By Vicki Mathias, Health Correspondent
DOZENS of families whose loved ones died in suspicious circumstances have been told that they went to their graves with some of their body parts missing.
The organs or tissue of about 110 people whose deaths were the subject of police investigations – including murder and manslaughter inquiries – over the last 25 years
were retained as evidence after post-mortem examinations, it has emerged.
And the majority of families affected did not know that parts of their relatives’ bodies were kept after their deaths until police officers visited them to break the news over the last few weeks.
The brains, hearts, and other tissue samples were from deaths prior to September 2006, when a change in the law meant that relatives had to be informed of any body parts that were retained.
Avon and Somerset Police carried out an audit into organs that had been held as evidence, in line with a request made to all forces by the Association of Chief Police Officers at the end of last year.
ACPO told the Evening Post that Avon and Somerset was one of the first constabularies to complete its audit and most other forces had not yet disclosed their findings.
Over a six-month period Avon and Somerset investigators examined paperwork and files relating to 1,079 cases. Assistant Chief Constable Rod Hansen, left, said that in about 10 per cent of those cases it was found tissue from crime victims had been retained. In each case, officers had visited relatives to discuss what to do with the body parts.
He said the cases mainly involved heart, brain and tissue samples that would have been examined after potentially suspicious deaths. Mr Hansen declined to provide numbers of each type involved or any further details, citing concerns over identifying individuals.
Tissue and body parts would have been held at various locations across the force area and possibly the country, depending on what tests and specialist examinations needed to be carried out as part of investigations. The police force would not confirm where body parts were held and how they had been stored.
The Human Tissue Act was passed in 2004 and came into force in September 2006, providing guidelines for retaining and preserving human tissue.
It followed the interim report into the Bristol Heart Inquiry in 2000, which highlighted the issues of organ retention following the baby heart scandal of the 80s and 90s and included evidence of collections of organs at other hospitals, including Alder Hey in Liverpool.
Under the act a legal framework was put in place demanding that families and next of kin be made aware if organs or tissue had been retained for examination.
Samples taken by the police for the investigation of crime are not subject to the act’s consent or licensing rules but Mr Hansen said the force now used the act to guide how it dealt with all tissue it had retained.
Work started on the audit in January, with a team of officers working full-time, and now the police force is confident all affected families have been contacted.
He said that retaining organs as evidence was part of understanding what happened to individuals and ensuring that any perpetrators were held accountable.
Mr Hansen said: “If there is a police investigation, the senior investigating officer would retain tissue under the police and criminal evidence act.
“There could be a trial, conviction or appeal, so there are time frames when it is justifiable to retain tissue.
“It is very different now to what it was. We are very confident, as much as we can be given the circumstances, that there are no further cases that we are aware of where there
has been a forensic post-mortem over 25 years and tissue has been retained by one organisation or another. We have been going through the
process of visiting the families affected by these cases and have now spoken to all of them and asked for their views on repatriation of the tissue.
“We treated the cases prior to 2006 in the spirit of the Human Tissue Act.”
Post-mortem examinations are initially authorised by the coroner, who works with the police to establish the appropriate forensic investigations that need to be carried out. If there is a police inquiry, organs and tissue would be retained as evidence for a period of up to 30 years for homicide.
Avon coroner Maria Voisin, below, said: “The rules are very tight now and it is very strictly controlled.
“Tissue taken in a post-mortem is evidence and has to be viewed in that way as well. It is very sensitive evidence and that is why this is being handled so sensitively.
“The deaths that we deal with are sudden and unexplained, therefore we have to deal with them in a very sensitive way and that is why coroners’ officers tend to deal with families from the start to the end.”
Family liaison co-ordinator Tim Copik said that if someone now becomes the victim of a suspected manslaughter or murder, officers discuss with relatives any body parts that have to be retained after a post-mortem examination.
Six pairs of family liaison officers visited families to talk to them about cases, having been given a package of information and established pertinent dates, such as birthdays and anniversaries, that they should avoid.
Mr Copik said a small proportion of the families were aware prior to visits and about 20 per cent of those contacted asked for burials or cremation of the body parts, with the police paying for the caskets.
Wherever possible, the police identified the original funeral directors and in many cases they offered their services without charge to families.
Mr Copik, right, said: “It was handled in the most sensitive way possible that we could, to try and minimise psychological damage, and we left all families we visited with details of support agencies.”
not an essential quote, but puts this into the national contextACPO lead spokesman on forensic pathology, Assistant Chief Constable Debbie Simpson, said: “In April 2010, the Human Tissue Authority informed NHS and local authority mortuaries that it would be auditing post-mortem samples retained by them.
“While samples held by police for the prevention, detection or prosecution of crime do not by law fall under the HTA, ACPO is coordinating an audit of human tissues in historical suspicious death and homicide cases among all UK police forces, to establish the current situation in terms of police holdings.
“The audit will allow us to identify and consider the most appropriate way of sensitively dealing with tissue no longer needed for criminal justice purposes.”
ANNE Bundy had no idea her brother’s brain was missing when he was cremated – until two police officers knocked on her door.
Nigel Evans died in December 2003 and while there had been a police investigation into the circumstances of his death, by the time his body was released for the funeral Ms Bundy thought his body was intact.
But earlier this month she was visited at home by police officers who explained that was not the case.
Mr Evans was 43 when he died in Frenchay Hospital, having initially been admitted to Bristol Royal Infirmary after collapsing at his Knowle home.
He had been hit during a day drinking in several pubs prior to being admitted to hospital and police investigated to see whether that had been the reason for his death.
Ms Bundy, 53, said her brother’s body was not released for the funeral until two weeks after his death, so she had believed the investigation had been closed and that there would have been no reason to retain any of his organs.
The death certificate said he had died as a result of alcohol abuse and that there would be no inquest. She felt that was the end of the issue.
She said: “I was quite shocked. The knock came on the door and plain-clothes police officers were there.
“I didn’t understand at first and I am still shocked.”
There was a second visit from the family liaison officers to answer more questions after the initial meeting.
“I’m absolutely livid that they took my brother’s brain in the beginning because they had told me it wasn’t suspicious,” Ms Bundy said.
“I don’t know why they took his brain.
“When I asked where the brain was found they said it was at Southmead.
“The law was changed in 2006, so why has it taken this long for them to contact me? They said they had the right to take any body part, but why didn’t they tell me sooner?”
On Friday Ms Bundy, of Withywood, and relatives returned to the family plot at South Bristol Cemetery and Crematorium to inter Mr Evans’ brain seven and a half years after the original funeral.
With a minister present to say a few words the small wooden casket containing the organ was placed in the ground.
The police force paid the £65 cost of the casket.
Ms Bundy, who helped bring her brother up after their mother died, said: “This has opened up a lot of pain. I shouldn’t have had to go through two funerals. And if anything the second time was harder.”
Her younger sister Jane Lyons said: “We had gone all the way through this, and seven and a half years on we have had to start coming to terms with it again, as if the first time wasn’t bad enough.”