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The use of forensic evidence in the prosecution of terrorism cases in Britain

22 February 2012

Dagmar Heinrich and Amy Thornton

This research has explored the as yet unanalysed role of forensic evidence in the prosecution of IRA and Islamist terrorism cases in Britain since 1970. It has considered three different aspects: differences in evidence between IRA and Islamist cases, any change in the evidence used over time, and whether the evidential value could be established. By analysing data provided by the police and Crown Prosecution Service, the forensic evidence used in cases against terrorist suspects was categorised and quantified.

Correlations and logistic regressions were used to assess the significance of the relationships between the categories of evidence and the type of terrorism, the date, and the outcome of the prosecution. The severity of the charge against the suspect and the eventual sentence length was also analysed. It was found that there were differences in the type of evidence used in IRA and Islamist terrorism cases: the former having more ballistics and real/physical evidence, the latter having more chemical and digital and document evidence.

A change over time has been shown, again with a lessening amount of ballistics evidence and an increasing amount of digital and document evidence, explained by the rise in computer technology and the spread of CCTV. It was not possible to definitively establish evidential value, but there was a significant relationship between the severity of the charge, the number of items of evidence, and the sentence length given to suspects.

The conclusions of this research are intended to inform the police when investigating terrorism suspects as to which kind of evidence to focus upon. It is also intended to aid the Crown Prosecution Service when prosecuting terrorism suspects, by indicating which types of evidence are most valuable when seeking a conviction.