Q&A: Why did gardaí exhume the remains of ‘Baby John’?

Murdered infant at centre of Kerry Babies case buried 37 years ago in Cahersiveen

White Strand beach in Co Kerry, where the baby’s body  was found with 28 stab wounds in 1984

White Strand beach in Co Kerry, where the baby’s body was found with 28 stab wounds in 1984

 

Why is the Kerry Babies case back in the news?
Three years after opening a fresh investigation into the murder of the unidentified child known as “Baby John”, gardaí in Kerry have exhumed the infant’s remains for the purposes of obtaining a DNA sample.

It is part of the effort to track down the killer of Baby John, whose body was found on White Strand beach in Cahersiveen with 28 stab wounds in 1984. The child’s parents have never been identified and gardaí believe there are still members of the public with important information regarding his death.

How was the exhumation carried out?
The process was carried out at Holy Cross Cemetery as secretly as possible to avoid media and public attention. Gardaí obtained permission from Kerry County Council and the Minister for Justice to exhume the grave.

Together with officers from the Garda Technical Bureau, a forensic anthropologist and officials from Kerry County Council and the Health Service Executive, they dug up the grave at first light on Tuesday.

The remains were taken to University Hospital Kerry in Tralee where they were briefly examined and a DNA sample taken. They were then placed back in a box and reinterred.

Supt Flor Murphy said the procedure was conducted with “sensitivity, dignity and respect”.

Don’t they already have a DNA sample from the victim? Why do they need another?
A bodily DNA sample was taken during the postmortem of the baby in 1984 and kept on file. Sources said this sample was very small and that a larger sample was needed to take advantage of the advances in DNA technology over the last 37 years.

In addition, protocols for taking DNA samples were relatively basic in the 1980s. Modern processes allow for the taking of far more useful samples. It is also possible the DNA sample taken in 1984 may have degraded if it was not stored correctly.

Is it possible to recover DNA after 37 years?
As long as the body has not been exposed directly to the air, it is relatively “trivial” to obtain usable DNA from human remains for many years after they are buried, according to Dr Tom Moore, a forensic science lecturer in UCC. He pointed out that sequenced genomes have been obtained from Neanderthals “that have been in the ground for 20 or 30 thousand years.”

What do investigators hope to gain from this process?
The science of DNA has advanced massively in recent decades, Dr Moore said. Modern methods allow for the analysis of even “degraded” DNA samples. These can be used not only to find out someone’s parentage, but also sometimes their ethnicity or what area they come from.

Do gardaí have any suspects?
Sources said gardaí do not yet have a suspect or a candidate for the child’s mother. The exhumation was done on the advice of Forensic Science Ireland so that a fresh, good-quality DNA sample is available for comparison should a person of interest arise in the investigation. In the meantime, gardaí have again appealed for Baby John’s mother to come forward.