In the Media

Body parts of hundreds of murder victims stored by police for decades

PUBLISHED May 21, 2012

A total of 492 samples, including brains, hearts and other major organs, were kept by forces across England, Wales and Northern Ireland without the knowledge of the victims' families, a nationwide audit has found.

A report commissioned by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) revealed that the body parts were kept in hospitals, mortuaries and police stations, long after the original investigation had ceased - in one case dating back to 1960.

Family liaison officers are now visiting the families of those affected and in some cases are paying for fresh funeral arrangements so that the organs can be interred with the original remains.

The audit found that the Police Service of Northern Ireland retained the most body parts with 71 cases recorded, while West Midlands kept 30, the Metropolitan Police 39, Merseyside 37 and Cambridgeshire, 35.

Body parts and tissue samples are often retained by police forces as part of investigations into murders and other cases of unexplained death.

Last week police in Northern Ireland apologised to families for storing human body parts from 64 individuals who died under suspicious circumstances.

Where a person is charged and convicted with an offence, forces may be legally required to retain samples for many years in case the murderer lodges an appeal in which the body parts may be relevant.

However once a case has been formally closed, the forces have a responsibility to dispose of the remains in compliance with the family's wishes.

Prior to 2005, a lack of clear national guidance on the issue meant many forces did not inform the loved ones of murder victims that they had retained body parts.

Forces chiefs have now apologised to those families affected and have put forward a series of recommendations to ensure nothing similar happens in the future.

The audit did not include samples from ongoing criminal cases or cases which were still being investigated or were subject to appeal.

Deputy Chief Constable Debbie Simpson, who is the ACPO lead on forensic pathology, said: "The police service has a duty of care towards the families of those who die in suspicious circumstances or in homicide cases, to ensure such cases are fully investigated while loved ones are treated with dignity and compassion."

She added: "Protecting the interests of families affected has been central to this audit process. I will continue to work with out partners on behalf of the police service to ensure that we address the recommendations within this report."

Dr Roy Palmer, medical secretary of the Coroners' Society of England and Wales, said: "Families affected by the findings of this report are likely to have faced renewed upset in learning that material may have been retained without their knowledge, but this review is an important step in assessing and understanding the current picture nationally and provides police services, pathologists and coroners with an opportunity to learn how to improve our processes."