Crucial evidence linking schoolgirl Sarah Payne to her alleged killer could have been contaminated, a jury heard today.

In a dramatic twist in the case against Roy Whiting, Lewes Crown Court was told that one of Sarah's hairs found on a sweatshirt in the defendant's van could have been transferred to the garment by police forensic experts.

Raymond Chapman, a forensic scientist with 21 years' experience, said 55 items of evidence sent to his examination team included not only the vital red sweatshirt, but also two hairbrushes from the Payne family home.

A note on two bags containing the brushes said they could contain hair from each member of Sarah's family.

The jury was told that on the outer sticky edge of the brown forensic bags were found several hairs, including a long, fine strand which looked like the one found on the sweatshirt.

The hairs were later tested and found to be those of Sarah's youngster sister, Charlotte, now six.

But Sally O'Neill QC, defending Whiting, said the possibility that one of Sarah's hairs had become attached to the outer edge of the bag and then transferred to the sweatshirt by forensic expert, Zelda Kemp, who later examined it, could not be ruled out.

Mr Chapman admitted it was a possibility, although he said it was, in his opinion "unlikely".

Miss O'Neill said finding the hairs on the packages would have caused Mr Chapman "considerable dismay" and that it raised the possibility that the evidence was contaminated.

Mr Chapman said: "It opens up the possibility that there may have been a transfer from one to another."

When asked if it opened up the chance of contamination, he replied: "Yes."

Miss O'Neill said one of Sarah's hairs could have become wedged in a gap between a plastic window in the forensic bag and the bag itself.

She said: "When you were asked how the hair might have got on the sweatshirt, you said, 'I am not really sure, it may have got around a label'.

"That was not your considered opinion, was it? There are a number of ways it could have become attached."

Mr Chapman again insisted it was unlikely.

Miss O'Neill said the hair might have come out of the bag when Ms Kemp cut it open, then allowing the hair to be transferred to the sweatshirt.

Miss O'Neill said: "So there we have a mechanism for how the hair of Sarah Payne could have got on the sweatshirt."

Mr Chapman said: "Yes."

Whiting, 42, formerly of St Augustine Road, Littlehampton, West Sussex, denies kidnapping and murdering Sarah, eight.

She was snatched from a country lane near her grandparents' home in Kingston Gorse, West Sussex, on July 1 last year.

Her body was found on July 17 in a shallow grave near Pulborough, West Sussex.

The trial continues.

November 29, 2001