By 28 votes-to-nine, a split Lower House last Wednesday passed a bill to update the old DNA Act and in so doing to now allow for DNA samples to be taken without the consent of a suspect. The bill also named the Forensic Science Centre as TT’s official DNA lab, and proposed a National Forensic DNA Databank of TT.
“Nothing to hide, nothing to fear,” said Justice Minister Herbert Volney, in pilotting the bill to try to allay fears that it could violate a person’s constitutional rights.
“Individual rights must be balanced against the public interest,” he added.
He hoped the bill would remedy situations where criminal cases had collapsed due to a lack of evidence.
Later, in his wrap up speech, Volney said the bill was needed because the 2007 DNA Act was flawed, and because the law and the scientific procedures had developed since then.
“The country need not fear this legislation,” he again assured.
“While it is we accept that it abrogates certain provisions of privacy and the right against self- incrimination, it is for the greater good for the country, for the majority of the people ...”
He recalled that former Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and current High Court judge, Justice Geoffrey Henderson, had once lamented the ill-fate of a State that has to rely almost exclusively on eye-witness testimony or confessions.
“The evidence is out there and it is now for us to use the evidence by being able to interpret it,” said Volney.
“The passage of this bill will be a tool and a method to interpret the evidence at scenes of crimes committed in the past, and also to provide a reservoir — a data bank — for which provision is made in the Act so that future crimes may be more readily and easily detected.”
Volney offered himself as the first person to give a DNA sample to the DNA Bank, as soon as it is set up.
“I have nothing to fear. Why should I fear as a citizen? It provides an opportunity, so that if in the future, an accusation is made against this Member of Parliament, I may very well be able to use my own DNA that is in the data bank to show that the allegation is wrong.”
Diego Martin North East MP Colm Imbert named several foreign cases where DNA testing had allegedly failed, either by accident or by intent. Imbert opposed the bill. He alleged that once in Israel, DNA had been taken from someone’s strand of hair sample and implanted into the blood cell of another person, so as to mislead.
Imbert quoted a 2009 New York Times report on a story carried in the magazine, Genetics. “‘Scientists in Israel have successfully fabricated blood and saliva samples containing DNA, potentially undercutting what has been considered key evidence in the conviction or exoneration in crime cases,’” Imbert read aloud.
“‘The scientists also demonstrated that if they had access to a DNA profile in a database’ — and I did not hear the Minister say one word about the training and certification of the persons who will be handling the DNA database — ‘they could construct a sample of DNA to match that profile without obtaining any tissue from that person.’”
Imbert cited the recent case of American Amanda Knox, whose case was thrown out due to careless handling of the DNA samples. Imbert also recalled several cases where cross- contamination of evidence at a DNA testing lab had led to the wrong perpetrator being identified. Two such wrongly-identified suspects in the USA had fortuitously only got off when it was learnt that they actually had been infants at the time of the crime.
In Australia, Imbert said, due to cross contamination, a mentally-challenged woman had been wrongly identified as the suspect in a murder, but was exonerated because she had been hundreds of miles away from the murder scene at the time of the crime.
He doubted that the Forensic Sciences Centre was up to mark, despite the Government wishing it to be so. He said the bill failed to require a special competence in the line minister who oversees the bill, the Justice Minister — and to demand a high standard of any foreign DNA lab working with the Forensic Science Centre.
Minister of Works and Infrastructure, Jack Warner, scoffed at Imbert’s concerns that DNA evidence could be fabricated, saying this claim did not invalidate DNA testing as a technique. Warner lamented the number of unsolved murders in TT, and cases where the victim could not even by conclusively identified because of gaps in the system of DNA testing.
He refuted the Opposition’s claims that the bill was draconian. Scoffing at their fears that DNA samples would be kept on file indefinitely, Warner said evidence such as fingerprints and mugshots are now kept on record permanently.
Warner hit Imbert as “an eternal, chronic pessimist” whose opposition to the DNA Bill earned him the moniker of “Do Nothing” or “Do Little”. Refuting Imbert’s citation of an Israeli case of the manipulation of DNA evidence, Warner hit, “Does that make the DNA process flawed?”
He lamented the lack of a functional system to use DNA as evidence in the fight against crime. Saying police detectives need help to boost their lowly ten percent rate of detection of crimes, Warner said, “One of the areas we can get help to improve that is DNA”.
Warner read out a list of murder victims whose cases were never solved due to inefficiencies in using DNA testing. The failings left killers on the loose and deprived the families of murder victims of both justice and closure, he said.
In 2005, the bodies of Rudolph Sammy and Peter Samaroo were found in San Fernando but decomposition prevented conclusive identification.
“Even the police knew it was Sammy and Samaroo but they did not have conclusive identification, and therefore, the bodies could not have been released to the families for the final rites,” Warner said.
“The men’s legal estates are in limbo, the killers, who many know, are still free. Both men were fathers and there was never a funeral.”
Warner also recalled the murder of Arnold Changa in Barrackpore in 2005.
“The parents gave blood samples, but three years later, three years later, after they gave blood samples, the families are still waiting for results from those tests. Three years later! I am advised, Mr Speaker, that the body was never positively identified.”
Warner recalled the inability to identify the bodies of Anthony Stevens of Tabaquite and Anita Ramsaran in 2011 and Deonarine Persad of Rio Claro in 2003.
Of Stevens, he said, “It took two and a half months for DNA testing to be done abroad confirming the identity of the corpse.”
He lamented the failure to use DNA testing to identify the killer of Akiel Chambers, 11.
Opposition Chief Whip Marlene Mc Donald vowed not to support the “fundamentally flawed” DNA Bill, even as she recalled being allegedly let down by the Government on other bills such as the Anti-Gang Bill.
“There are numerous areas for potential abuse of citizens by the State. When we look at it, our advice on this side is to take it back and fix it. Take it back and fix it.”
She said she felt the Opposition was being bullied into supporting the bill.
“We have seen in this Parliament that Anti-Gang Bill, and I will tell you why I used the word ‘bullied’ here this afternoon,” began Mc Donald.
“We worked collaboratively and crafted that Anti-Gang Bill that came to this Parliament only to find out thereafter certain mechanisms were not put in place. We were totally unaware and we were taken by surprise with the state of emergency on the August 21, and the bill was proclaimed on the August 15, and therefore, that nobody seemed to have understood that evidence garnered before August 15 could not have been used.
But you know what is happening in the public domain, Mr Speaker? It is that the PNM — the Opposition — is being blamed.” She vowed not to support the DNA Bill.
She said, “Now, if there are so many flaws that we believe that making amendments will not work ... Let us get it right, let us come together, let us withdraw it. Take it back and fix it. Nothing is wrong with that.”