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Fingerprint Inquiry finds errors but no conspiracy in McKie case

14 December 2011

Errors were made by fingerprint experts in the Shirley McKie case, but there was no conspiracy by the police against Ms McKie, and no impropriety on the part of the fingerprint examiners, according to the public inquiry in to the affair, the report of which is published today.

Ms McKie, then an officer with Strathclyde Police, was accused of perjury in relation to a murder inquiry after a print, which the inquiry finds was wrongly identified as hers, was found at the home of the victim. After a lengthy battle to clear her name, she eventually received a substantial settlement from the then Scottish Executive.

The current inquiry was then set up under former Northern Ireland Court of Appeal judge Sir Anthony Campbell, to look into the circumstances surrounding the case.

It finds that errors were made both in relation to the print said to be Ms McKie's, and another print said to be that of the victim, Miss Ross. However there was no conspiracy against Ms McKie in Strathclyde Police, and all reasonable steps were taken by that force to seek confirmation of the identification of the mark from the Scottish Criminal Record Office fingerprint bureau.

Nor was there any impropriety on the part of any of the expert examiners who misidentified either of the two marks, as they genuinely held their opinions. The misidentifications were due to human error and there was nothing sinister about the fact that both errors occurred in the same case.

Weaknesses

However, the report continues, the misidentifications expose weaknesses in the methodology of fingerprint comparison, in particular where it involves complex marks. It says fingerprint examiners are presently ill-equipped to reason their
conclusions, as they are accustomed to regarding their conclusions as a matter of certainty and seldom challenged. While such evidence is generally reliable, practitioners and fact-finders alike require to give due consideration to the limits of the discipline.

Among Sir Anthony's 86 recommendations for future action are that fingerprint evidence should be recognised as opinion evidence, not fact, and assessed as such by those involved in the criminal justice system. Examiners should discontinue reporting conclusions with a claim to 100% certainty, or on any other basis suggesting that fingerprint evidence is infallible, and be trained on that basis; and a finding of identification should not be made if there is an unexplained difference between a mark and a print.

Processes should be developed to ensure that complex marks such as those in question are treated differently, by examination by three suitably qualified examiners who reach their conclusion independently, make notes at each stage, and record reasons for their conclusions.

Sir Anthony commented: “Examiners face many challenges in carrying out what is important, difficult and, at times, complex work. The recommendations that I have made in the report are designed to assist them to meet these challenges and to ensure that the identification evidence they provide continues to be evidence in which
the general public and the criminal justice system in Scotland can have confidence.”

Hoping that the report would bring "closure" to those involved, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said: "We said when we set up this inquiry that it was not intended to try or retry any individual for events of the past, nor to challenge the decisions of the prosecution, the defence or the courts in relation to any of those events. It was to open up and understand those events and to learn from them to ensure that Scotland has a fully efficient, effective and robust approach to the identification, verification and presentation of fingerprint material.

"Sir Anthony's report delivers on this and gives all those involved the clear basis for moving forward with a system that commands full public confidence."

Click here to access the report.

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