Relatives still to be traced as PSNI admits it made mistakes over body parts
Police cannot trace relatives of two people whose body parts were secretly stored away for years, it has emerged.
Officers have been unable to locate family members in the historic cases, which date back to 1966 and 1972.
One of the victims is understood to be a foreign national. The other person is believed to have been estranged from their family.
The details emerged as Chief Constable Matt Baggott apologised to the families involved — and admitted the issue could have been handled better.
A special helpline has also been set up for affected relatives. Last week it was revealed that police in Northern Ireland had retained body parts in dozens of cases of suspicious and unexplained deaths between 1960 and 2005.
Some 71 tissue samples relating to 63 individuals were kept — yet the victims’ families were never informed.
It followed a nationwide audit commissioned by the Association of Chief Police Officers, which revealed 492 samples — including brains, hearts and other major organs — were kept by forces across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The body parts were held in hospitals, mortuaries and police stations, long after the original investigations had ceased.
According to the audit, the PSNI retained more samples than any other force — and nearly twice as many as the second highest, West Midlands Police, which kept 40 parts.
People who had tissue retained include ‘Body in the Bog' victim David Sullivan, who was murdered in Fermanagh in 1998, and Tony Butler, who was gunned down by the UDA five years earlier.
Mr Butler’s partner Maureen Jamison has already said she will take legal action against the PSNI. Speaking at a Press conference in Belfast on Monday, Mr Baggott said officers had traced relatives in all but two of the cases, and they had been visited by specially-trained family liaison officers.
The Chief Constable also apologised for the distress caused to families.
“I'm sorry for the uncertainty that has been brought about over the past few days, and I hope we've been able to bring a degree of assurance and clarity to them in a way that has been done sensitively,” he said.
Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton said a review was under way to determine if it was possible to return human tissue to victims’ families.
“In most cases we’ll be able to do that, but we want to make sure we fulfil our investigative obligations,” he said.
Brendan McAllister, who is chairman of the Victims’ Commission, said the group would meet the Justice Minister in two weeks' time to consider “unanswered questions” raised by relatives.
“It is important that we remember the motivation of those involved — to serve the public by helping to determine the cause of death or by providing forensic evidence to help secure justice,” he said.
“These new revelations may cause victim families or individuals to suffer new distresses and suspicions.”
Speaking in the Assembly, justice committee chairman Paul Givan called for an independent inquiry.
“In 2002, when the State Pathologist’s department apologised following the inquiry into the retention of organs in the health service, one would have thought that it would then have undertaken a review of the criminal justice system. Clearly, that has not happened.”
“Therefore, we call for an independent inquiry across the criminal justice system into how this has been handled.
The Commission for Victims and Survivors has set up a helpline. It is 028 9027 9100.
Police forces who retained the most body parts:
West Midlands Police: 40
Metropolitan Police: 39
Merseyside Police: 37
Cambridgeshire Police: 35
Organs destroyed, and families never knew
By Noel McAdam
Parts of the bodies of people killed in Northern Ireland were retained — and later disposed of — without their families being informed, it has emerged.
And Justice Minister David Ford has told the Assembly that he is not aware of the numbers of the deceased involved in cases where limbs or organs were removed and later destroyed.
The practice in the past was confirmed last Friday when Mr Ford met the State Pathologist and a senior representative of the Coroners Service.
“The State Pathologist clarified to me that there were past occasions when human tissue was taken without the families’ knowledge and subsequently disposed of without family consent or knowledge,” Mr Ford said. “To many, that may seem a shocking statement.”
As Mr Ford was quizzed by MLAs on Monday, it became clear that Stormont’s Justice Committee is pressing for a full inquiry into the retention of the body parts, as confirmed last week.
Committee chair Paul Givan said it was clear there had been “systemic failure” not just by police but by the Police Ombudsman’s Office, the State Pathologist’s department and “right across the criminal justice system”.
He argued that an independent inquiry is required to give people full information, restore confidence in the criminal justice system and to assure people “that this will not ever happen again.”
Mr Ford said that he would look at the question of an inquiry in another fortnight but his immediate focus is the need of the families.
TUV leader Jim Allister asked how many of the cases were involved and whether families will now be informed. Mr Ford replied that he could not give any figures, but added: “However, I can say that individuals were contacted; there was an awareness campaign; meetings were held; and individuals got the opportunity to express their concerns.”
The SDLP’s Conal McDevitt, a Policing Board member, also argued that there had been a “systemic failure” that extended to the communication with the families, “for whom this matter has such terribly hurtful consequences”.