BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: Audio/Video: Programmes: Panorama
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Your earlier comments on Finger of Suspicion

A truly terrifying programme, and definitely worthy of investigation. There are (many) good comments posted here. I was particularly interested to see Iain McKie's comments re. the judge's summing up. I'd like to say it seems astonishing that a jury can be so misdirected by a judge, however you only have to look at the track record to see that this is far from unusual. I do have a scientific background (although not forensic) and believe that when a jury is directed to decide whether or not an expert is lying they will always err on the side of caution. Too many people believe 'expert' = 'fact', and facts can't be wrong can they? Also, why was the question of where did the print come not asked? The retired SOCO raises some very interesting questions. I hope that this wasn't simply left out of the programme - I find it very hard to believe that the defence failed to ask this question.
Iain Haigh
Hamilton, Lanarkshire

The citizen seeking justice has no choice but to depend on judge, jury and advocate and all three failed the defendant in this case. With such a degree of human fallibility we have to turn to technology to find objective reason. I agree with D. Williams that it must be possible to devise a reliable means of matching two images. By accurately measuring a specific point and alignment on one image and adjusting the other to match, one could be laid over the other, either positive and negative or in two different colours, and any misalignment, i.e. mismatch, will stick out like a sore thumb. The final image can then be examined, in a 'blind' test, by an independent expert who can give evidence, with blown up images, in court. That should put things beyond reasonable doubt. God help anyone who has to rely on the honesty and integrity of the police as portrayed in the Panorama programme.

The Panorama programme concerning fingerprints left me thinking that there was a lot left out in their research and I think that there are more facts to be revealed in connection with the Scottish Bureau case. I do not believe that four Scottish experts are wrong. I hope that any people who have seen the Panorama programme and in future might serve on a jury will have the good sense to put this potentially damaging programme behind them and look solely at the evidence before them at whatever trial they are attending. If they take too much notice of such utterly biased and factually incomplete T.V. viewing, then criminals will start getting away with crimes they have committed, and they will be back on the streets to re-offend. MAYBE NEXT TIME AGAINST YOU.
Fingerprint Officer

Many comments have been made about the programme, and although I was as shocked as anyone about many of the issues raised, I would just like to comment on one aspect of the Shirley McKie case which I found particularly disturbing. This was the failure of the Chief Constable to apologise to a member of his staff. I am assuming that this information is accurate, though I find the behaviour difficult to believe. Such lack of concern does not inspire confidence in the likely level of effort he will exert to ensure justice for the public. We entrusted the integrity of our policing to a man who hadn't the courage to apologise to a member of his own staff who had been so grossly wronged. Such behaviour is despicable and invites public speculation as to his reasons - not a comfortable thought. If, on the other hand, the information given in the programme was inaccurate, he has my unreserved apology.
Brian McGuire

As a fingerprint expert trained by New Scotland Yard, I would like to thank you for a well balanced, unbiased report. I was disappointed to see that the fact that many millions of "safe" fingerprint identifications have been made not only by the Bureau at New Scotland Yard, but at other Bureaux throughout the country. The report gave the impression that fingerprints, as a science, is considered to be unsafe and fallible. However, this is not the case. It is human error, procedural error and mis-handling of evidence that gives rise to wrong identifications, NOT fingerprints. Also some of the information given by the report were factually incorrect: Ben Gunn stated that now the numerical standard has gone, there will be a rigorous, three tier checking system put into place to ensure that identifications are correct, when in fact, this has been in place for many years. He also stated that it was the choice of the fingerprint profession to ¿do away with¿ the numerical standard. This is also not the case, it was in fact the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) that came to the decision without regard for the opinions of the fingerprint officers doing the job.

These views are my own and do not represent the force I work for, however I have over eight years experience in identifying persons by means of their finger, thumb and palm impressions, and work in a bureau that prides itself on strict procedures, good communication and an excellent reputation. It is therefore disturbing in our profession when a programme is broadcast without certain points being clarified and therefore sending fear among viewers. Fingerprint evidence is the expert's opinion, based upon facts discovered by many scientists over centuries, resulting in the procedures we use today to make our identifications. The issues which were discussed question the persons involved and the ways of carrying out some of those procedures. It does not remove the fact the no two persons have ever been found to have the same fingerprints. Strict audits are in place to ensure procedures are adhered to. All identifications are and have been subject to three independent checks by three individual experts (even before the standards changed in June). It is up to the individual to communicate with colleagues and be aware of the implications that any error of judgement can have. To be professional is also to be able to admit mistake, and mistakes occur in all human endeavour. Perhaps Panorama will feature a follow up programme showing exactly what valuable work is carried out by Fingerprint Experts/Scenes of Crime Officers.
Helen Stubbs

Bravo for the 'Fingerprint' programme. This sort of television shows how the BBC is still (in some areas) light years ahead of anything in the Rest of the World.

I admire the courage and determination of Shirley McKie and her father Iain Mckie. They have clearly gone through years of emotional strain in order to stand by the principles of honesty and justice. They need and deserve the support of the rest of us as what they have been doing is to the benefit of all of us. Congratulations to Panorama in bringing these issues to a wide audience which should greatly increase pressure on the establishment (which automatically self protects) to do something about an area of justice that has something seriously wrong with it. I'm sure Panorama's efforts can only help Alan McNamara in his search for justice and I, like many others, now want to hear that his case will be appealed as soon as possible.
Richard Hewitt

The content of your programme is very very disturbing. I agree with almost all that has been said by other contributors but would like to call into question the summing up of the case by the presiding judge. Surely, after all the evidence, his summing up and advice to the jury should have made specific reference to the anomaly concerning the fingerprint issue and made it clear to them that there was very serious and valid doubts about the evidence presented. If he failed to do this he is unfit to preside. Also, one cannot rule out the possibility that the print may have been planted deliberately, or in error god forbid. It seems to indicate that a 'fingerprint agency' should be set up that has no connection whatsoever with the police who have a very valid interest in 'solving' cases for reasons of efficiency and promotion.
Peter Kaye
North Walsham

Having worked for a fingerprint bureau until recently, an expert has to undergo many years of training and assessment. All the fingerprints that were identified were checked and verified by at least two other experts. What people have to understand is that it is only an opinion and I believe the withdrawal of the 16 point standard will only cause more problems for the Bureaux as opinion becomes more important without any guidelines. No incorrect identification should get past the checking system if it is followed correctly. Having seen a copy of the McKie print in a paper it was quite obvious to anyone who had worked in fingerprints that it was not identical.
Name withheld

I was very concerned about the way the legal system seem to think that fingerprint evidence is infallible. I think that this is a disgrace. There are probably many innocent people who are now serving sentences for crimes they did not commit. I am very sorry that Alan McNamara has got to go to prison for something that he claims he did not do. Even the experts say that the fingerprint could not have come from the jewellery box. Where is the justice today?

I watched your programme on Sunday which I found really informative and also very worrying. I cannot believe that the Manchester jury have found Alan McNamara guilty and he is waiting to see what he will get sentenced. The guy obviously hasn't done it. How many other people have been found guilty based on fingerprint evidence which clearly isn't reliable. As a result of your programme if I'm every called to jury service I will question any fingerprint evidence as I hope other people will now also do.
Ella Edwards

As one of the experts testifying for the defence, I would like to comment on some of the questions and comments from viewers. First, we have racked our brains trying to figure out where the mark came from. But the SOCO who presented it testified he took only two lifts at the scene, and labelled them both immediately after lifting. No mistake could have been made, he said. Second, there was no other evidence that Alan McNamara was the burglar. No evidence has ever been recovered, and although police found in McNamara's home a few Disney videotapes of the same titles as were stolen, they did not seize the tapes to see if the victims' fingerprints might have been on them. And Mr. McNamara's young daughter likes Disney. Third, his "alibi" for that night was that he was in bed with his wife all night. But a wife's testimony would not be considered reliable. Fourth, on the matter of "opinion" testimony, I disagree with Mr. Gunn. In court language, "opinion" testimony is given by "expert" witnesses who are qualified by training and experience to reach conclusions not readily obvious to lay people. But a fingerprint identification (or its source) is a fact. You and I might have different "opinions" on religion or politics, or the colour of socks we should wear with formal clothes. But when two qualified scientists review a rather simple case, differences of "opinion" are not acceptable. For example, if a mathematician working through an equation mistakenly enters two plus two as five and comes up with a wrong answer, his answer would still be presented in court as his "opinion" but it would clearly be wrong. Do not confuse the common lay definition of "opinion" with the legal definition regarding expert testimony. I feel the real problem in the McKie case, the Asbury case, and the McNamara case is the same. The experts who work for the police in these three cases mistakenly see their primary responsibility as supporting their officers in gaining convictions. They are not independent, unbiased witness, as all true scientists must be. The answer? Remove the scientific analysis sections from the police and put them under the supervision of the courts, with responsibility only to the judge to present accurate evidence. Alas, the politics of such a move make it unfeasible. Therefore, the jury and the public must always remember that although science may be exact, people make mistakes and, worse, have biases. "Reasonable doubt" must be seriously considered, or miscarriages such as that in Alan McNamara's case will occur again.
Pat A. Wertheim
Salem, Oregon, USA

I write specifically with respect to the comment D Williams made: "Surely in this Hi-tech society a modern computer is capable of matching 2 prints accurately!" As someone who has worked for the past four years with computer-based fingerprinting, although the technology does exist to identify somebody from their fingerprint (which is presumably how Alan McNamara's print was found in the first case), to get the requisite 16-point match often takes the sort of subjective interpretation we saw with Shirley McKie's case. I was astounded to see minutiae marked on the SOC print which to any objective viewpoint simply did not exist - a red line that ended nowhere. This area is one where a computer will simply say "don't know" - maybe that ought to be the criterion used to say whether a print is allowable: if a truly objective analysis of the print by computer is unable to give the appropriate degree of surety, then would an expert's subjective view be more valid to place before the court?
Phil Alexander
High Wycombe

It was very disturbing to see Alan McNamara convicted on the basis of such questionable fingerprint evidence, BUT the trial must have involved more than just fingerprint evidence. I would have like the opportunity to read the transcript of the trial, but under British law, as a lay person and concerned citizen, I'm not allowed to. Thus I can't make an informed assessment of the trial and have to rely on the BBC's interpretation and presentation of the facts. Not that I'm questioning the BBC's impartiality. Until we can read transcripts of trials and decide for ourselves whether the evidence adds up, there will always be a lingering doubt in the minds of thinking people over the conduct and accuracy of the British justice system. There have been too many wrongful convictions for the establishment to carry on hiding behind age old traditions of legal practice. I say publish the transcripts of trial on the internet and let us decide if we're happy with the conduct of the justice system.
R Morris

I have over 35 years experience in identifying persons by means of finger & palm prints. These views are my own and do not represent the force I work for. I know the programme was also of interest to all fingerprint practitioners but it was unbalanced. All Fingerprint Bureaux have audited procedures and spend a considerable amount of effort to ensure the integrity of ALL finger/palm identifications. A lot of evidence when submitted is checked by independent 'Experts' before it goes to court. All fingerprint evidence is opinion, based on experience, it is up to a court to decide on innocence or guilt, never a Fingerprint 'Expert'. They attend court to present evidence of identity. It is essential that all evidence is tested.
Fingerprint Practitioner

Surely what should have happened in the jewel-box case is perfectly obvious. The police should have been made to demonstrate in front of the jury how to lift the print without getting the grain off the wood in front of the jury. If they failed, the judge could then have thrown the case out of court. This seems very simple to me. Have I missed something?
Jim Macey

The cases quoted in your programme cast considerable doubts as to the proper prosecution of both the cases. I hope the appeals and civil actions are successful
Rupert Edwards

What a fascinating program about fingerprinting. I do hope that Alan MacNamara will not go to prison. How can he be convicted on such inconclusive evidence. Please BBC make sure we all hear the outcome of this story. What Alan and his family must be going through cannot be imagined.
Tracy Halson
High Wycombe

I was shocked to the core regarding this story. This could happen to anyone one of us. I felt sick and saddened that our so called 'justice' system is allowed to act in this way. My heart goes out to the 'victims'. How can we help, How can we bring about change? Many thanks BBC for showing the programme.
Gary Sanderson

I watched your excellent program last night about the inaccuracies surrounding fingerprint evidence and was upset at what I saw, although I have to say none too surprised. The track record of miscarriages of justice within the police force does not hold up well to close scrutiny. It is extremely unfortunate that lessons never seem to be learned, rather the immediate reaction is to go on the defensive and refuse to accept any blame at whatever cost to the victims involved. It is very saddening that this same picture is repeated over and over again and despite all the previous blatant attempts at cover ups and fit ups we do not seem to have moved forward one iota. I found the case of Alan McNamara particularly upsetting since he is still living through this sort of nightmare on a daily basis. I find it deeply disturbing that someone can be convicted of a crime based on such a flimsy basis and frankly find it a scary prospect that but for the grace of God any one of us could be in the same position. I think as a society we owe it to this man to do all we can to have this case relooked at and the decisions taken reversed. It is time the same equal accountability is put on the police force as is put on the society that it's paid to protect.
Kevin Crehan

I cannot say much more than what has already been said, but, being a resident of the Home Secretary's constituency, I feel that he should order a formal investigation into this appalling situation with particular consideration to Mr McNamara's case!

I was shocked by the programme broadcast last evening especially that of the Alan McNamara case whereby I, like I'm sure many others are feeling sorry for him and angry at the system. It's extremely hard to understand how the jury could find the man guilty from a single thumb print of which Pat Wertheim proved cannot have been lifted from the same jewellery box as there was no wood grain detail. I have read other comments on the Panorama website and the point regarding the jury having no scientific background might be a reason for the outcome of the case. Although I personally have no scientific background and feel that unless the jury were given other strong evidence against him which the viewers were not shown, judging by Pat Wertheim and Alan Bayle (Metropolitan Police) 'supposedly the best in Britain' it seems hard to understand how they could find Alan McNamara guilty.

I find it both disturbing and ridiculous that a man can be convicted on the strength of a fingerprint alone. The programme did not focus on this man's alibi for the night in question but surely in this day and age so called forensic evidence must be taken in conjunction with the evidence of eye witnesses. Surely this case must go to appeal? By the by, reading through the comments on this page I find Jim from Derby spouting off about the opinions of defence experts. In case you missed it, this is exactly what the programme was about - the supposed factual nature of fingerprint identification. In the light of these findings, the evidence of the prosecution witnesses can be no more convincing than the evidence of defence witnesses. Please don't try and pretend that there has never been a wrongful conviction or a jury who has simply got it wrong.

I am the father of Shirley McKie who has suffered for 5 years at the hands of incompetent experts. I have met many experts during this time and it is important to acknowledge that most are people of honesty and integrity. The problem is that our justice system has, for a century, accepted fingerprint evidence as infallible. The science might be ¿ the expert is not. A myth of infallibility surrounds the expert. Because of a lack of challenge some experts, and the prosecution systems they support, have become complacent, arrogant and bluntly, out of touch. Prosecutors, defence lawyers, judges and inevitably juries have been taken in by this myth which until recently attached itself to medicine, law and the other institutions in this country. Because of this I believe fingerprinting in the UK to be in a state of crisis and in need of an urgent overhaul. The only evidence in the McNamara case was his fingerprint allegedly found on a jewellery box. THERE WAS NO OTHER EVIDENCE, CIRCUMSTANTIAL OR OTHERWISE. I have read the judge¿s summing up and believe that the more complex issues of the case were not understood. The jury in effect was asked to assess which of the experts was lying. An impossible task for lay people who while they can use their own innate judgement as to the witness¿s veracity and truthfulness cannot fully understand if complex expert testimony is right or wrong. At the end of the day they understandably came down on the side of the established belief that a fingerprint cannot lie and that the experts, the Crown experts, are infallible. I believe with all my heart that a miscarriage of justice has occurred in the McNamara case and I will be writing to the Home Secretary in this regard. If a case has to be proved beyond reasonable doubt and guilt is established after the only evidence is challenged by two of the world¿s leading experts I can only despair at British justice. For information on fingerprinting I would recommend the website: - which carries comprehensive material on developments world-wide and encourages discussion among experts and lay people.
Iain McKie

An excellent and shocking Panorama. Niels Bohr is attributed to have said "An expert is [someone] who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field". Given the evidential weight of a fingerprint and considering the degree to which innocent peoples lives can potentially be affected by any mistakes in fingerprint analysis, there appears to be an urgent need, as highlighted by the programme, for far greater levels of independent scrutiny and cross checking of the vital work of the fingerprints experts.
Andy Haynes

Thanks for an excellent programme. Clearly a subject that will need to be returned to in the very near future - possibly on several occasions until the system of fingerprinting has been rid of its flaws. After the case of the Birmingham 6 it was to be hoped that the world of forensics would have acknowledged that forensic science should assist in the administration of law - it is not above it! Heartfelt support to Shirley McKie and her family - she and they deserve praise and admiration for standing firm when the odds were stacked so heavily against them. Being in the right may give inner strength but also gives grief when those with more power and a vested interest in maintaining the status quo steadfastly refuse to contemplate their own or the system's shortcomings. Sadly, it looks as though Alan has even more upset and pain to come for himself and his family. You concentrated in your programme about the preparedness of the defence - in general - to accept fingerprint experts' opinion as fact - maybe in this case the CPS and its counsel will even now re-examine whether they are content that their fingerprint evidence is really strong enough. I wonder what the head of Manchester CPS thinks?
Mick Gough

Speaking as a retired scenes of crime officer (SOCO) with 25 years experience, I was surprised that more emphasis was not placed on the evidence of the SOCO who lifted the print from the jewellery box in the Rochdale case. Contrary to comments made in the programme, there are ways to minimise the effect of wood grain on lifted prints. Lifting tape comes with varying properties, ranging from a very thin base to a much thicker base which would normally be used on wood-grained articles, such as a jewellery box. Also, techniques have been documented as to how to diminish wood grain by using other techniques (smoothing the tape into the grain with a soft toothbrush for example). This doesn't answer the question: if the crime scene print didn't come from the jewellery box, then where did it come from? The police do not have files of citizens' prints available for "planting" at crime scenes. The accused in this case said he had never been to Rochdale in his life. How then does HE explain how his print came to be in the custody of the police? Was the SOCO questioned as to what other locations he had attended on the day of the burglary? Could he have mixed up the print with others from another scene? Were the other prints on the jewellery box identified? If so, to whom did they belong? Obviously, if this programme gave an accurate account of the proceedings, then this case must go to appeal, or even a retrial, if such a course of action is possible under English Law.
Retired SOCO

Congratulations to all involved in this outstanding programme. Sometimes television can change things. Please continue to investigate and report on this matter.
Andrew Nairne

An excellent programme which examined the role of fingerprint evidence in the conviction of individuals suspected of having committed offences. I feel that it is about time that the system of being convicted by so called internal collaboration is put out to an independent body outside of the police. Justice should not be blind but transparent, the current system exposes the sad and truly awful and antiquated system that we have. It seems a far cry from the Lord Justice Wilberforce Golden thread principle as per Woolmington v DPP.
Dr Anand K Desai

Having read some of the other comments I think some people are missing the point. It would appear that the man convicted of burglary has been before a court and twelve good men/women who have found him guilty not a fingerprint expert or a scenes of crime officer and likewise the female police officer has been found not guilty. The defence experts have had their say and he was still found guilty. Furthermore you must be aware that this is expert opinion not fact and the opinion of the defence witnesses must be taken as such.

I was really shocked by the evidence presented in your programme and the fallibility of such evidence. Hitherto I had always thought that such evidence was presented with complete integrity. This is just another example of how we allow ourselves to be blinded by science and experts without question. I come from a scientific background and am constantly amazed at the poor analytical approach used by many scientists today. Science is too often taught today as being 'de facto' without an open mind to fallibility. I was particularly shocked by the gentleman being convicted by a jury on what was the flimsiest of evidence. We should question a jury system that does not have jurors with enough of a scientific background to understand the points raised during such a trial.

I read with some disbelief two matters that concern me as a practitioner, and member of the public. Firstly, do the respondents believe that they can really respond in the like of "A CARRIAGE OF MIS-JUSTICE" etc, with regard to Alan McNamara, without firstly having heard more facts than, a fingerprint being recovered from the scene. What future has society, if great leaps and assumptions are made, without hearing the full facts of both sides of the case. The press and other media are falling over themselves in order that may criticise Police and Justice practice. Have faith, We have a good many reputable experts whose evidence assists the Court daily. We do have however have a legal system in dire need of overhaul.

There is a good article on the fallibility of fingerprinting in NewScientist from the 16 June 2001 - "An Identity Crisis."
Gavin McCord

I have read and agree with most of the comments made here by other viewers, I hope however that the makers of this programme will not let the matter rest, if Alan McNamara goes to jail it will be an outrageous miscarriage of justice which must not go ignored or unchallenged. I too have suffered a prison term for a crime I did not commit. I was lucky, I only got two weeks, but four years, I dread to think what that man and his family must be going through. Please BBC stay on the case!
S. Mansfield

I find it astonishing that there appears to be no real audit of the fingerprint bureau and their staff. One should always feel free to hold up one's hands to admit to a mistake but...! Do the Police not have a whistle-blowing policy yet, are those concerned bullied into remaining silent? I spent 22 years as a tissue-typer where a mistake could, in theory cost a patient's life, or at the very least the success of their transplant. Laboratories are subject to testing under a monthly National Quality Control scheme. Samples were supposed to be treated routinely with no special measures being taken to ensure a good score. Do the fingerprint bureau have the same thing, probably not or the system would have thrown out the bad eggs by now. It would appear that most viewers, on the evidence given recognise the failure of the system to ensure that convictions only occur where evidence is beyond reasonable doubt. I trust the Home Secretary will be considering an investigation into the probity of the fingerprint bureau.
Trevor Jones

I'm still in complete shock after your programme. How can the justice system be so flawed and how could have Alan's case got as far as the court with all the evidence he had? Please can the BBC keep us informed on the outcome. I hope the new Home Secretary was listening to this tonight and gets something done straightaway. I feel that nobody is safe now. What a corrupt and inept system.
Darren Blunt

If the American fingerprint expert (and several other experts) are correct in that McNamara's fingerprint could NOT have been lifted from the jewellery box, AND they were also certain that the fingerprint produced in evidence is undisputedly that of McNamara, surely the only conclusion is that the person who lifted the fingerprint must be lying and must have obtained it from somewhere else. So the question everyone who watched the programme must be asking themselves is "Where did he get it?" Shelley Jofre did a brilliant job in exposing what must now be considered to be a flawed procedure. The programme was simultaneously fascinating and horrifying.
Phil Gray

I was very disturbed by the evidence presented in this programme. As a scientifically trained professional (though not in forensic science), it disturbs me that evidence such as that presented in the programme could possibly result in a conviction. The lack of wood grain texture on the print record, the evidence of curvature, the lack of any credible motive. Assuming that the facts presented were balanced (the Panorama team's reputation would suggest so), then this case also raises the wider issue of jury selection. Without any disrespect to jury members, they are often asked to consider evidence of a scientific nature presented in a very emotive way by lawyers with a vested interest in outcome rather than objective process. Are we being too demanding of our juries given their essentially random make-up from the population at large?
David Crawford

I viewed tonight's documentary with some interest, having been fingerprinted in the past and thankfully been cleared of any charges. However, from what has appeared on the programme tonight, I may well have been one of the lucky ones! How is it possible for the justice system to prosecute and successfully find an innocent man guilty? Granted, we don not know the full facts of the case regarding his alibi and other essential matters. If it transpires that the so called "experts" HAVE got this wrong, then I am sure that their P45 should be issued without delay and that they be prohibited from putting the lives of others at risk.
Robert Young

I watched your programme in disbelief! Surely in this Hi-tech society a modern computer is capable of matching 2 prints accurately! If not, it's about time somebody took immediate action! On the case of Alan McNamara I really do hope he wins through and wish him every success in securing his release. It certainly appears that something smells! Congratulations BBC on an excellent programme.
Wrington Nr Bristol

Government must look into this case to restore confidence in the police and the fingerprint experts employed by them. If the programme gave a true and balanced account of the case against Mr McNamara I find the jury¿s verdict unbelievable, if there were other facts that helped the jury reach a decision the public should be made aware of them.
Gail Troth

I find the whole situation quite unbelievable, particularly when two experts who appear to have no axe to grind, are ignored in a court of law, and the view of the police department who clearly have a reason to "get a result" prevails. This is not only a sad indictment of our police force, but also in my opinion, of the court who appear to have failed on their instruction of the jury, in terms of what is required to find someone guilty. I was always lead to believe the term "beyond reasonable doubt" was the position a jury needed to support a guilty verdict. Not only has Panorama disclosed the incredible failings of the fingerprinting system, but it also displays the failings of our legal system too.
Paul Fife
Knockholt, Kent

Sadly I was not surprised by your report into the appalling performance of some of our police fingerprint experts. Some years ago I learned at first hand, as an independent expert witness in an inquest, just how police experts can refuse to back down in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. In this case the coroner was a man of competence and integrity but, as reported tonight, in many other cases the legal system resembles a lottery.
Donald Lester

Whilst the objectives of your programme and the courage of PC McKie was admirable I feel Panorama was more of a little subjective window. Juries, English or Scottish, may be misled but they are not stupid. Why should we believe in the integrity of PC McKie jury but not the Manchester jury? Because according to your programme, full of kissing little daughters and sentimental presentation dictated that we ONLY heard one side in the McNamara side. Police foot slogging and evidence collating does not make good TV programmes - and worse than any crime is a programme which does not point out the 'goodies' from the 'baddies.' Let's have the police evidence, all of it, however boring; then we might consider ourselves in a position to form an opinion - but never a judgement.
Tom McParland

Rarely am I moved to comment on TV programmes, but tonight's Panorama has left me seething. The British Police force as an institution has lost much of its credibility in recent times, in my opinion, and now we see gross incompetence in action once again with this fingerprint debacle. Does good character and motives count for nothing? Especially in the light of recent "expert" errors on fingerprinting. Alan MacNamara MUST go free; this is a serious miscarriage of justice and no one with a conscience should rest until he has been totally vindicated from a crime he so obviously didn't commit.
Paul Fox
Market Drayton

I am very disturbed by the findings of your research into the accuracy of fingerprint identification. The issues of accuracy and individual as well as institutional integrity raised in your programme is alarming. I would be even more concerned if I was to learn that, despite the evidence brought to light by your programme, no inquiry into these issues and specifically the cases covered takes place. Alan's case was particularly poignant. I truly hope for his and his family's sake that he has a successful appeal and that his local MP takes up his case urgently so that he and others can be spared from such a travesty of justice.
Andrew Doyle
Sutton Coldfield

Picking up a point from one of your previous contributors: I wonder why the 'experts' were not named. There is always the fear of the witch-hunt, and there is the fear of the power of the media over the weakness of the petty official, however, there is also the dubious protection which anonymity gives to the incompetent and in some cases to the dishonest. I feel that some account should be given by the people involved. I was particularly horrified at the example of the fingerprint evidence in the case of the Scottish policewoman which to an inexpert eye was flawed. I take the programme at face value bearing in mind that in one media case of 'perversion of justice' of which I have knowledge, the programme itself was a perversion.
Damien Sanderson

I have just read the comments posted and would like to suggest that as we all seem to share the same views maybe something should be done to draw more public awareness to this matter. With pressure from the public and the media I believe that the system could be pressured into altering methods to prevent convictions on uncorroborated evidence of single fingerprints which are of doubtable reliability.

One would have thought that by now the police would wish anything to avoid further public mistrust in their conduct of investigations, but this programme demonstrated all too vividly how they are still too often reluctant to back down when they get things wrong, preferring instead to close ranks with colleagues than face the facts. It was astonishing how the police fingerprinting teams portrayed in the programme refused to admit the errors in their matching of prints, in the face of the expert analysis of Pat Wertheim and others from all over the world indicating they had made clear and sometimes very basic mistakes. I recommend to anyone who watched the programme or has followed any of the cases involved to write or send an email in protest to the Home Secretary.
JM Dupoux
Horsham (West-Sussex)

Shattering programme! I accidentally bumped into this documentary and found it astonishing. Fingerprints experts having the indirect power to make someone to be found guilty or not guilty, being contradicted by several other experts and still not admitting they've made a mistake, is bluntly arrogant. You can make a mistake, but you should at least admit you've made one. In fact, there shouldn't be any possibility whatsoever to make mistakes in such matters. I'm not aware of how Belgian courtrooms use fingerprint-material as evidential force, but I really hope some magistrates have seen this. As for Alan, I wish him all the courage he needs spending what seem to be four wrong years in prison.
Staf Dedonker
Ghent - Belgium

A very worrying portrayal of the Fingerprint system. I have been an expert for 14 years and have never been cross examined in the witness box about my integrity. The case in Scotland is well documented within the Fingerprint world and seems to me to be incompetence on the part of the so called experts in SCRO. It was not made clear with the Rochdale case that the print would have been lifted by a Scenes of Crime Officer and NOT by the Fingerprint Expert, the identification of the fingerprint was proved to be sound. Were other questions asked? Such as:- Could the print have been taken from another item in the house that the defendant may have sold in his shop, and found its way into the said house? Is it possible that the SOCO has mixed up the lifts from another job? Begging the same question as before. I would like to reassure any readers that the Fingerprint system can still be trusted, and I feel I can speak for Experts nationwide by saying that anyone found to be incompetent should be struck off, as with any other profession.
A Fingerprint Expert

I am seriously worried about the way in which fingerprints are wrongly identified as belonging to a certain person then used as evidence in trial. The "experts" who seem to have made numerous mistakes in the past, cannot accept their mistakes, and therefore will continue to make the same mistakes again and again. This will result in wrongful arrests, wrongful convictions and the destruction of innocent people's lives. This cannot be accepted. It is unjust. I believe that if an expert, such as Pat Wertheim, is willing to put his reputation on the line for this cause then he must firmly believe in it. There is probably a reason for this. I would also like to say that I believe that Alan Mcnamara is innocent, and the evidence against him not grounds for conviction.

An excellent programme highlighting the diversity and depth of the BBC's reporting. Previous to the programme I had instinctively NEVER doubted fingerprint evidence, I am highly suspicious now. In this day and age it would seem nothing short of common sense that when individuals are responsible for the identification, comparison and verification of fingerprints, that these results are checked and then checked again and again, it seems that this is not the case. The repercussions of any mistake in this area could so easily ruin someone's life! The worrying part is that the so-called experts when presented with the same prints vary so widely in their interpretation. It seems that in this area subjectivity rules over objectivity and as a result to quote the phrase 'The Science of Fingerprinting' is a contradiction in terms.
Stephen Simpson

I agree with most of the e-mails that this is a frightening case. Has the British justice system forgot the mistakes of the past in letting expert independent evidence be discarded in favour of apparently flawed evidence? When I see programmes like this excellent documentary it shows that the police on occasion seem to need a conviction more than they need justice.
James Igoe

Interesting programme. If the experts used by the programme makers are correct (they also are expressing opinion, although seemingly with a more robust rationale) then clearly the 'system' is in need of radical rethinking and the professionalism of the various CRO experts is questionable. Like all scientific evidence fingerprint data has to be carefully evaluated - apparently this is not done by the police or lawyers. This is very worrying and may mean that new tests such as DNA profiling etc. have similar problems. What I hope this programme will encourage is for people who have made mistakes to have the courage to admit them and for those wanting some quick 'turn the handle and out pops the answer' -type test to realise the difference between fact and opinion. It is perhaps a sad reflection on our time that fewer folk seem willing to use their brains and common sense.
Mike Fryer

I watched your programme with growing trepidation. I have always thought our justice system the best in the world. It now appears I was mistaken, justice seems to be a lottery and the innocent do not always go free. Where I wonder do we go from here.
Miss B Lindley

I was very surprised to watch this programme and listen to evidence that fingerprinting was not the sure way to secure a conviction. Although the cases shown in the programme were based on fingerprints there was very little other evidence shown relating to each case which brings me to my point, in the case of the print from the jewellery box, I wonder how much evidence the jury heard. Based on the evidence shown that fingerprinting is not infallible I would question the jury in this case and if a review of the system on fingerprinting has been done I would suggest that the jury process be examined to.
Mr J Lawn
Dunbeg, Oban

I was horrified at what came out on the programme, what happened to Shirley McKie and especially what is happening to Alan McNamara. Quite apart from the technical failings of fingerprint experts, why did Greater Manchester Police press a case on a single piece of identification evidence, without anything else to corroborate it, and especially no motive? And how did they manage to get a jury to convict him? It's obvious a serious miscarriage of justice has occurred and needs to be put right.
Andy Foster

I think that when fingerprinting experts are required in a case, the prints should go to each expert totally on a random basis (to avoid collusion), and no expert should be aware of what any other expert has diagnosed. Also, I feel that the fingerprint organisations should not be linked to any police forces, but separate 'businesses'. Then hopefully, there would be no reason for 'cover-ups'. I hope to God that poor Alan McNamara is freed soon, and adequately compensated for all the heartache that has been caused to him and his family.
Milton Keynes

I wish to fully endorse all the comments made. I am so enraged by the injustice I have seen and would like to know what I can personally do to help redress the situation. Would writing to my MP John Redwood be of any value as a start? A follow up programme on this subject to monitor progress would be greatly appreciated.
R. Stanley

I am surprised that the defence council did not require the police to repeat in court their technique for lifting the fingerprint without also lifting the wood grain. AN APPALLING CARRIAGE OF MISJUSTICE. We should be marching and writing to our mps
John Walsom
Hyde, Cheshire

Your programme on fingerprints stirred just anger and disgust. This innocent family man's life is ruined. I write this e-mail encouraging the BBC to bring in top fingerprint experts to help bring this serious problem to a more public light.
David Wood

I found this a deeply disturbing programme, especially the conviction of Alan McNamara. I feel that a jury is prejudiced by the common perception that fingerprint evidence is infallible and as such there is a parallel with the issue of pre-trial publicity. A jury needs to be aware and fully understand the whole science of fingerprinting in order to reach an unprejudiced verdict. Alan McNamara should be granted an appeal against this verdict and further evidence presented.
D Green

Science is a process that provides a mechanism to continuously provide better models of how the world works. The history of scientific thinking shows virtually every known 'fact' only being an approximation of real life. The approximations get better, but they are still approximations. Using scientific methods as 'proof' in a court of law will at best provide an approximation of real life at the current level of that scientific knowledge, and to treat it as indisputable evidence is a fallacy.
David Sawford

Excellent programme. It does raise the question of why the flawed "experts" were not named? Obviously Quality Audit standards have not reached these people! Experts should be named and shamed.... how many innocent people need to be wrongly gaoled before justice prevails?
Derek Dodd

So fingerprints are clearly fallible whether by interpretation or malfeasance. Consider now the infallibility of DNA fingerprinting... as an MSCI CHEBI graduate DNA evidence is far from absolute & frighteningly easy to plant.
Wilf Penfold

Quite frankly, I am unsure which is the more frightening implication of this case: The fact that an apparently innocent man can be convicted on such obviously flawed evidence, or the fact that the standard of policing is such that an erroneous fingerprint managed to find its way into the case by accident. I say accident because the alternative is beyond comprehension. I do however praise the BBC's effort to champion the cause of this unfortunate fellow and at least have confidence that something will be done based on the evidence that Panorama have brought before the viewing public. It is somewhat understandable, given that the police are asked to produce more results with less funding every year. The question is how many other innocents have suffered in an effort to improve the figures?
Nick Wilks

I would just like to say how frightening it was to see the justice system so incorrect. To see that man with his business found guilty of burglary, when he was clearly innocent was unbelievable. I hope he is going to appeal and be able to carry on family life in a respectable way. Please let them know that I give them my full support and please give the reporter and the crew a round of applause for showing how inaccurate the fingerprint system can be. It must be very comforting for that man to know that not all people believe in (so called facts), and I hope some of these messages reach him in prison and may make it slightly easier for him.
Wendy Pearce

I am horrified at this programme. It appears that our so called fingerprint experts rather than admit their past failings and strive for improvement in the system of testing, are going to sit around with their hands over their ears and pretend that all is well. How can police forces around the country be expected to rely on these people for sound convictions. What a complete mess - thankfully we don't have the death penalty in this country otherwise these experts would plenty to answer for.
Mike Bird

Excellent Programme! Why doesn't the fingerprinting service use a double-blind technique like that often used in scientific research? That way multiple "experts" check multiple prints not knowing origin or case.
Dr Steve Thorpe

I was amazed at your findings and believe that a majority of international/national experts' opinions should be achieved before a piece of evidence based on fingerprints can be admissible in court. The show has now proved that any number of innocent people have and can be convicted for nothing more than a person's flawed opinion, and when these people are unwilling to expose their own mistakes (we are all human after all), it becomes a nightmare for those who are innocent... change the judicial system now before we all suffer the fate of those shown tonight!
Jason Farrell

I was shocked when Alan was convicted after the fingerprint expert from the States had pointed out the weakness in the police evidence. However, I think that if lawyers dealing with cases have tended to think that it was incontrovertible, it isn't surprising that lay members of the public assume that police experts know what they are talking about. If the government has any moral courage at all they will look at this case in detail and work to counter this injustice.
Fiona Berry

Part of the problem with fingerprint evidence is the tendency of lawyers and jurors to accept anything which looks and sounds 'scientific' on blind faith. I suspect that an investigation would reveal far worse problems with DNA profiling, which is even more 'scientific'. Until lawyers, and jurors, are trained in rationale evaluation of all the evidence, and in a sceptical , questioning approach to so-called 'experts', these problems will continue.
Ian Bradbury

I am disgusted that a man can be put in prison for 4 years on the evidence that there was 1 fingerprint found at the scene of the crime even though the print was found to be flawed. I believe there should have been more investigation into the case and there should be new regulations brought into action stating how fingerprints should be taken and read.
Joe Travis

Excellent programme. Frightening, is the one word I would use, in 100 years time are we going to be looking at DNA in the same light, we store so much by these methods, but how much do we really know? The programme should be shown earlier and hyped about as it really shows how fragile our legal system is.
Paul Wey

Very thought provoking programme. As a former police and CID officer now qualified and about to start practice as a solicitor/advocate, I have very grave doubts about previously unquestionable areas of evidence and the culture of lies and cover up that does go on. I wish the reporter and subjects every success. I will make it a point of professional practice to question every single piece of evidence produced and hope that others will do the same.
Bunny McGeechan

This is an outrage, just another example of Britain's systems going down the pan. You hear about these injustices from the 1960's and 70's, but in 2001?
Andrew Lord
East Grinstead

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Panorama stories