This Is London : Forensic DNA blunder hindered 'spy in bag' investigation for a year

Friday, March 30, 2012

Forensic DNA blunder hindered 'spy in bag' investigation for a year

Paul Cheston, Kiran Randhawa | March 30, 2012

The family of dead spy Gareth Williams are convinced he was the victim of "the dark arts of the secret services" a court heard today.

They believe an agent was in the Pimlico flat where died inside a padlocked duffle bag in the bath.

Then the secret service destroyed the evidence before the alarm could be raised, eight days after he was last seen alive in August 2010.

In a pre-inquest hearing today Anthony O’Toole, representing the family told the court of their fears about their son’s suspicious death.

“Our impression is that the unknown third party was a member of some agency specialising in the dark arts of the secret services.

“Perhaps the evidence of that third party has been removed by some person post-mortem who is expert in those arts.”

Mr Williams’ parents Ian and Ellen who live in Anglesey, were not in court for today’s hearing.

Mr Williams, a code breaker for GCHQ, had been on secondment to MI6 when he died.

The 31-year-old was discovered dead in a North Face holdall eight days after he had last been seen.

A pre-inquest hearing at Westminster magistrates' court today heard how a major forensic blunder over DNA allegedly found on the spy's body has caused his family months of unnecessary heartache.

The DNA sample was discovered on the hand of the former GCHQ code breaker who was on secondment to MI6 when he was discovered dead at a Pimlico flat in August 2010.

It was believed to bear a mixed profile clearly suggesting that another person must have been at the flat when Mr Williams died inside a padlocked sports bag in the bath. But the court was told today that the DNA trace was due to contamination by a scientist at the scene. It was then incorrectly entered into the computer at the laboratory LGC.

The error, discovered only two weeks ago, has led the police investigation up a blind alley for more than a year. Coroner Dr Fiona Wilcox today demanded statements be taken from Tony Larkin, the scientist who allegedly contaminated the sample, and Paul Stafford Allen, who was said to have recorded the error on the computer.

She also demanded assurances from LGC managing director Steve Allen and chief executive David Richardson that systems were in place to ensure that the impact of this kind of human error could not occur again.

“There are wider concerns about whether LGC can be trusted to provide a proper level of forensic back-up to all investigations, remembering they are providing forensic DNA and analytical background to a lot of criminal cases,” said the Westminster coroner.

“What I’m concerned about is that the system in place to detect the error, and human errors will always occur and it is not unusual for contamination to happen, but I am concerned about the system evaluation and back up and the analysis of the evidence taken. There has been so much public speculation and so much public anxiety that that is the reason the court has to act to address it head on.”

The court heard that his family was concerned that MI6 did not take any steps to check on his welfare for more than a week, even though he had not been turning up to work.

As a result, his body was so contaminated that scientists are unable to be certain about the exact cause of death.

The full inquest hearing is due to start at the end of next month and last at least five days.

The coroner today said that she would ask scientists to carry out a re-enactment in court of how Mr Williams could have got into the sports bag.

The court has heard that scientists are agreed that it would have been virtually impossible for him to have locked the bag on the outside when he was inside.

Dr Wilcox said: “I want it demonstrated in court exactly how somebody could have got into the bag, done it up and locked it from the outside when confined inside.­ I want a practical demonstration of this in court. It is something I have given an awful lot of my time considering.

“I want a very clear demonstration. It’s the fundamental issue in this case whether Gareth Williams was able to lock the bag outside when he was inside it — it’s the very heart of this inquiry.”

The coroner said she wanted to establish an answer to the question of whether Mr Williams could have suffered from a lack of oxygen or from a build up of carbon dioxide.

This was a key line of inquiry considering the lack of injuries to Mr Williams’s body and the lack of pathological evidence that he made any frantic attempt to get out of the bag.

The inquest is expected to hear from 30 witnesses giving evidence in court.

Three of Mr Williams’s former colleagues will be called to give evidence and will be known only by the initials K, F and G.

They include Mr Williams’s line manager, described as the “chap at the coalface” by Anthony O’Toole, counsel representing the family.

The hearing continues.

During a two hour hearing Mr O’Toole told Westminster Coroner Dr Fiona Wilcox: “We thought there was DNA evidence that was a dead end. There was also a footprint found, that has turned out to be a dead end.”

Later the court went into private session to hear PII evidence which Foreign Secretary William Hague wanted to be kept secret on the grounds of national security during the inquest which is due to start on April 23 and last for at least five days.

The Coroner said she would deliver a written judgement on the submissions.