Secret Scotland

If it's secret, and in Scotland…

The irony of fingerprints – discredited in the land of their birth

Magnify fingerprintOne of the most notable events of 2011 took place almost at the end of the year, and was the publication of The Fingerprint Inquiry Scotland – Report.


This referred to the case of Shirley McKie (of Troon, Ayrshire) – a police constable in 1997, she was charged with perjury in the trial of David Asbury 1999, who was accused of murdering Marion Ross (his conviction was overturned by the appeal court in 2002). The charge against McKie was based on the identification of a fingerprint on a door frame inside being hers, but she stated she had never entered the house, and had never gone any further than the front porch. Four fingerprints experts disagreed.

In 2000, a subsequent inquiry by HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary backed McKie and went on to recommend an overhaul of procedures at the then Scottish Criminal Records Office (SCRO).

The four experts at the centre of the controversy were then suspended from duty, but the following year the Crown Office ruled out any criminal action against them.

In 2006, they were offered a deal to leave their jobs. Three accepted redundancy in March 2007 , while one elected to decline and was eventually sacked. She later won a case for unfair dismissal.

McKie successfully sued the then Scottish Executive and SCRO over the affair, winning an award of £750,000 in compensation.


After the report of the inquiry was published, Tom Nelson, director of forensic services at the SPSA (Scottish Police Services Authority), said the organisation had apologised directly to Shirley McKie and her family:

Mr Nelson said: “As an organisation, we accept the findings of the inquiry and we expect all of our staff members to do the same. We accept that Shirley McKie did not make the mark known as Y7. We have today apologised directly to the McKie family for the errors that took place in the late 1990s and for the subsequent pain that has caused them.”

Following Mr Nelson’s apology, Iain McKie, Ms McKie’s father, said: “He just apologised on behalf of the SPSA. He accepted the recommendations of the report in full. He apologised to Shirley and myself and our family for the mistakes that were made in the past. Its an extremely important apology because it’s the first time I have ever heard anyone say sorry. This is the first real apology that has been made in 14 years. I feel I can move forward myself now.”

Via: BBC News – Inquiry on Shirley McKie case blames ‘human error’

Apology II

In February 2012 The justice secretary and lord advocate apologised to Shirley McKie over the fingerprint scandal which wrecked the former police officer’s career. Kenny MacAskill and Frank Mulholland offered the apology after a public inquiry blamed “human error” for Ms McKie’s ordeal.

Via: BBC News – Justice minister and lord advocate sorry over McKie print bungle

Apology III

One of Scotland’s most senior policemen has apologised to a former detective 14 years after she was wrongly accused of leaving a fingerprint at a murder scene.

Shirley McKie was cleared of lying under oath after insisting the fingerprint found in the home of murder victim Marion Ross in 1997 did not belong to her.

She later received £750,000 from the then Scottish Executive in an out-of-court settlement.

Strathclyde Police Chief Constable Stephen House said sorry for the “pain and suffering” experienced by Ms McKie and her family.

Via: BBC News – Strathclyde Police apologise to Shirley McKie over fingerprint case


I don’t intend to start a debate (or argument) about who first came up with the idea that fingerprints were relatively unique, but it seems to be agreed that in 1880 a Scot, Dr Henry Faulds (surgeon)  published his first paper on the subject in the scientific journal Nature, where he discussed the usefulness of fingerprints for identification, and proposed a method of recording them using printing ink. The paper also included a method for their first classification. Faulds returned to the UK in 1886, when he offered his idea to the Metropolitan Police in London, but was turned down, and he concept was then dismissed.

As with DNA fingerprinting, ‘finger’ fingerprints are not actually 100% accurate and definite proof of identity. Many influences exist which degrade the captured fingerprint, so the are actually only probabilities rather than certainties, but those probabilities can be very high. However, things like partial prints, rough surfaces, curved surfaces, chemical effects, and many more mean that the final judgement is a personal one on the part of an expert.

The problem is probably summed up by Mr McKie, who said:

“The system has kidded itself on in Scotland for years that it’s been effective, but it hasn’t and there’s been a culture of arrogance and invincibility and I hope that finishes.”

And the findings of the report serve to emphasise this:

Among the inquiry’s findings on Wednesday was the conclusion that there was “no impropriety on the part of the SCRO fingerprint examiners” who had misidentified the fingerprint alleged to have belonged to McKie and that these “were opinions genuinely held by them”. It added that there was “no conspiracy against McKie in Strathclyde police”.

The report also said the misidentification of that print and another known as “Q12” which allegedly belonged to the victim Marion Ross, did “expose weaknesses in the methodology of fingerprint comparison and in particular where it involves complex marks”.

The report also contained 86 recommendations, including a key proposal that from now on “fingerprint evidence should be recognised as opinion evidence, not fact”, and thus should be treated by courts “on its merits”.

Other recommendations suggested that print evidence cannot be treated with “100% certainty or on any other basis suggesting that fingerprint evidence is infallible”. The report recommended new training for experts to emphasise their findings were based on “personal opinion”.

It recommended that any features in a print should be “demonstrable to a lay person with normal eyesight” and that explanations “for any differences between a mark and a print require to be cogent if a finding of identification is to be made”.

The report concluded that the body which now deals with fingerprint evidence in Scotland, the SPSA should develop new procedures to ensure complex marks such as those featured in the McKie case, are “treated differently” and should include three qualified examiners who make detailed notes from start to finish to explain their independent conclusions

Via: Fingerprint evidence ‘based on opinion rather than fact’ | UK news | The Guardian

I don’t know how much of this washes over most people’s heads, but in my own work I had to piece together technical reports on the failure of equipment in service, and that was often hard enough with quantitative evidence to hand, especially when a client didn’t want to pay the repair bill attached.

There’s also the danger of the so-called ‘CSI Effect’, where the public believes what it sees in a slick TV drama as swift and definite identification being made by the impressively efficient CSI team – in scenarios that are pieced together to make a good story, but don’t reflect reality.

I don’t really care about any individual case, but I do care that a method be applied properly, and be able to questioned as to its accuracy, and not arrogantly assumed to be 100% correct in every case, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. This seems to be the unfortunate low that fingerprint analysis descended to, in the very country of birth of the man largely credited with discovering how fingerprints could be used as evidence. That has to be embarrassing on the world stage.

The other aspect that may be worthy of note is the quashing of any ‘conspiracy’ suggestions. With no motive or ‘winner’ in sight, I had begun to wonder why this case was pursued, but now that the findings have been made public, this aspect simply goes away, and sadly leaves us with the finding that what should have been a system that shone with excellence only reminded us of a line from a film, “You can’t polish a turd.”

See also: Miscarriage of justice points to fingerprint flaws – science-in-society – 28 December 2011 – New Scientist

See also: DNA evidence

Just for good measure, it’s probably worth adding that the same ‘CSI Effect’ that was mentioned with regard to fingerprints also exists for DNA evidence, with many believing that the rapid and ‘absolute proof’ often seen in the TV series reflects reality.

It doesn’t.

Worse still, such is the sensitivity of some DNA tests which can be applied to samples, the disastrous effects of contamination are now as much of a danger to the innocent, as the technique is damning to the guilty:

… several new studies illustrate that contamination is an issue that should be given more consideration than suggested by the prosecution. The research shows the need for caution when interpreting touch evidence – particularly as it becomes used more widely.

“Police are increasingly trying to find these invisible stains, because so far as they’re concerned, DNA is a very cost-effective crime-solver,” says Allan Jamieson of the Forensic Institute in Glasgow, UK. “The finding of someone’s DNA implies their presence. But presence is not a necessary consequence of finding someone’s DNA.”

Mariya Goray of Victoria Police Forensic Service Centre in Australia and her colleagues re-enacted several scenarios loosely based on real events in which DNA from a defendant was found on a victim’s clothes or a murder weapon, and where the defence argued that it could have got there indirectly. Mimicking the scenario described in the intro, Goray asked a volunteer to handle a child’s vest and wooden toy for 1 minute before these objects were rubbed against the front of a lab coat, which represented pyjamas. They found that enough of the volunteer’s DNA transferred to clearly identify him (Legal Medicine, DOI: 10.1016/j.legalmed.2011.09.006).

Via: How DNA contamination can affect court cases – science-in-society – 13 January 2012 – New Scientist

Update January 2013 – discredited ‘expert’ wants her old job back!

Is she serious? Maybe delusional would be closer to the mark, as she insists there was no mistake over the identification of the print in the McKie case!

A fingerprint officer who was dismissed over the Shirley McKie scandal has failed in a bid to get her job back.

Fiona McBride, 46, was one of four experts who said a fingerprint left at a murder scene was that of Ms McKie.

Scottish ministers later accepted that a mistake was made and paid the former policewoman £750,000 in compensation.

Ms McBride appealed her sacking to the Court of Session. Judges ruled against re-instatement but said a tribunal should look again at compensation.

If you ended up in court and fingerprint evidence was crucial, would you want this person working against you?

As the SPSA prepared to take over the fingerprint and other forensic services, Asst Ch Constable David Mulhearn wanted to put the McKie controversy and an unfavourable report from HM Inspector of Constabulary behind him.

He was determined to set up a new organisation that would retain public confidence.

“It is clear that he did not think this objective would be assisted by retaining the services of the appellant (Ms McBride) as a fingerprint officer,” noted Lady Dorrian.

The judges heard that she might have been redeployed within Strathclyde Police or offered a severance package.

However, Ms McBride insisted she wanted her old job back and she wanted to go back to being a court-going expert.

The judges also heard that Ms McBride continued to maintain that she had correctly identified “Y7” as Ms McKie’s fingerprint in spite of “a wealth of contradictory opinion”.

This had led to clashes with Mr Mulhearn, who had spoken on TV about the “misidentification” causing public concern about the quality of work by fingerprint experts.

She has to be taking ‘something’ if she believes what she’s saying.

Via: McKie fingerprint expert Fiona McBride fails to win job back


December 28, 2011 - Posted by | Civilian | , , , , , , , ,

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