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Cold Case Reviews

FSS closure could leave unsolved crimes in the cold

Future criminal cold case reviews could be put in jeopardy because plans to close FSS have left question marks over key resources within the service that are necessary to their successful conclusion.

FSS have assisted more than 38 police forces in their reviews of historic offences, and helped secure convictions in over 220 cases. It has been the partner of choice for two large-scale Home Office sponsored projects – Operation Stealth and Operation Advance – and currently works with at least 14 police forces on large-scale longstanding projects to systematically and methodically review their undetected historic sexual offences.

None of this would have been possible without the service's national and local archives; its specialist cold case scientists; and pioneering technology. Despite this, there has been no detail regarding the future of these resources once FSS is closed.

FSS' national and local archives

These document the receipt of every case undertaken by the service since the 1940s and provide information on recent 'cold' matches – cases loaded to the National DNA Database many years ago that have recently resulted in a match.

They contain well over 1.5 million case files and even more 'retained materials', such as DNA extracts, microscope slides, fibre tapings, debris and occasional original exhibits.

The police retain little paperwork or exhibits for anything other than certain homicides and therefore rely entirely on FSS' archives to progress all cold case investigations – the Association of Chief Police Officers requires all police forces to review their undetected murders every two years. But Prospect questions who will deal with cold matches and how much will it cost? The union has warned that fragmenting or destroying this system could mean potentially hundreds of 'detectable' cases remain unsolved."

Specialist cold case scientists

Similarly Prospect warns that as the pioneer of every major advance in forensic technology the body of specialist cold case scientists within the service is unique. They have in-depth knowledge of both original examination techniques and the subsequent production of retained material, crucial in evaluating new forensic opportunities – as well as the labelling and continuity of materials.

FSS cold case scientists have entire hands-on experience of techniques such as blood grouping and historic DNA profiling technologies such as multi and single locus probing, Human Leukocyte Antigen, Quad and SGM.

Without an understanding of the service's historic examination procedures or the case notes which determine which samples are suitable for testing, other forensic providers could apply inappropriate techniques to retained materials, resulting in incorrect results or no result at all.

Testing can be destructive, and crucial samples may be 'used-up' through unsuitable selection. Similarly, mistakes in understanding the labelling systems could lead to the 'wrong' materials being tested, raising the spectre of potential miscarriages of justice."

Pioneering technology

Prospect argues that not only does FSS have a proven track record of cold case results that is unrivalled by any other provider, it continues to lead the world in pioneering new techniques.

It is on the cusp of introducing new DNA technology that will help to improve profiles obtained from inhibited, degraded or old samples. Work is already underway to identify retained samples that may benefit specifically from this new technology.

What will happen to these samples and to existing, new and proposed technologies when FSS is closed?

Prospect will be raising these issues in its evidence to the forthcoming Commons Science and Technology Committee's inquiry into the closure of FSS.