IRA jailings safe despite lab errors

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The Government is to consider setting up a new Inspectorate of Forensic Sciences after an official report criticised the handling of evidence by the Government's forensic explosives laboratory (FEL).

Professor Brian Caddy, of Strathclyde University, set up an inquiry last May after it emerged that a laboratory centrifuge used by FEL to test evidence against bombing suspects was contaminated by traces of an explosive known as RDX, found in Semtex.

Yesterday, however, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, told the Commons that Professor Caddy's report cast no doubt on the safety of the convictions of 14 IRA terrorists thought to have been affected.

During a five-month inquiry into 124 cases, including the IRA convictions, Professor Caddy found that the government laboratory was seriously under- resourced.

He called for it to be given more money to employ extra senior staff and to buy monitoring equipment to limit the risk of future contamination of forensic evidence.

The professor also recommended improvements in the storage of case records and a review of procedures for the recovery of items taken from the scenes of explosive incidents.

He found that there had been an error in the monitoring of background levels of explosive traces associated with the centrifuge in the laboratory.

Professor Caddy described this error as "a scientific oversight which is unacceptable and is much to be criticised".

However, none of the control samples analysed was contaminated within the centrifuge, he concluded.

Professor Caddy said: "From my view of all FEL case files over the period 1988 to 1996 in which the explosive RDX was involved, I can find no evidence which leads me to believe that the explosive trace evidence is unsound."

Mr Howard responded to the inquiry by saying: "The findings in the report do not therefore necessitate the referral of any of the cases to the Court of Appeal."

The Home Secretary conceded: "The discovery of explosives contamination in the centrifuge was a grave matter and one which raised serious questions about the reliability of the forensic evidence which had been submitted by the FEL in some serious criminal cases."

Among the cases considered by Professor Caddy were those of the Harrods bombers Patrick Hayes and Jan Taylor. He also looked at the case of Sean McNulty, jailed for 25 years after being convicted of involvement in the 1993 bombing of an oil terminal at North Shields and a gas depot near Gateshead.

David Hammond, McNulty's solicitor, said: "All these matters should be referred to the Court of Appeal.

"Sean McNulty was convicted by a majority verdict on entirely circumstantial evidence. If one of the jurors was prepared to acquit him what would have been the effect if they had heard that the most damning evidence against him came from a contaminated machine?"

Mr Hammond said his client had a pending application for leave to appeal against his conviction. "This report will be very relevant," he said.

Professor Caddy's proposal to create a position of Her Majesty's Inspector of Forensic Science Services would enable the appointee to act as an external monitor of Britain's forensic science community, with a legal right to enter any laboratory and assess the staff and their work. An annual report would be submitted to the Home Secretary.

Mr Howard said the Government would consider such an appointment but added that the proposal went beyond the recommendations of the report of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice in June.