Mass DNA screening ruled out in Baby John murder inquiry

Gardaí reopening 1984 cold case want to avoid alienating south Kerry community

Gardaí investigating the Kerry babies case, which was reopened by the cold case squad this week, do not intend to conduct mass DNA screening in the area.

The serious crime review team (SCRT) has begun a fresh murder investigation into the death the five-day-old infant, known as Baby John, who was found with 28 stab wounds and a broken neck on White Strand near Cahersiveen on April 14th, 1984.

This week the Garda and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar apologised to Joanne Hayes, the woman who was falsely accused of murdering the child more than 30 years ago. Recent advances in DNA technology have conclusively ruled out any connection between Ms Hayes and the infant.

A mass DNA screening of people in the south Kerry area has been suggested as a way of gardaí identifying the baby’s parents, and possibly his killer.

On Thursday, a Garda spokesman said that while DNA sampling of the local population is “one of a range of tools available to the investigation team”, there were no immediate plans to engage in a mass DNA screening process in Kerry.

We want to dispel this idea that we're going to go up and down the roads of south Kerry taking [DNA] swabs from everyone. The community isn't on trial

“At this stage though, the main focus of the investigators is on the appeal they have made to people who were living in the area in 1984 to come forward with any information they might have – no matter how small – to help them get the truth and justice for Baby John.”

Not on trial

A Garda source with knowledge of the investigation said there was a reluctance to undertake a mass screening operation for fear of alienating the local community, which could leave people reluctant to come forward with any relevant information.

“We want to dispel this idea that we’re going to go up and down the roads of south Kerry taking [DNA] swabs from everyone. The community isn’t on trial. We don’t want them thinking we’re going door to door demanding their DNA.”

However, he added, investigators would accept voluntary DNA samples from locals who wanted to rule themselves out of the inquiry.

He said gardaí would use “traditional police methods” for the foreseeable future in the hope of narrowing down the group of people who may know something of Baby John’s murder. At that point, DNA testing might be employed to further the investigation.

DNA testing could definitively tell who the murdered child’s parents are. It could also identify other relatives such as an uncle, brother or cousin who might be able to assist gardaí.

Population group

Mass DNA screening has been possible in Ireland since the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Act was introduced in 2014.

It allows mass screening to take place with the authorisation of a chief superintendent. Under the law, investigators can take DNA from a population group based on a wide range of factors such as geographic location, age group or “kinship”.

Sampling can also take place based on any factor the authorising garda “considers appropriate”.

However, the screening can only take place if it is a “reasonable and proportionate measure”. No one can be forced to give a sample and gardaí cannot take refusal to give a sample as grounds for suspicion or arrest.

Mass DNA screening has only been used once since 2014. In 2016, Dublin gardaí investigating the alleged rape of a woman asked for voluntary samples from 84 taxi drivers who drove cars matching the complainant’s description. No arrests were made.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times