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A scientist examines a fingerprint image Maxwells Dublin/Department of Justice
Mystery Solvers

Inside Ireland's new high-security forensic labs

A long-awaited new building for Forensic Science Ireland will house more than 200 staff.

FROM DNA IN missing person cold cases to fingerprints left behind in a stolen car, the key to unlocking many of Ireland’s most high-profile investigations lies in the country’s forensic science laboratories, which have this year received a long-awaited upgrade.

For decades, Forensic Science Ireland (FSI) has been located on the grounds of Garda Headquarters in the Phoenix Park – but in July, the service got the keys to its new purpose-built facility in Co Kildare with modernised equipment and enhanced decontamination protections.

More than 200 staff are moving over to the new building.

The FSI facility must be kept tightly sealed off for security and to avoid crucial samples becoming contaminated with other people’s DNA.

A ‘critical clean’ has wiped the slate clean – new laboratory and exam rooms at the heart of the facility have been cleaned from top to bottom, with a decontaminating agent used to degrade any lingering DNA and prepare the spaces for use. Anyone entering them after that point will need to be fully equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE).

Before the all-important critical clean, The Journal visited FSI for a look inside its new facility and to hear from staff about how it carries out its work.

Director General Chris Enright said that compared to similar facilities in Europe and the UK, FSI’s is now “the best at this time”.

“There’s no doubt about it that the technology in use is well up to the latest design standards in terms of search room design and the design of all our laboratories, no doubt about that,” Enright said.

“Other labs are bigger—they’re in jurisdictions with bigger populations—but certainly we’re meeting or exceeding all international standards in terms of the building capability and the nature of the work that we’re doing.

“We weren’t waiting to be here in terms of international standards in forensic practice, but this really drives it forward.”

Enright declined to comment on the cost of the new building, adding that the construction and design was managed by the Office of Public Works (OPW) and that the accounts will be settled over the coming months, at which point the “final figure” would be communicated. 

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Drugs, fingerprints and DNA form the core of FSI’s mandate.

The DNA section, where around 60 people work across scientific, analytical and administrative roles, has six key teams: serious offences against people, sexual assault, missing persons, institutional burials, serious offences against property, and the DNA database.

The serious crime teams spend significant stretches in DNA Processing Rooms.

Processing DNA samples involves using a liquid called a buffer solution to break down the cells in a sample and extract the DNA. The extracted DNA is amplified and copied so that it can be studied in-depth – in fact, it’s the same scientific technique, known as PCR, that was used in Covid-19 testing.

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The new facility includes a series of rooms dedicated to different steps of the process that are connected to each other by window hatches, allowing samples to be passed between rooms without a scientist needing to exit one room and go through decontamination processes again to enter the other.

One source of DNA may be from blood stains left at crime scenes or on clothing, which in itself forms another important puzzle piece to understanding how an incident occurred. Blood pattern analysis conducted at the FSI can determine whether a person wearing a blood-stained clothing item was a witness, victim, or perpetrator of an offence.

In another wing, scientists are tasked with examining physical materials like fingerprints, handwriting, explosives and passport authenticity.

The most voluminous of those tasks is fingerprint analysis, with thousands of prints examined and run through the system each year.

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FSI scientists examine fingerprints taken directly from suspects and ones found at crime scenes, which can mean studying prints on a wide range of items, from drug packaging or drink cans found in a stolen car to larger items like car bumpers or doors, to threatening letters sent to politicians.

Images are taken of the fingerprints, blown up and analysed with a digital imaging system. Different wavelengths of light are used to illuminate prints for imaging and the system can quieten the ‘noise’ in an image and enhance the clarity of the print.

The automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS) can be used to search for matches to prints already in the system, which are then verified by the scientist manually.

They look at the edges and ends of the ridges that make up our fingerprints to identify shared characteristics between two prints.

Finding around eight to 12 shared characteristics means they can confidently say it’s a match – at 12 shared characteristics, it’s “almost impossible” that the print could belong to someone else.

Elsewhere, the Drugs Exam Rooms are used to test and identify samples of drugs, typically ones that have been seized in offences linked to possession or supply of illegal substances.

FSI receives around 10,000 drug cases for analysis each year, with a 6% increase identified in the last year.

36% of the cases involve drugs in powder form and a further 30% are cannabis and cannabis products, according to Director of Chemical Analysis Dr Yvonne Kavanagh. The remainder consists of heroin, tablets and some less common substances such as mushrooms and LSD.

Occasionally – only a couple of times a year – a novel substance may come through that was previously unidentified.

The two most frequently identified drugs have long been cocaine and cannabis, Dr Kavanagh said. 

“Cannabis would traditionally have had the majority of the market and so usually the biggest percentage each year was cannabis, but cocaine we’re definitely getting more samples of [than before].”

She said that the “drug marketplace is evolving” and that FSI is “seeing novel presentations of some of these drug products”, particularly in terms of cannabis products, which now include many samples that claim to be from cannabis plants but in fact contain synthetic cannabinoids.

Data on cocaine purity shows that importation-level cocaine had a purity level of around 51% up to 2021, but new 2022 data showed a jump to 63%. Street-level cocaine purity is “relatively consistent”, Dr Kavanagh said.

She said the majority of cocaine that FSI sees is cut with agents like benzocaine that “in themselves, aren’t particularly sinister”, but that in some cases users are purchasing bags of white powder that they are told contains a particular substance but in fact contains something different.

In one example, an “intended purchase” was cocaine but the bags that were seized and analysed actually contained “four types of unrelated compounds”, including a cannabinoid and a tranquiliser.

Outside of their laboratories, FSI scientists may be called upon to come before the courts to present what their analysis has found. That happens only in a small proportion of cases, but it’s something that staff from the various departments all raised as a reality they are acutely aware of.

FSI reported into 23,500 investigations last year and attended 119 court cases. That represents an increase from around 100 the previous year and is expected to rise again this year.

In around 60% of those cases, the FSI’s involvement was related to DNA evidence. 

Scientists present their work to courts “as objectively and soundly as possible”, Enright said.

I think scientific evidence is very much valued in the court system. It’s objective, it’s delivered within international best practice, and it’s a value that is seen not only be investigating officers within the guards but by the court, by the judiciary.

“There’s a real sense of purpose to the work that we do here,” Enright said. “It’s science with an impact.”