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Computer DNA evidence interpretation in the Real IRA Massereene terrorist attack

Perlin, M.W. and Galloway, J. Computer DNA evidence interpretation in the Real IRA Massereene terrorist attack. Evidence Technology Magazine, 10(3):20-3, 2012.


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In 1998, the Good Friday agreement implemented a power sharing and mutual disarmament accord that ushered in a new era of peace in Northern Ireland. This calm was ruptured on the night of March 7, 2009 when two hooded gunmen emerged from a car outside the Massereene Barracks with assault rifles. In the first attack on British soldiers in over ten years, the assailants fired more than 60 rounds at unarmed soldiers and civilians, killing Sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar who were collecting a Domino's pizza delivery. The Real IRA paramilitary organization claimed responsibility for the attack. The action was universally denounced by all parties in Northern Ireland, and actually strengthened the peace process.

The abandoned getaway car was burned to destroy personally identifying evidence, but trace amounts of touch DNA were left on a few items. This low-level and mixed DNA evidence associated two Republican dissidents, Colin Duffy and Brian Shivers, with the vehicle or its torching. Their nonjury Belfast trial began in November, 2011 before Judge Anthony Hart, and lasted two months, presenting considerable forensic evidence (witnesses do not testify in such cases). Pittsburgh-based Cybergenetics TrueAllele® computer system provided DNA match statistics for several of the getaway car evidence items, which human review could not.

After three days of expert testimony and cross-examination, Judge Hart admitted the computer interpretation method and match results into evidence, opening a new era of forensic computing in the United Kingdom. Brian Shivers was convicted of homicide and sentenced to life imprisonment. While the DNA was not in question, Colin Duffy was found "not guilty" since the available circumstantial evidence did not establish criminal intent.

This Evidence Technology article recounts the Massereene attack, and the cooperative international forensic investigation conducted by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Cellmark Forensics DNA laboratory (Abingdon, UK) and Cybergenetics (Pittsburgh, PA). It describes how a computer reliably interpreted touch DNA evidence, the three days of courtroom testimony, and the landmark admissibility decision that led to TrueAllele's use in the Massereene trial and acceptance in the United Kingdom.