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Sheila Willis

Ex-forensics chief: More scientists needed at crime scenes to prevent system 'falling into disrepute'

Sheila Willis spoke to The Journal about her work with Forensic Science Ireland.

THE FORMER HEAD of the country’s top forensics lab has warned that the rapid growth and focus on technology in forensics science has increased the risk that innocent people could be blamed for crimes.

Sheila Willis, who was Director General of Forensic Science Ireland (FSI) from 2002 to 2016, told The Journal that forensic science should not work separate to forensically trained gardaí at crime scenes, as is happening.

She says that forensic scientists in Ireland need to have greater involvement in the investigation of crime scenes as technology becomes more advanced.

“I think by isolating people into different groups, we’ve taken the wrong tack and so there’s not enough contact between the scene people and the lab,” she said.

Willis, who is now president of the Chartered Society of Forensic Scientists, also argued that it is crucial to develop systems to ensure that forensic science investigation is operating efficiently.

In a sit-down interview with this publication, she said that “more emphasis” on crime scenes is needed to ensure Irish investigators are getting the full value of technology that’s available.

Willis’ former base at FSI is situated in Garda Headquarters in the Phoenix Park, where some of Ireland’s most high-profile criminal detections have been made via scientific analysis of samples gathered at crime scenes.

The lab is one part of Ireland’s two-step approach to crime-scene examination.

When a crime occurs, trained gardaí examine the scene by taking fingerprint marks, seizing samples and exhibits and taking photographs; expert Garda cartographers also draft detailed maps of the location. 

Then, exhibits such as weapons and blood splatter are transported to the FSI lab, where scientists carry out tests.

Although Willis was based in the lab, she stressed her respect for gardaí involved in collection of samples at crime scenes.

But she repeatedly stressed her belief that scientists also need to be at the scene of a crime to obtain context about how samples are discovered.

She speaks about a system being introduced by gardaí in which crime scene examiners have become removed from the scientists working in the lab. This was done, Willis said, for greater efficiency but it separated the critical steps in the forensic process.

“The forensic scientist never gets the opportunity then to talk to the person who’s able to say how it was collected and the other bits of context that matter,” she says.

“I was able to work with individuals who would do collection, and I’d follow-up on it and there was an opportunity to swap ideas on methods. That opportunity isn’t there now – so we need much stronger links between the scene and the lab.”

Successful prosecutions

Willis worked on countless successful prosecutions and cases in her years at FSI.

Among her most well-known was the critical scientific study of the murder of Lord Louis Mountbatten by the IRA in Sligo in 1979, an attack which also killed a boy, Paul Maxwell, and Doreen Knatchbull, a British aristocrat. 

She worked with Dr Jim Donovan at the time and was part of the team who found the key evidence that convicted those responsible.

She has also seen plenty of developments over the years as science and technology have developed, and has been responsible for the introduction of new methods of analysis in Ireland. 

During her time at FSI, Willis pioneered the introduction of DNA profiling to the Irish legal system, one of the biggest technological leaps in the years that she worked on cases in Ireland.

“I suppose the biggest difference really, I mean, the paradigm shift was the development of DNA,” she recalls.

“In the early days when I was involved, blood grouping and systems were in place that kind of decreased the number of possible contributors to say, a blood stain.

“And we’re now at the stage where the stain might point to the person to start with nevermind – it’s a huge change.” 

In 2015, she recruited an expert team of molecular biologists to set up the national DNA Database System.

This involves a stored register of DNA profiles which are taken from criminals – these profiles can be matched to samples taken from crime scenes.


It means that people with a propensity to commit crimes can be cross referenced to ongoing investigations.

Through its work, the lab has a one-in-five chance of matching an unsolved crime to a DNA profile of a suspect on the database. 

Willis explains that such are the advances in scientific methods now that an analysis can successfully obtain a result with just a microscopic trace when a coin-sized sample would previously have been the norm. 

But she cautions that a successful hit on a sample is not enough to lead to a prosecution, saying there needs to be a greater investigative context in how a sample makes it to the scene.

“Forensic Science is a continuous process from the scene to the lab,” she says.

“There are questions that need to be addressed, and we need to be careful about what questions we must ask based on the traces from all sorts.

“In order to get the benefit of the traces, we need research on how materials behave, how common they are in the environment, how relevant an item is in a particular context. So context is vital for getting the effectiveness of the forensic collection.”

‘Something from somebody who was innocently somewhere’

Willis said that, at the start of her career, it was customary for an investigator to also carry out a crime scene examination. She believes that this gave greater context to the enquiry.

But now Gardaí have moved to a system whereby samples are brought in bulk from multiple investigations to be examined in the sterile conditions of a lab.

While Willis acknowledges that this is efficient, she believes it misses an opportunity for a continuous development in better techniques.

“Forensic science starts at the scene. If you get rubbish from the scene, you’ll get rubbish from whatever technology is applied to it,” she says.

Maybe more emphasis on the scene is actually needed to ensure that we get the full value of the range of technology that’s available. And it’s going to be available even more so in the future. 

However, Willis says that as technology advances, the need for highly-trained scientists is needed more than ever because of the potential implications of a sub-standard analysis.  

She explains that technology is moving at such a pace that testing devices which were once the size of a room will become handheld and could be taken directly to a scene.

Tiny traces of fibres and even human skin cells, blood or sweat can be discovered, placing someone inside a scene and unwittingly near a place where a crime happened. 

On the face of it, Willis says this seems like a hugely positive advance for investigators, but the flip side is the possibility that someone whose traces are at a scene may not be connected with an incident.

Because of this, she says there is a risk, given the microscopic detail that can be harvested from a scene, that innocent people could be accidentally considered a suspect in a crime.

“I think as time goes on, the context will become even more important because there’s maybe an innocent explanation as to why somebody is in a particular place,” she says.

“If we don’t address that, the whole thing falls into disrepute. So there has to be a very close connection between the investigation and the outputs that come from forensic science.

You might be getting something from somebody who was innocently somewhere. So you need to know more about it, you need to know more about context, you need to know how materials transfer, you need to know how they behave.

“There are all kinds of research topics that don’t get a lot of attention, because a lot of the attention goes very much on technology.”

Digital change

Looking forward, Willis was also involved in the planning for a major new Forensic Science Ireland building near Celbridge, Co Kildare.  

That facility is nearing completion in the coming months but the scientist believes that all forensic science should be in the one structure – including digital.

As crime scene investigation goes even further than the minute traces of human cells, Willis believes the forensic examination of our digital lives could also be key. 

“DNA undoubtedly, was the major change in my era, but digital is the major change now,” she says.

“I mean, so much of our world is digital crime, and therefore forensic science, it’s going to be inextricably linked with the whole digital transformation.

“To understand the who, what, where and when there will have to be an integration of the examination of those systems.”

Currently, the forensic examination of digital equipment, like phones and computers, is done separately by Garda experts. 

But for Willis, the best course for forensics in Ireland, and on a global scale, is the full integration of all forensics together.  

“There needs to be the integration of different traces, to give a coherent narrative will be the kind of future development of forensic science, which is why we need to manage the processes involved,” she suggests.

“Our tendency as humans is to kind of isolate specialties and say here’s the DNA, here’s the chemistry, and here’s the digital.

“The reality is that the criminal mind, or even the nature of things, never thinks separately.” 

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