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'We're not adequately examining sexual crime suspects and it's stopping justice being done'

Suspects, as well as the complainants, of sexual crimes need to be medically examined writes Kieran Kennedy.

Kieran Kennedy GP and lecturer

ON MONDAY OF this week a man who had been on trial, accused of rape, was acquitted of that charge at the Central Criminal Court on the grounds of the trial judge’s opinion that there existed a very real danger of an unfair trial.

The basis for that opinion was that the accused man had not had his neck swabbed for the presence of DNA as part of the investigation that took place when the incident was initially reported.

The jury was discharged and the trial is now over.

The forensic medical examination of complainants of sexual crime, as well as that of suspects, is based upon Locard’s Exchange Principle: “every contact leaves a trace”.

Essentially, that is, biological trace evidence transfers from person to person on physical contact. So after a sexual crime, biological trace evidence such as DNA, would be expected to transfer between those involved.

Examination of the suspect neglected

At the present time, Ireland has a network of well-established Sexual Assault Treatment Units which provide forensic medical examination to men and women who report rape and sexual assault.

In addition to addressing healthcare needs that arise (eg providing antibiotics for sexually transmitted infection), the examination can also obtain biological trace evidence (eg DNA) to assist with investigation of a reported crime.

Thus, biological trace evidence that originated on a suspect can be obtained from a complainant by means of forensic medical examination.

However, it is apparent from cases such as the one described above, that another source of evidence that may be neglected is that of the examination of the suspect.

Whilst Ireland has a dedicated network of Sexual Assault Treatment Units, staffed by specially trained healthcare professionals, and available to those people who report sexual violence, there may be a significant deficit in services available to competently execute a forensic medical examination of a suspect held in garda custody.

In addition to obtaining biological trace evidence, the forensic medical examination of the suspect can also assist with corroboration of a complainant’s description of events by identifying injuries (eg if the complainant reports that she scratched an attacker).

A thorough forensic medical examination of a suspect can also significantly assist with addressing the healthcare needs of a complainant (eg by establishing the HIV status of the individual).

No standardised training

It appears that while great improvements have taken place in ensuring the accessibility of quality standardised forensic medical examinations to people who report sexual crime, the same advances have not been seen in the provision of forensic medical examinations to suspects.

Ireland does not have a widely-accepted guideline for examination of suspects in cases of sexual crime. There is also no standardised training requirement for healthcare professionals who carry out that work.

The present case, as described above, was stopped on day 12 of the trial. By that time, the complainant had already provided her evidence and been cross-examined on it. The judge felt compelled to stop the trial because it is a matter of law to ensure that the accused got a fair trial.

It is in the best interests of justice, for both complainants and suspects, to ensure that quality assured forensic medical examination is available to the suspects, as well as the complainants, of sexual crime.

Kieran Kennedy is a GP in Galway and a lecturer at NUI Galway.

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About the author:

Kieran Kennedy  /  GP and lecturer

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