Lack of awareness of evidence retention protocols risks miscarriages of justice

Blog post

Lack of awareness of evidence retention protocols risks miscarriages of justice

In this guest blog Damian Allain, Head of Casework at the charity Inside Justice, explores the issue of evidence retention and its importance in avoiding miscarriages of justice. 

Having served more than 30 years with the Metropolitan Police, as a senior detective specialising in homicide investigation and serious and organised crime, I know the enormous pressures that are placed on teams working on cases, especially with austerity measures and reductions in resources.

Last year I took on a new role as Head of Casework at the charity Inside Justice which provides pro bono legal, expert and investigative support to prisoners who maintain their innocence.

A huge amount of effort and hours are dedicated to bringing a case to court and securing a conviction. It’s what happens afterwards which is concerning us at Inside Justice. Ultimately, we approach each case with objectivity to determine if the conviction is sound or if there are concerns about the safety of a conviction. 

One of our most notable cases is that of Roger Kearney, the subject of a major BBC documentary, Conviction: Murder at the Station, which followed our investigation.  

Kearney was convicted of the murder of his girlfriend who was last seen in October 2008, leaving a supermarket in Southampton. Eleven days later her body was found in the boot of her car, having been stabbed in the driver’s seat and her possessions had been searched. Significant efforts were made by police to gather evidence for scientific tests, yet no forensic link between Kearney and the victim or her car could be found.   

Convicted in 2009 and sentenced to life with a minimum tariff of 15 years, Kearney has always protested his innocence. After a failed appeal in 2010, Inside Justice took the case on in 2011 and, as science evolved, a forensic strategy was developed by leading scientists on our Advisory Panel, designed to show objectively whether the conviction is safe. However, it is now known that key material, such as a carrier bag with a fingerprint in blood and body tapings from the victim which have the potential to show handler DNA from the attacker, have been lost, destroyed and contaminated through inappropriate storage by the investigating force.

So what should happen to exhibits and evidence gathered in the course of a police investigation, post-conviction, or in the event that the case does not progress to court? There are two key sources of information that frontline staff need to know about: a Code of Practice flowing from the Criminal Procedure Investigation Act 1996 (CPIA) and the National Police Chiefs’ Council ‘Guidance Regarding the Storage, Retention and Destruction of Records and Materials That Have Been Seized for Forensic Examination (NPCC)’.

CPIA provides clear guidance with a uniform direction that all material and objects should be kept until the prisoner is released from custody. NPCC directs police forces and forensic science providers to keep material in major crime for a 30-year period before review; serious crime for six years and volume crime for three years. 

Over the past three years Inside Justice has sent Freedom of Information requests to all 43 police forces of England and Wales and the responses show a worrying lack of awareness and consistency about this issue. It is hardly surprising. Confusingly conflicting guidance from a multitude of sources over the years, muddied by a smattering of in-force policy does not make for a clear landscape. Additionally, issues such as the retention of bulky, expensive or sentimental items will need careful consideration by the SIO.

Practical and technical storage issues may impact on the ability of staff to retain evidence post-conviction and so we are gathering data in order to better understand. We have designed a short, anonymous survey with police staff in mind. Please complete it, sharing your experiences so we can help forces get the facilities and awareness they need.

Access the survey. 

Inside Justice was established in 2010 and registered as a charity in 2018. The charity has a wholly unique advisory panel of world-renowned experts who work pro bono to strengthen the criminal justice system.