Thought it was about time I put my views on the record about the weekend media coverage of DNA testing and the Joanna Yeates’ murder case….
Just to get one thing straight first of all…. The media coverage was not initiated by me. I don’t press release things to the national media, and I don’t try to get coverage anywhere outside my local area. I’ve always found it very unedifiying when MPs in areas hit by tragedy attempt to make political capital out of it, and gain publicity for themselves, e.g. by making very public visits to the bereaved parents, or making kneejerk calls for this, that or the other. There have been a number of young men tragically killed in gang fights/ stabbings in my constituency over recent years, and whatever help I have been able to give, has been behind the scenes. Indeed, my concern at being seen to be ‘bandwagon-jumping’ has probably stopped me from raising the issue in parliament as much as I should have done. And so, apart from re-tweeting requests from Bristol friends of Joanna Yeates when she was still missing, I had not commented on the Joanna Yeates murder at all.
On Saturday, however, when I was up in Oldham campaigning in the by-election I received a call from a Sunday newspaper, asking my views on calls from the parents of Louise Smith, who was murdered in Yate in 1995, for men in Bristol to be DNA-tested in the hunt for Joanna Yeates’ killer.
I – perhaps wrongly – interpreted this as asking whether I would have any objections to such DNA testing by police in the murder investigation, and my answer was along the lines that DNA evidence has proved very useful in a number of cases, that we want to catch the killer and that I would support it. I added that as well as the desire of everyone to see the killer brought to justice, there was also real fear in Bristol that the killer might strike again. So DNA testing could be worthwhile, and yes, I agreed with Louise Smith’s parents that it ought to be an option.
This was reported by the newspaper on Sunday as me “leading calls for the DNA testing of all men in Bristol” and was copied by other news outlets, none of whom made any attempt to contact me. I contacted the Mail myself after seeing their website report saying I was calling for swabs to be taken from250,000 men, and got an amendment in the print version (as far as I know, I haven’t checked). I also messaged the Bristol Evening Post asking them to speak to me before repeating the national news stories, but they didn’t. I did one TV interview for Sky and the Nolan show on Radio 5 Live, but turned down requests from BBC Breakfast and ITV Daybreak the next day, and just did local radio in the morning.
So let me clarify my stance. Obviously the question of whether mass DNA testing should be carried out in Bristol is an operational matter for the police. I have no idea whether they even have managed to recover DNA evidence from Joanna’s body. If they haven’t, it would be a pretty pointless exercise!
If such an operation was carried out in Bristol, it would be up to the police to decide on what basis it should be conducted. It would be very expensive, and possibly a logistical nightmare. I assume – I don’t know – that a fair degree of profiling would be used in asking men to come forward. In the Louise Smith murder case 4,500 local young men were asked to provide DNA samples; I don’t know why young men were singled out, it may have been because of other supporting evidence. So talk by the press of 250,000 men in Bristol being tested is pretty silly (especially when the population of the city, as at 2009, was only 433,100!) There’s obviously no point asking a 95 year old who’s been confined to a nursing home for the past 10 years to participate. Children, the elderly, the infirm, the incapable, would, I assume be excluded and there could be a degree of geographical targeting too. I’m not sure there would be much point in confining it to the Clifton area though. Most of the students who live in the area would not have been in Bristol over Christmas, and it’s an area to which many people from other parts of the city travel. And would it be worth doing if a significant proportion of people refused, and wouldn’t it mean the suspect would simply leave town to avoid being tested? (See the Louise Smith case on that point, where the killer did just that). Yes, there are all sorts of complex issues to consider, but all those are operational issues for the police. I repeat: it’s up to them whether they think DNA testing is a good idea, but they’d have my support if they did.
I think the outraged accusations of sexism from some quarters, i.e. why was I only asking for men to be tested, are to be frank, a little silly. I was only asked about men, so responded on that basis. Presumably the police would know what gender DNA they’d retrieved. And I don’t think the assumption that the killer is likely to be a man is sexist; I think it’s common sense. Fine line perhaps between common sense and prejudice, but I don’t think most people would object to the assumption that it’s a man the police are looking for.
The other really important factor, of course, is that such testing could only be conducted on a voluntary basis. There is absolutely no question of people being forced to take the tests. It’s not legal, unless someone is under arrest. And as I’ve said in interviews, it would be wrong if a refusal to participate was seen as a sign of guilt. Some people feel very strongly about such issues, on principle, and would view being asked for a DNA sample as an unacceptable invasion of privacy, even if an undertaking was given that the sample would be destroyed as soon as the investigation was concluded.
I don’t quite see this myself. I understand that people feel strongly; I don’t quite understand why. I’d be more than happy to participate if I thought it would help catch the killer. In fact I’d be perfectly happy to contribute to a voluntary DNA database and have the sample retained indefinitely. I supported Labour’s plans in Government on this issue.
It takes us into the realm of what matters most, individual liberties or the public good. To my mind, the freedom not to give a DNA sample is nowhere near as important as the freedom to be able to walk the streets without being raped or murdered, and if having a comprehensive DNA database helps take even a few rapists and murderers off the streets, it’s a price worth paying. I know that many people would strongly disagree with this. If you look at the Ipswich murders, within an hour of the police retrieving a DNA sample from the body of one of the murdered sex-workers, Stephen Wright was tracked down as the suspect. His DNA was already on the police computer because of a theft conviction in 2003. With the Sally Bowman murder, the killer was arrested for violent disorder some months later, and the taking of DNA from him on arrest enabled police to identify him as a suspect. Incidentally, DNA evidence also allowed police to clear her boyfriend of suspicion; it’s not just useful in proving guilt, it can help the innocent too.
In both these cases, luck played a part. There are no doubt numerous cases where the police were not so lucky, and couldn’t find a DNA match on their computers. Which is why I was keen on a voluntary national DNA database, and to be honest, wouldn’t have objected to this at some point becoming compulsory. Some will see this as hideously authoritarian… I don’t. Like I’ve said, I’m far more concerned about people being raped and murdered than I am about a sample of DNA being potentially misused, which I think is a bit far-fetched, though possible.
The current position re DNA retention by the way, is that samples from people arrested but not charged or convicted of an offence can only be retained by the police for 6 years. This was after an ECHR ruling that they couldn’t be kept indefinitely. And there are, I appreciate, other concerns about the database, for example the disproportionate number of young black men on there.
I think that just about covers the issues… I have replied to most, but not all of the 20 or so emails I’ve received on the subject. I have no time at all for rabid right-wing libertarians, who have no concept of the common good and are incapable of expresssing themselves without being grossly offensive, so they go straight into the trash can. (Unless they’re a constituent of course. But my constituents are much nicer than that). Ditto comments on this blog post!