Support Agency or its successor be notified if genetic evidence suggests a man is or isn't the genetic father of his child? Will we have access to our own DNA profile to check that it's right? And might we need counselling if that reveals serious medical problems or question marks about our parentage? Are we ready to know the whole truth about ourselves – but without access how can we be sure that our DNA details are accurate?

Perhaps a family beyond suspicion of committing criminal acts could lead the way. If the Windsors are happy to submit their DNA, we should all be big enough to follow suit. If they would rather not – on account of the impact unexpected personal revelations might have – why should anyone else sign up?

The murders of five women in Ipswich and of Sally Anne Bowman in Croydon were horrific. But the successful prosecutions of Wright and Dixie suggest that Scottish police practice – retaining DNA only from convicted persons – is working.

The failed Templeton Woods and Worlds End murder trials suggest that DNA evidence used alone has severe limitations. And as the Shirley McKie case demonstrated, no type of evidence – even fingerprint evidence – can be considered to be completely tamper-proof.

Explanations will follow over Gail Sheridan and the alcohol miniatures. But today public confidence in police procedure has been dented by over-zealous investigation.

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