Forensics under fire: Scottish Fingerprint Inquiry set to publish its findings

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by a Newsnet reporter

The long awaited Scottish Fingerprint Inquiry into the Shirley McKie affair is set to announce its findings next week.  The Public Judicial Inquiry was announced by Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill MSP in the Scottish Parliament on 14 March 2008. 

The inquiry is chaired by Rt Hon Sir Anthony Campbell, a retired Northern Ireland appeal court judge who is due to present the findings to the Holyrood Parliament.

It is believed that the report will make strong criticisms of the way forensic evidence is gathered, handled and presented to courts and will make recommendations which are expected to have world-wide implications for forensic evidence and the criminal courts.  

The Scottish Fingerprint Inquiry was set up to investigate the circumstances which led to a police officer being wrongly accused of perjury on the basis of poorly interpreted fingerprint evidence. 

Shirley McKie was charged and stood trial for perjury in 1999 on the basis of a fingerprint which it was claimed linked her to a crime scene.  However the case against Ms McKie collapsed after a team of international forensic experts overturned the fingerprint evidence presented by the Scottish Criminal Records Office (SCRO).

At her acquittal the trial judge Lord Johnston took the unusual step of saying:

“Shirley McKie … personally I would like to extend to you my respect for the obvious courage and dignity  which you have shown throughout this nightmare  … I very much hope you can put it behind you.  I wish you all the best.”    

Despite Ms McKie’s acquittal and the evidence of four SCRO experts being comprehensively and unanimously demolished by all independent experts who examined the evidence, the SCRO refused to acknowledge that they had made an error.  In a report into the case carried out by the SCRO in 2000, the organisation stated that “fingerprint evidence is a matter of opinion”.   

The findings of the SCRO threatened to bring Scottish forensic science into international disrepute.  In September 2002 a group of international fingerprint experts petitioned then Justice Minister Jim Wallace to urge an official inquiry into standards of fingerprint evidence in Scottish courts.  Signatories included experts from the UK, the USA, the head of the Fingerprint Department for the Dutch National Police, and one of the leading fingerprint experts for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  The experts noted in their petition:

“[The SCRO’s] position, as articulated during and after the court cases, is untenable, even in the medium term, threatening to the reputation and integrity of Scottish fingerprint and forensic evidence, damaging to the science of fingerprinting world-wide and has the potential to seriously and adversely impact on the administration and fair delivery of justice in Scotland.”

Despite such high profile support for the petition within the forensic science profession, Mr Wallace took no action.  The Scottish Parliament only ordered an inquiry after the SNP came to power in 2007.  SNP MSPs Mike Russell and Alex Neil had been long standing supporters of the campaign to hold an official inquiry into the Scottish forensic evidence service in the wake of Ms McKie’s ordeal in the courts.

The Conservative – Lib Dem coalition recently announced plans to close down the loss-making Forensic Science Service (FSS), which provides forensic evidence services to English and Welsh courts.  A parliamentary report carried out by a cross party group of MPs claimed that the closure was rushed into for financial reasons and without proper consideration of suitable alternatives.  The service is due to close in 2012.  Critics fear that moving services to the private sector will lead to a drop in the quality of regulation.

In a recent written statement to MPs on the Science and Technology Committee of the Westminister Parliament on the implications of the proposed closure, Kevin Sullivan of the FSS referred to “criticisms in the imminent Scottish Fingerprint Inquiry Report regarding the lack of demonstrable scientific rigor in our current national approach to presenting fingerprint evidence in the courts.”

The UK Forensic Regulator Andrew Rennison also referred to the Scottish Fingerprint Inquiry in his evidence to the Science and Technology Committee, saying:  “The Scottish Fingerprint Inquiry report and recommendations will be the result of a detailed and independent review of fingerprint methods, the results of which will have global implications for the quality standards that should underpin the use of fingerprint evidence.”

The Inquiry report and its findings and recommendations will be closely examined by the Justice dept of the Scottish Government.  At a time when expert evidence is under increasing fire the contents and recommendations of the report are likely to add fuel to the call for more rigorous standards in the way that fingerprint and forensic services are delivered across the world.