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Fingerprint evidence challenged

By Panorama reporter Shelley Jofre - This article also appeared in The Guardian on 9 July 2001

A single fingerprint is enough to send someone to prison for life. It carries so much weight as evidence that lawyers often advise their clients to plead guilty if they can't explain how their prints came to be found at a crime scene.

When Shirley McKie questioned a fingerprint identified as hers, friends and colleagues preferred to believe she was crazy than think the experts could have got it wrong.

When I first met Shirley McKie 2 years ago, I was investigating her story for BBC Scotland's current affairs programme, Frontline Scotland. Hers was an extraordinary case that revolved around a single fingerprint.

Shirley McKie
Shirley McKie was under pressure to say the fingerprint was hers
As a detective with Strathclyde Police, Shirley McKie was assigned to a murder investigation in 1997. She was told her thumbprint had been lifted from the room where the murder victim was found. Shirley said that was impossible - she'd never even been in the house.

But four experts from the Scottish Criminal Record Office - the bureau which stores and identifies prints for all of Scotland's police forces - maintained it was her left thumbprint.

Enormous pressure was put on Shirley to say the print was hers. Fingerprints don't lie after all. Even her father, Iain McKie, himself a Strathclyde Police officer for 30 years, admits: "I didn't believe Shirley for the first few days and imagine a father having to say that about his daughter. But I'd been told for 30 years that fingerprinting was infallible".

When David Asbury, the man accused of the murder, was brought to trial Shirley was called to give evidence. She repeatedly denied, under oath, leaving her print at the crime scene. The rogue fingerprint made no difference in the end - David Asbury was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

That should have been the end of the matter. But as her colleagues saw it, Shirley had put the murder conviction in jeopardy with her unbelievable tale. A decision was taken to prosecute Shirley McKie for perjury.

Pat Wertheim
Pat Wertheim says the print was not Shirley McKie's
Just weeks before her trial, Shirley came across a specialist in fingerprint fabrication in the US called Pat Wertheim. He agreed to analyse the print. His conclusion? The fingerprint wasn't forged, but it wasn't Shirley's either.

"It was like 'I'm not crazy after all'. It's the one thing I hadn't considered, that the SCRO had got it wrong," Shirley said.

At the perjury trial, the SCRO experts maintained they were right. But Pat Wertheim and another US expert demonstrated to the jury that the mark couldn't possibly have been left by Shirley McKie. The verdict was swift and unanimous. Not Guilty. Shirley McKie made history as the first person in 100 years of fingerprinting to successfully challenge an identification in court.

However, in the weeks after the trial, journalists in search of an easy story used unnamed police sources to pour scorn on Pat Wertheim, claiming he had only 2 weeks' tuition in fingerprinting (He has 22 years experience... and trains police experts both here and in the US!).

The SCRO circulated a memo reassuring the police of the "integrity" of their experts. No-one apologised. It seemed like business as usual for everyone except Shirley, who felt forced to leave the job that was supposed to have been her lifetime career.

The first programme that producer Dorothy Parker and I made on the subject sought simply to establish who was right in this whole sorry affair. We tracked down 5 independent fingerprint experts in England and asked each of them, independently, to have a look at the evidence in the McKie case. All five came to the same was not Shirley's print.

In February 2000, three weeks after transmission, the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland asked the Chief Inspector of Constabulary to carry out an inquiry into the SCRO.

The resulting report completely vindicated Shirley McKie and called for a total overhaul of the SCRO. Yet many were left asking why it took a television investigation to prompt such an inquiry, rather than Ms McKie's acquittal nine months earlier.

But our investigation didn't end there. What about David Asbury, the man convicted of the murder? The case against him revolved around fingerprint evidence. The same 4 SCRO experts who misidentified Shirley McKie's print made the identifications in his case. Could that evidence be flawed too?

David Asbury's solicitor seemed surprisingly unenthusiastic in pursuing this new lead. Maybe it was because of Legal Aid funding or maybe he, too, just refused to believe that fingerprint evidence could be fallible.

Whatever the reason, when we went to see him after our first programme, he still hadn't had the prints in his client's case analysed. Eventually the BBC paid for Pat Wertheim to fly to Scotland to do it.

The main evidence against David Asbury was a fingerprint lifted from a biscuit tin containing almost 2000, found in his house. The SCRO experts identified the print as belonging to the murder victim, Marion Ross. Asbury maintained the tin and the money were his - but the print suggested otherwise.

When Pat Wertheim analysed the evidence along with Allan Bayle, a fingerprint expert formerly of New Scotland Yard, they both came to the same shocking conclusion. The print on the tin was not left by Marion Ross. The SCRO were wrong again.

We broadcast this latest revelation in a second programme in May 2000. Three months later, the four SCRO experts were suspended from work. Shortly afterwards, David Asbury was released from prison pending an Appeal, having already served three years of his sentence. Again, the wheels of justice only began to move as a result of journalistic endeavour.

Alan McNamara
Panorama investigated the case of Alan McNamara
But not every story has a happy ending. Last night, Panorama broadcast the third stage in this investigation, which has now spanned two years. We examined the case of Alan McNamara, a Bolton businessman accused of burgling a house in Rochdale in 1999. He contacted me last summer after he heard about my previous programmes for BBC Scotland.

The only evidence against him is a single thumbprint which Greater Manchester Police say was found on a jewellery box at the crime scene. Unlike the previous two cases, everyone agrees the print is his. However, when Pat Wertheim and Allan Bayle examined the evidence, they came to the conclusion that the print could not have come off the surface of the box.

Both Wertheim and Bayle presented this view in court three weeks ago. But the examiner who took the lift testified, under oath, that it was definitely taken from the jewellery box. There was nothing else to link McNamara to the burglary.

He's married with a young daughter and has no money worries - in the year of the crime his business made a profit of 100,000. Yet it took the jury just two hours to reach a unanimous verdict of guilty. Such is the strength of fingerprint evidence.

McNamara will be sentenced in 8 days. He faces up to 4 years in jail. The verdict came as a shock to the whole production team, but if anything, it has strengthened our resolve to find out the truth in this disturbing case.

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